It has been 75 years since Jackie Robinson’s first game in the bigs, but Major League Baseball is still making history when it comes to Black players.
In this year’s MLB draft, four out of the first five picks were Black even though the sport has been trending less diverse. Druw Jones went No. 2 overall to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Kumar Rocker No. 3 overall to the Texas Rangers, Termarr Johnson No. 4 overall to the Pittsburgh Pirates and Elijah Green No. 5 overall to the Washington Nationals.
Even though Robinson famously broke the game’s color barrier in 1947, baseball has historically been a white sport, and trends over recent years suggest it has become less diverse. According to ESPN, the number of Black players at the highest level has continued to drop. Only 7.2% of the players on MLB Opening Day rosters this season were Black, down from 7.6% in 2021 and from 18.7% in 1981.
Dmitri Young is a 13-year MLB veteran who was drafted fourth overall in the 1991 draft. His brother, Delmon Young, was the No. 1 pick in 2003.
Young is now the head baseball coach at Camarillo High School in Camarillo, Calif. He said people in the baseball world have known for years that this draft would be special after watching the young men play throughout the years.
“They were in the circuit, and I’m not just talking about the Hank Aaron Invitational,” Young said. “They were doing Perfect Game events, doing stuff for USA Baseball, with Major League Baseball and really making a name for themselves.”
Clinton Yates, a columnist and on-air personality for ESPN, said he was in shock that clubs are “picking brothers that high these days.”
Yates, a devoted baseball fan, explained that “these specific people that they picked were people that were not plucked out of nowhere.”
“These are folks that Major League Baseball itself, through its own diversity programs, has found a way to highlight at one point or another,” Yates said. “If they’re willing to invest and take chances on brothers at that high of a 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 player standpoint, which is extremely important.”
Yates is talking about the same programs Young is. Jones, Rocker, Johnson and Green all played in MLB’s DREAM Series, a showcase event for predominantly Black elite high school athletes from across the country. Events like the DREAM Series, Breakthrough Series, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and the Hank Aaron Invitational are fairly new programs within the last two and three decades, established in a joint effort between USA Baseball and Major League Baseball that aims to develop the player on and off the field. These events are usually completely free of cost for invitees or made affordable through scholarships.
Financial assistance for developing baseball players can change the trajectory of the sport, advocates say. Eddie Williams, a former MLB corner infielder who now trains 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 is $400-$500. Your cleats are $300-$600. You need balls to work out with. Hopefully you can work out with a high school or a college, but most of these kids don’t have that kind of stuff, and you need professional gear.”
Williams said that without the right gear, players can hurt themselves. He has given away all his gear from him to young players who need it.
Channing Austin, a sophomore pitcher for the USC Trojans, said he has watched the cost of baseball drive 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’s youth leagues, but when he “moved on to higher-level baseball, it became incredibly white,” he said.
Austin knows people like Williams who young players can source gear from, but he said it can cost a family anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 to play on summer tournament teams.
“Unless you have a connection to one of these scout teams where everything is paid for, then you’re pretty much on the hook for paying $6,000 every summer just to even have the chance,” Austin said. “And this is starting at like age 14.”
As the only person of color on the University of Virginia baseball team during his freshman year of college, Austin said he appreciates that four out of the first five draft picks this year were Black.
“I think it hopefully shows the general trend of more Black kids getting into baseball and there’s 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 that.”
Yates explained that people think if you’re the best, you’ll make it to the bigs, but he said “it’s not always a meritocracy.”
“The closer we get to being acknowledged as potentially as good as the rest, the closer the game gets to being the best it can be,” Yates said.
Williams matched Yates’ opinion. While the fourth overall pick said he is very thankful to have played in the league, he remembers some of the struggles he faced due to his race from him.
“The journey after [being drafted] is hopefully you can get with an organization that actually really believes in you,” he said. “A lot of times you’re gonna have to be two or three times better than the next guy.”