It’s been 75 years since Jackie Robinson’s first game in the majors, but Major League Baseball is still making history when it comes to black players.
In this year’s MLB draft, four of the top five picks were black, though the sport has tended to be less diverse. Druw Jones went 2nd overall to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kumar Rocker 3rd overall to the Texas Rangers, Termarr Johnson 4th overall to the Pittsburgh Pirates and Elijah Green 5th overall to the Washington Nationals.
Even though Robinson broke the game’s color barrier in 1947, baseball has historically been a white sport, and trends in recent years suggest it has become less diverse. According to ESPN, the number of black players at the highest level has continued to decline. Just 7.2 percent of players on MLB Opening Day rosters this season were black, down from 7.6 percent in 2021 and 18.7 percent in 1981.
Dmitri Young is a 13-year MLB veteran who was selected fourth overall in the 1991 draft. His brother, Delmon Young, was the no. 1 in 2003.
Young is now the head baseball coach at Camarillo High School in Camarillo, California. He said people in the baseball world have known for years that this draft would be special after watching the young guys play over the years.
“They’ve been on the circuit, and I don’t just mean the Hank Aaron Invitational,” Young said. “They were doing Perfect Game events, they were doing things for USA Baseball, with Major League Baseball, and they were really making a name for themselves.”
Clinton Yates, a columnist and on-air personality for ESPN, said he was shocked that clubs “pick brothers so high these days.”
Yates, a devoted baseball fan, explained that “these specific people that they picked were people that were plucked out of nowhere.”
“These are people that Major League Baseball itself, through its own diversity programs, has found a way to single out at one point or another,” Yates said. “If they’re willing to invest and take a chance on the brothers at such a high level, it just raises the bar for everybody else in terms of what they’re capable of and what people think we’re capable of from an investment and the point of player’s view, which is extremely important.”
Yates talks about the same programs Young has. Jones, Rocker, Johnson and Green all played in MLB’s DREAM Series, a showcase event for elite predominately black high school athletes from around the country. Events such as the DREAM Series, Breakthrough Series, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and the Hank Aaron Invitational are fairly new programs in the last two to three decades, established in a joint effort between USA Baseball and Major League Baseball that aims to develop player on and off the field. These events are usually completely free for guests or are accessible through scholarships.
Financial aid for the development of baseball players can change the trajectory of the sport, advocates say. Eddie Williams, a former MLB corner who now coaches high school, college and professional baseball players, knows this all too well.
“Baseball costs a lot of money,” Williams said. “Bats are not cheap. Your glove costs $400-$500. Your clamps cost $300-$600. You need balls to practice with. I hope you can train with a high school or a college, but most of these kids don’t have that kind of thing, and you need professional equipment.”
Williams said without the right equipment, players can injure themselves. He has given away all his gear to young players who need it.
Channing Austin, a sophomore pitcher for the USC Trojans, said he watched the cost of baseball taking his former black teammates out of the game. Growing up in Brooklyn, he had a lot of black kids on his team, ages eight to 10, in his neighborhood youth leagues, but when “he moved on to high-level baseball, he became incredibly white.” , he said.
Austin knows people like Williams that young players can get equipment from, but he said it can cost a family $3,000 to $6,000 to play on summer tournament teams.
“Unless you have a connection with one of these scout teams where everything is paid for, then you’re pretty much on the hook to pay $6,000 for the summer just to have the chance,” Austin said. “And that starts at age 14.”
As the only person of color on the University of Virginia baseball team during his freshman year in college, Austin said he appreciates the fact that four of this year’s top five selections were black.
“I think it hopefully shows the overall trend of more black kids getting into baseball and that there are other options than playing basketball or football,” he said. “But, the reality is, if you have 200 extremely talented black kids in the top 500 players, they can’t all play for that one. [Breakthrough Series] team. We need more organizations and programs like this.”
Yates explained that people think if you’re the best, you’ll make it to the top, but he said it’s “not always a meritocracy.”
“The closer we get to being recognized as potentially as good as the rest, the closer the game gets to being the best it can be,” Yates said.
Williams agreed with Yates’ opinion. While the fourth overall pick said he is very grateful to play in the league, he remembers some of the struggles he faced because of his race.
“The journey after [being drafted] hopefully you can get it with an organization that really believes in you,” he said. “A lot of times you’re going to have to be two or three times better than the next guy.”