Historically Black Colleges and Universities [HBCUs] have become more than just a sanctuary for Black collegiate student-athletes. It now appears that Major League Baseball is ready to visit those athletic programs for players who have been previously overlooked.
HBCU Swingman Classic & Ken Griffey Jr.
The first HBCU Swingman Classic on July 7, will feature 50 HBCU Players during MLB All-Star Week’s first pitch in Seattle with Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. as its catalyst. MLB’s Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program has also produced several Black American Major Leaguers – including former pitcher C.C. Sabathia and current Seattle Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford. However, this will be the first time that MLB has literally put its money where its mouth is to give aspiring talent from HBCUs their own all-star showcase.
“I could never fathom this happening,” said former Southern University’s legendary coach and College Baseball Hall of Famer Roger Cador. “I had been working with [MLB Chief Baseball Development Officer] Tony Reagins and we had been trying to do something like this for the last three years.”
“But it wasn’t until Ken Griffey, Jr. along with [MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred] came along and gave their support that the idea became reality and it’s something that will be around for years to come”.
MLB appears to understand there is something unsettling about the dwindling numbers of Black American players as the game continues importing most of the new generation of stars from the Dominican Republic and Asia.
However, some of the greatest Black Knights in the history of baseball have ties to HBCUs. For example: Larry Doby, who played at Virginia Union University, was MLB’s second Black American player with the Cleveland franchise debuting 11 weeks after Jackie Robinson.
MLB Has HBCU Roots
St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Lou Brock – a multiple world champion and one time MLB all-time stolen base leader – is a graduate of Southern University. Joe Black, the 1952 National League Rookie of the Year with the Brooklyn Dodgers, graduated from Morgan State. The 1969 World Series MVP Donn Clendenon from the “Amazin’ New York Mets is a Morehouse man. Vince Coleman, Marquis Grissom, and Andre Dawson would be statistically one of the greatest outfield combinations of all-time and they all played at Florida A&M.
HBCU Players In MLB Draft?
Texas Southern junior outfielder Johnathon Thomas was the first HBCU baseball player taken in the 2022 MLB First-Year Player Draft. He was selected in the 19th round with the 561st overall pick by the Washington Nationals. Those who follow the prospects in their organization feel that with the talent pool of outfielders already there he faces a difficult battle trying to make the show.
Nonetheless, this is one of the showcases giving HBCU baseball programs a stage to evaluate prospects with support from MLB. In addition to being a platform for MLB scouts, the game’s most valuable player will earn a name, image, and likeness (NIL) deal from T-Mobile to immediately enter the new world order of capitalizing on marketing and commercial advertising deals.
“I don’t know if we’ll get the type of players we once did, ” Cador said.
“But I’m thinking with this All Star Game and the NIL money we may be able to make up some ground on bringing mid-level players back to Black colleges.”
Cador is to HBCU baseball what the late Eddie Robinson was to Black College football at Grambling. He took a non-existent program and won 14 Southwestern Athletic Conference and two HBCU National championships in 17 seasons. Cador also had 62 players drafted and 11 All-Americans including 2003 Golden Spikes Awards winner Rickie Weeks who was the second pick in that year’s MLB Draft. Weeks played 14 years with the Milwaukee Brewers, Seattle Mariners, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Tampa Bay Rays.
Earlier this year, the Black College World Series was played in Montgomery, Alabama featuring HBCU players from NAIA and NCAA Division II Schools that was scouted by Major League Baseball clubs also. However, that was a survive and advance series with a championship in the balance.
It’s one of several efforts, including the Andrew Dawson Classic, being played that give Black college players an unprecedented stage to display their skills before scouts and talent evaluators.
Florida Memorial (22-24) beat Albany State (39-11) 5-4 in a 19-inning championship game at Riverwalk Park – home of the Class AA Montgomery Biscuits – who are an affiliate of the Tampa Rays.
As a sobering reminder of the plight facing Black American players on MLB rosters today, the 2022 World Series marked the first time since 1950 that didn’t feature any U.S. born Black players which was just three years after Jackie Robinson broke the game’s color barrier.
The 2023 Andre Dawson Classic took place at the University of New Orleans this year on the weekend of February 24th-26th. The annual event, marked its 15th year of showcasing Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and their baseball programs, coinciding with the start of the college baseball season.
Formerly known as the “Urban Invitational”, the 2023 Andre Dawson Classic features seven HBCUs this year:
Alabama A&M University (Huntsville, Ala.) – 1st appearance
Alabama State University (Montgomery, Ala.) – 7th appearance; 2012-2013, 2018-2020, 2022-2023
Florida A&M University (Tallahassee, Fla.) – 3rd appearance; 2019, 2022-2023
Grambling State University (Grambling, La.) – 11th appearance; 2011-2012, 2014-2020, 2022-2023
Jackson State University (Jackson, Miss.) – 2nd appearance; 2022-2023
The Major League Baseball-hosted event received a national spotlight through a live doubleheader feature simulcasted by MLB Network and MLB.com as part of an initiative to generate interest in baseball among young black athletes.
Andre Dawson, a 2010 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, spoke to MLB Network on what it meant to him for MLB to showcase HBCU talent.
“When Major League Baseball reached out to me it was quite the honor…. I have achieved many accolades and awards in my career, but this is right there at the top.”
MLB Network began its broadcast with Florida A&M taking on Southern. The game was highlighted by an explosive FAMU offense who had fifteen total hits including two home runs. FAMU, who benefited from a five-run 8th inning, won the game 12-6.
Alumni of both MLB Development Initiatives and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) programs were included on every Andre Dawson Classic roster, most notably including:
42 players who have participated in MLB Development initiatives (such as the Dream Series, Breakthrough Series, and the Hank Aaron Invitational)
A 121% increase from 2022
44 alumni from RBI, a 47% increase from 2022
10 players from the Houston Astros RBI and Youth Academy (across five ADC teams)
5 players from the Ron “Papa Jack” Jackson Baseball Foundation RBI program in Birmingham, AL
5 players from Atlanta Braves RBI
5 players from Puerto Rico RBI
19 alumni of MLB Youth Academies, including 10 from Houston and six from New Orleans
MLB also recognized that to increase black participation in baseball the players must be introduced early on at the youth level. In conjunction with the Andre Dawson Classic, a three-day 12u tournament consisting of teams from RBI and/or Youth Academy programs were held.
Throughout the weekend, many of the young players watched the HBCU games while also finding time to mingle with Dawson, who was there in attendance.
“The kids, they’ve got to start young,” Dawson said to MLB Network. “You have to keep it fun for them. They have to get quality coaching, first and foremost, and not this parents coaching stuff.
“Let them play the game and enjoy it for what it is – recreation. But they learn the craft, too. This can take them to the next level. If you can continue to work with them and help them, get better, you increase their interest in the sport.”
The young players experienced the company of the Baseball Hall of Famer, a Black man whose presence offered a level of confidence in their baseball future. The gravity of these moments should not be understated when it comes to representation: if the kids see someone of the same ethnicity make it to the big leagues, it helps them realize that their own goals are attainable.
In addition to Dawson, who is one of only three Baseball Hall of Famers who are HBCU alumni (including Lou Brock and Larry Doby), other special guests in New Orleans will include HBCU alumni and former Big Leaguers Marquis Grissom and Marvin Freeman, former Major League Manager & current MLB Baseball Development Consultant Jerry Manuel, and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick, among others.
The Andre Dawson Classic is a precursor to the HBCU Swingman Classic, which is powered by the MLB- MLBPA Youth Development Foundation and Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., scheduled for Friday, July 7th at T-Mobile Park during 2023 MLB All-Star Week in Seattle.
#MLBbro Legend Andre “The Hawk” Dawson signed with the Cubs in 1987.
He won the 1987 NL MVP Award with 49 homers. He was a 5x All-Star, 2x Gold Glover and won a Silver Slugger in 6 seasons with the Cubs.
Major League Baseball’s concerted efforts to make baseball palatable to young Black players not only helps the black youth, but they also help expand the game overall. Inclusion helps baseball evolve and become more innovative rather than stagnant. Bringing in diversity assists the sport in finding a new set of eyes from fans who may have felt ostracized due to a lack of representation.
Diversity Keeps The Sport Alive
Promoting growth is why initiatives such as the Andre Dawson Classic are integral to the game. Many of the college players who competed in the tournament were products of the RBI and Youth Academy pipeline. It is a cause for optimism that the number of players who were alumni of these youth programs played in this year’s Dawson Classic has increased. MLB Development initiatives are working.
In a statement to MLB.com, co-founder and program director of the Chicago White Sox ACE Kenny Fullman expressed joy about the Dawson Classic.
“One of the great things about this tournament, our kids don’t get to watch a lot of college baseball,” said Fullman. “A lot of times our kids don’t get to see people who look like them playing college baseball.
“This is a great opportunity for one, to see college baseball, and two, to see a lot of African-Americans and diverse people playing college baseball at a high level. I’m so thankful for this tournament.”
Andre “The Hawk” Dawson AKA “Awesome Dawson” finished his inaugural MLB season by winning the Rookie of the Year Award in 1977.
He followed that up with a solid second season in 1978 where he hit 25 home runs and stole 28 bases.
Dawson was one of the first players to receive a Topps trading card contract in 1979, and he finished that season in the NL top ten in total bases, runs batted in, leading to a career that saw “The Hawk” tally more than 400 homers and 1500 runs batted in, on his way to a Hall of Fame career.
Dawson played the first seven seasons of the 1980s with the expansion Expos and the final three of the decade with the Chicago Cubs, who were in rebuild mode and bottom feeders in the league.
The lone bright spot in Chicago was Dawson, whose prolific bat gave Cubs fans a reason to pile into the confines of Wrigley Field back when they only had day games.
By the end of the decade, he had tallied 290 homers, 895 RBI and .128 OPS+. The decade saw him earn Gold Glove Awards, 6 All-Star Appearances, four Silver Sluggers, and an MVP Award. making Dawson easily one of the most productive hitters and multi-tooled standouts of the 1980s.
Before the start of the 1982 season, Andre Dawson received his check from the Major League Baseball Players Association for the sum of $2,527.
At the time a nice piece of change for the then 27-year old outfielder. The check had the stamped signature of Marvin Miller, who happened to be the Executive Director of the MLBPA.
With Dawson’s signature on the reverse side, Dawson took his check to the bank and requested $1,300.00 in cash and a cashier’s check for the remaining balance.
“The Hawk” used this method of money management for the rest of his MLB career.
That 1982 season for Dawson was one to remember as he was an All-Star, and Gold Glove winner. In his 11 seasons in Montreal, Dawson totaled 225 homers and 838 RBIs for the Expos. His peak years were 1980-83.
In those four seasons, he amassed a (29 WAR – Wins Above Replacement). His OPS+ was an astounding 140, putting him on the fast track to Cooperstown.
“The Hawk” had a long productive career. He hit 20 or more homers in 13 seasons and 30 or more in three seasons.
His career-high of 49 came in 1987, his MVP year. As his 21-year career came to a close, Dawson climbed the all-time lists as an unforgettable Black Knight of baseball.
Seven seasons after what was thought to be his peak performance, an old Dawson with football knees, was still at it. On June 25, 1994, as the Red Sox DH, he went out and had a career day amassing 10 total bases. He went (4-7) with two homers, two doubles and 6 RBI.
The second moonshot gave him 426 in his career, tying him with the sweet-swinging Hall of Famer and legendary MLBbro, Billy Williams.
He hit his 400th homer in April of 1993.
Known for his poise and quiet class, Dawson was beloved by teammates in Montreal, Chicago, Boston and Florida.
In retirement “The Hawk” has been a well-respected longtime funeral director in Florida.
MLB has also named its annual HBCU baseball showcase the “Andre Dawson Classic” after the soul patroller who played for Florida A&M University. Formerly known as the “Urban Invitational”, this annual collegiate baseball tournament was launched in 2008 by MLB to highlight Historically Black Colleges and Universities and their programs.