If anyone knows the importance of opportunities provided by Historically Black Colleges and Universities, it’s Andre Dawson. As one of only two enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame to come from an HBCU (Lou Brock is the other), the Florida A&M alum also understands more than most how hard it is to get exposure at those programs.
So when Major League Baseball decided to rename the Urban Invitational, a weekend of college baseball created in 2008 to shine a light on HBCU baseball programs, after Dawson in 2018, he saw it as one of his lifetime highlights. The fourth edition of the Andre Dawson Classic takes place this weekend in New Orleans, with two games appearing on MLB Network on Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. ET, with the nightcap featuring Dawson’s alma mater.
“I was reached out to by Major League Baseball and I was just overjoyed,” Dawson said. “I feel deeply honored to be able to be in a position to go forward with this and know that I have my name behind it.
“They could have gone any direction they wanted to, they could have left it as the Urban Invitational. I said this was a blessing and I look at it in that regard. It's something that I'll cherish along with anything I've ever accomplished in the game.”
If it weren’t for a chance encounter with legendary scout Mel Didier, it’s possible none of it would have come to pass. Not the 1977 Rookie of the Year Award, the '87 MVP, the eight All-Star appearances, the 400-homer/300-stolen base club nor the plaque in Cooperstown.
Dawson was a very talented high school player from Florida who also starred on the football field. He had interest in pro ball and even attended the Kansas City Royals Baseball Academy in high school, showing well there. But he had suffered a serious knee injury playing football in high school that hampered him, and he had an important influence steering him to college.
“My grandmother was everything to me,” Dawson said. “And I just wanted to make sure that I pleased her first by getting my education. She had three sons, all of which attended Florida A&M. And I was the only one from my family that could follow in their footsteps.”
While he was good enough to perhaps play at a bigger school in his home state, the Miami native didn’t have that option because they didn’t have scholarship money for him. He was a walk on at Florida A&M initially, one who flew completely under the radar, partially because of the lack of exposure schools like FAMU got, and partially because of that knee.
In the spring of 1975, Florida A&M was set to play a scrimmage against Gulf Coast State College, a junior college in Panama, Fla. Earlier that year, the Montreal Expos had taken two players from GCSC in the now-defunct January phases of the Draft -- infielders Jeff Hardy and Randall Eickenhorst. Didier, the scouting director, had stopped by the school on his way to the Expos’ Spring Training home in Daytona Beach to check on them and to talk to coach Billy Smith, who invited him to stick around for the scrimmage.
“I saw the players get off the bus,” Didier told TR Sullivan in Podnuh - Let Me Tell You a Story - A Baseball Life, the book they wrote together. “He caught my eye immediately. He didn’t do anything like hit four homers, but I saw one of the quickest bats I’d ever seen. You could tell right away he had a good arm and he could run.”
Like the veteran scout he was, Didier sidled up next to the A&M student manager to ask about the tall, skinny kid in the outfield. It was then he learned that while Dawson was listed as a sophomore, he was actually turning 21 that summer. And that meant one thing.
“Right then and there, I knew this guy was a junior as far as baseball went, and that made him eligible for the Draft,” Didier said.
Didier died in September 2017, but his son Bob remembers that Dawson certainly checked off a lot of boxes his dad liked as a scout
“He loved athletes,” said Bob Didier. “He wanted Kirk Gibson when he was with Seattle. He took Dave Henderson, who had been a running back in high school. And he loved Andre Dawson.”
In his report, Didier said Dawson’s bat was as quick as Hank Aaron’s, but he didn’t say anything else to anyone about Dawson, wanting to keep his talent and his eligibility under his hat. He did make sure his Florida scout, Bill Adair, went to see him, though Adair didn’t see much when he went to scout him. Still, the Expos made sure Dawson attended a workout in West Palm Beach as the Draft approached.
It was a workout mostly geared to get a closer look at Clint Hurdle, then a Florida high schooler who would be the No. 9 overall pick by the Royals in that 1975 Draft (one pick in front of the Expos). But it was Dawson who stole the show in front of Expos evaluators like Ed Lopat and Bobby Mattick.
“He hit the pitcher with a line drive and they had to carry him off the field,” Mel Didier recounted in his book. “Mattick turned to me and said, ‘Jesus Christ, where did you get this guy?’”
Didier had asked Dawson to let him know if any other teams had expressed interest, and when they talked just prior to the Draft, even though Dawson had seen some scouts in the stands, including Buck O’Neil of the Cubs, no team had reached out. That conversation, coming after that workout, was the first time Dawson thought maybe he could play at the next level.
“That there's a chance and my childhood dream may come to fruition,” is how Dawson recalled feeling after the phone call. "It’s the only thing I ever really wanted as a kid growing up, to be given an opportunity to play professional baseball.
“When I was invited to the tryout, I was like, ‘Wow, I'm actually getting a look now, in a professional environment,’ not knowing what the outcome was going to be. I really didn't know from that standpoint what direction I would go in. And then when Mel called that said, ‘There's a chance, I just have to sit back, be patient and see what happens.'”
What happened was that Didier was confident no one else in baseball even knew Dawson was eligible. So while Didier initially thought about taking the outfielder in the second round or so, he instead waited as the Draft unfolded. And waited. And waited some more. Some in the Draft room were apoplectic as the rounds went by. Mattick, in particular, was leaning on Didier to take him, especially after six rounds had gone by.
“Mel, you’re making a mistake, dammit, take him now,” Didier recounted in the book.
Instead, he continued to wait. In the eighth round, he notably took high school right-hander Mike Boddicker, who would instead go on to the University of Iowa and eventually star with the Baltimore Orioles.
“Finally, Mattick said, ‘You are a hard-headed Cajun. You’re going to lose this guy and he’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen. It takes just one guy that likes him and he’s gone.’”
Didier finally relented and took Dawson in Round 11. And if he had outward confidence his play would work, he was a wreck on the inside.
“I can’t tell you how lucky we were,” he said. “If I had let him go somewhere else, I would have never lived it down. I’m telling you right now, Bobby Mattick wanted to kill me.”
“I got a call from Billy Adair and he was the one that alerted me that Montreal had drafted me,” Dawson said. “And he wanted to know what my thinking was, if I was leaning towards signing and playing professionally, if I was going to go back and forego signing and go back and play my senior year. For me, it was a no brainer. It was like, ‘Hey, this is my big opportunity. Let's get this done. And I'm excited, let's just get it rolling.’”
“Get it rolling” was an understatement. Dawson hit .337 with a .937 OPS in the Rookie-level Pioneer League the summer after signing with the Expos and jumped all the way to Double-A for his full-season debut. His one and only season in the Minors, he hit .353/.413/.658 between Double-A and Triple-A, receiving his first call up to the big leagues a little over a year after Didier finally called his name. The following season, in 1977, he was the National League Rookie of the Year.
“We got him in the 11th round,” Bob Didier chuckles, remembering talking about it often with his father. “And we got a Hall of Famer.”