Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and the other men and women who worked tirelessly to not only create a space for African-Americans to play baseball, but also to successfully integrate Major League Baseball, are critical to the sports success. African-American players have never made up a majority of the players in Major League Baseball; topping out at 19% according to SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) member and researcher Mark Armour. However, only 8.5% of the players on Major League rosters were African-American on Opening Day in 2013. The dwindling numbers were a call to action for baseball to stop the loss of interest in the game by the African-American community.
Major League Baseball has taken action. The creation of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and MLB Urban Youth Academy have been instrumental in bringing baseball to kids who might otherwise be prevented from playing due to a host of obstacles. John Young, a former Major League Baseball player and scout, started RBI in 1989 in Los Angeles. RBI aims to give disadvantaged youth an opportunity to learn and enjoy the game of baseball. Initially RBI was directed at 13 to 16 year olds, with the aim of both expanding the baseball talent pool in urban areas and creating a positive place for kids to learn and grow both mentally and physically away from the streets. Today, RBI has expanded to include all kids from age 5 to 19 and the organization operates in more than 200 cities, reaching more than 200,000 urban boys and girls.
The MLB Urban Youth Academy (UYA) began in 2006 in Compton, California. UYA seeks to instruct and groom baseball and softball players through open workouts. Participants are taught fundamentals, theories in baseball, and their education in the classroom that extend beyond baseball. UYA seeks to prepare urban students for playing beyond high school, either in college or professionally. Like RBI, UYA focuses on opening up the game of baseball to urban youth, and those who might otherwise not have the opportunity to play the game.
The efforts of Major League Baseball to increase the participation of African-Americans in baseball are paying dividends. In the 26 years since its founding, RBI has sent several players to the Majors. RBI alumni include CC Sabathia, Jimmy Rollins, Coco Crisp, James Loney, Carl Crawford, BJ (Melvin Jr.) Upton, Justin Upton, Julio Borbon, Efren Navarro, Rickey Romero, Yovani Gallardo, Chris Young, and James McDonald. While this list of RBI alumni who have played in the Majors is not pages long, it does speak to the success of the program. These 13 Major League players are only a part of the success. It is not out of the question that for each player who makes the Majors there is another who played in the Minors, bringing the total to 26. Easily more than 100 alumni could be current or former collegiate baseball or softball players, and countless more could have stayed in school throughout high school so they could play baseball or softball. RBI and UYA have positively influenced countless young men and women. The proof of RBI and UYA’s success has gone beyond the baseball or softball diamond, and into the lives of the alumni. The alumni have gained self-confidence, physical fitness, life skills, and an education that can propel them to greater heights.
Andrew McCutchen of the Pittsburgh Pirates is one among many African-American players that RBI and UYA participants can see themselves in and aspire to emulate. RBI and UYA are addressing the problems that traditionally create obstacles to African-Americans. McCutchen wrote in The Players Tribune about the biggest hurdle he faced, money. Youth baseball has become expensive, as travel teams have become how players garner attention. The expenses to be a member of the team, the travel costs, and so on prevent players who come from families who are not financially well off. In McCutchen’s case, he was able to gain the assistance of people who put him in the right place at the right time. However, not everyone will be as lucky as McCutchen. How many great players is baseball losing due to the financial barrier that disadvantaged youth cannot overcome?
Major League Baseball is addressing the decline in African-American participation in baseball. While it will take time to reverse, RBI and UYA are producing results on and off the field. Efforts must continue to open up the game of baseball to disadvantaged youth and to provide role models in and around the game to these kids. The next generation of African-American baseball fans and players is dependent upon everyone involved with baseball continuing the legacy of Jackie Robinson in which everyone has the opportunity to play baseball regardless of their ethnic, economic, or social background.