Andre Dawson Classic a measuring stick for HBCU baseball

Intra-conference clashes, longtime rivalries set to be on display in 16th annual showcase

February 23rd, 2024

Early season college baseball is always tinged with an enhanced level of excitement, with the eagerness to show that months of hard work have proved to be fruitful, right out the gate.

But ahead of the Andre Dawson Classic this weekend, hosted by MLB at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla., anticipation seems to be ratcheted up tenfold, from head coaches to the last player on the roster.

Continuing its goal of highlighting the grand tradition of Black college baseball, the 16th iteration of the tournament (originally known as the Urban Invitational) features six HBCU programs: Alabama State University, Florida A&M University, Grambling State University, North Carolina A&T, Prairie View A&M and Southern University.

Two of the games this weekend will be televised on Friday night on MLB Network: Alabama State vs. Southern at 4 p.m. ET and Grambling vs. Florida A&M at 7:30 p.m. ET.

And for five of the six teams who play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (NC A&T excluded), it’s the rare chance at in-conference opponents this early in the season.

“I think it heightens the sensitivity of what’s going on when you get ready to play games against teams in conference -- especially because you’re on the show,” Southern University head coach Chris Crenshaw said.

“Because outside of the kids playing in the games, the alumni will have bragging rights.”

But without the extra motivation of intra-conference battles and decades-long rivalries being rekindled, it’s the chance to showcase the high level of talent and competition that exists at these HBCU programs. There’s an undeniably historic lineage of HBCU Major Leaguers -- Andre Dawson, the tournament’s namesake, graduated from FAMU, Lou Brock and Rickie Weeks graduated from Southern and Tommie Agee from Grambling State.

And while there are no current HBCU graduates on an MLB roster, each head coach has a steadfast belief that their players produce a level of play that measures up against any team in the country. Now, they’re just relishing the chance to show it off.

“We’re able to advertise, and people can know about us at a national level, that the level of baseball has been good for a long time,” said Alabama State head coach José Vázquez, who’s also the newly minted manager of the 2024 Collegiate National Team.

“When it comes to us, it’s not going to surprise us how good a job the coaches are doing -- we know the baseball is going to be great.”

Of course, this weekend will be partly about winning, home runs, diving plays and stolen bases. But for many who will be tuning in, it will be a reminder -- or even an educational moment -- about the quality of ball that’s played at these programs. A chance to shatter any preconceived biases that exist when someone hears the letters HBCU.

“I think we want to break the stigma of what people think about HBCU baseball,” Grambling State head coach Davin Pierre said. “That our kids are not high-level players, that we’re going to go out and make frivolous mistakes or walk people. Having the chance to play on national TV gets to show people that we play a really good brand of baseball in this league.

“And you’re going to see some high-level players from all the teams this weekend.”