Diversity in baseball: 'The needle is moving'

January 17th, 2022

NEW YORK -- In conjunction with America’s celebration of the life of civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., Major League Baseball commemorated today's holiday with a pair of presentations examining Black representation in baseball.

The first was a panel discussion with top MLB Draft prospects and their parents that streamed on MLB.com Monday afternoon. The second was an MLB Network special titled “MLB Tonight: A Conversation,” which examined Black representation in baseball and aired Monday evening. Both discussions were hosted by baseball analyst and former Major Leaguer Harold Reynolds.

“MLB Tonight: A Conversation” features a series of interviews with several prominent people in baseball: Astros manager Dusty Baker; two-time All-Star and The Players Alliance member Michael Bourn; former MLB manager and lead DREAM Series coach Jerry Manuel; 2017 World Series champion and The Players Alliance member Cameron Maybin and World Series champion Braves third-base coach Ron Washington.

In the first segment of the show, Reynolds talked to Baker, Manuel and Washington about their earlier years in the game. When they first broke into the big leagues during the late 1960s and ’70s, there were a significant number of Black players in professional baseball, but that number has decreased in recent years despite encouraging developments. Nearly 20 percent of players drafted in the first round since 2012 are Black.

This has raised a pointed question about how to attract more young people of color to baseball. Baker pointed to opportunities, such as the DREAM Series, that help youngsters learn the game of baseball.

“First of all, you have to have the scouts that are willing to go into the neighborhoods and find the players,” Baker said. “Nowadays, they have camps that cost a bunch of money that most of us can’t afford. My son [Nationals prospect Darren Baker] is very fortunate to be able to afford some of these things. He would complain sometimes because there weren’t any other African American kids that look like him.”

The DREAM Series is a showcase event, focused on the dynamics of pitching and catching for a diverse group of elite high school athletes. The event, which features predominantly Black players from across the country, is held during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend each year.

“The needle is actually moving and now we are going to get into the sabermetrics of the game,” Manuel said. “If the guys are unable to play, they are at least able by a part of the language so we can communicate in the game.

“It’s been an awesome experience for me. I grew up in Georgia. I saw a lot of things you necessarily didn’t want to see, but all those things made me who I am. At the same time, I’m just trying to do my best in bringing that type of athleticism and that type of talent back to the game of baseball. I want the game to be better. I don’t want the game to be slow, boring. It’s got to be somewhat of a hybrid, in my opinion.”

Top 2022 MLB Draft prospects and previous DREAM Series participants Elijah Green, Termarr Johnson and Kassius Thomas also joined Reynolds to discuss their rise in baseball as African American athletes and the lessons learned from the DREAM Series, as well as other baseball development events like the Breakthrough Series and Hank Aaron Invitational.

Thanks to the DREAM Series and other events, Johnson ranked second and Green ranked third on MLB Pipeline's Top 100 Draft prospects list for 2022 last December. Thomas is a highly regarded prospect out of the MLB Youth Academy in Compton, Calif.

“Just being a part of everything helped me so much as a person and a player,” Johnson said. “I’ve learned a lot. … Just being a part of the DREAM series -- learning from Jerry Manuel, Marquis Grissom, LaTroy Hawkins and guys like that -- it has been amazing. I give all my success and all that I’m going through with my life, I give it all to DREAM Series and the MLB pipeline.”

The Players Alliance, a group of current and former professional baseball players, is working to address the decline in African Americans playing the game of baseball and help to reverse that trend. These players have stepped up and created increased opportunities for the Black community in every aspect of the game and beyond.

“Everybody is not going to play in the big leagues, that’s just the name of the game,” Bourn said. “The numbers just don’t add up. But you can’t say that people can’t work in the big leagues. It doesn’t mean that you can’t learn the game and [be familiar] with analytics and economics. You can learn that going to college.”

Bourn would like to see an increase in executive opportunities for people of color.

“I think that’s another thing that we need to push in the Black community, not just playing the game, but let’s get involved in front office [positions] a little bit,” he said. “These people are working their way from being video coordinators and next thing, some people are GMs and stuff like that. Why can’t we do that too?”