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.
When the baseball season pauses for Major League Baseball’s All-Star week taking place in Seattle’s T-Mobile Park in July, a very important event for the future of Black and brown players in the game of baseball will commence.
The collaboration of Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. and the MLB-MLB Players Association Youth Development Foundation will bring the HBCU Swingman Classic for baseball student-athletes at historically Black colleges and universities to the festivities.
What Is HBCU Swingman Classic?
As a second generation MLBbro icon, Griffey Jr. understands that HBCUs do not have the advantages that he had coming up the ranks and the Swingman Classic can provide exposure and awareness.
“It gives an opportunity for these guys to be seen; plus, they want to continue their baseball career like everyone else,” said Junior, who had 13 All Star appearances and 10 Gold Gloves throughout his career. “This is an opportunity for these guys to be out there on a big stage, to have fun with some guys who played the game at a high level and learn some things.”
Coincidentally, the MLB Draft combine had their first HBCU participants as well. Hylan Hall, Trey Paige and Xavier Meacham, who participated in the Draft combine will be in the Swingman Classic as well.m
All three MLBbros of the future shared how important this time is in their career and lives via MLB.com…
“I didn’t expect to be invited [to the combine] at all. I was super excited,” said Paige, an infielder from Delaware State who’s transferring to Kentucky for his senior year. “I called my parents and my sister right away, they were freaking out. I think my mom started crying on the phone. It just shows that I put in a lot of hard work and it’s getting noticed.
“This shows that you can go to an HBCU and still get the same recognition as some of these bigger-name schools.”
While Paige is transferring away from an HBCU, Hylan Hall transferred to Bethune-Cookman. His family affair comes from his teammates…
“I think everything happens for a reason,” Hall said. “I thank God for putting me in that position. He wouldn’t give you something that you’re not ready for. It’s just something that had to happen to me. That’s my story.”
Continuing with the family theme, Xavier Meachem has Black college in his blood since his parents went to North Carolina Central. The right-handed pitcher, Meachem, has found inspiration in MLBbro Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen. This young player is trying to pass that inspiration to his N.C. A&T Aggies teammates.
“A lot of guys are hungry and have gone through adversity throughout their whole baseball career,” Meachem said. “So a lot of guys play with a chip on [their] shoulder [and that’s what’s] special about our program.
“It’s really important because in the future [there will be] a lot more minorities in the game,” Meachem said. MLB providing these resources is going to increase [the participation for] these players. You’ll see a lot more minority talent in the league sooner or later.”
There will be a ton of MLBbro talent represented on the field and in the dugout including the coaches.
The two teams are managed by former MLB managers Jerry Manuel and Bo Porter, supported by former MLBbro players and HBCU representatives like Andre Dawson, Cito Gaston, Ken Griffey Sr, Rickey Weeks Jr, Marquis Grissom, Marvin Freeman, Vince Coleman, Lenny Webster and Trenidad Hubbard.
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.”
After a World Series that featured no Black American players, Major League Baseball is ready to present a platform for the best players from Historic Black College and Universities to take their place on the same stage that will be the center fo the MLB universe during the mid-summer night’s classic.
At the winter meetings on December 6 the league announced the first HBCU showcase featuring elite players from Black Colleges. The philanthropic and educational event, which will center around an HBCU “All-Star” Game that will be held during the 2023 MLB All-Star Week in July at T-Mobile Park, home of Seattle Mariners MLBbro legend Ken Griffey Jr, who played 13 seasons with the club and is spearheading this event.
HBCU Swingman Classic Highlights Top 50 HBCU Baseball Prospects
The HBCU Swingman Classic, which will be powered by the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation, will highlight the history and legacy of HBCU baseball programs while also providing the top 50 prospects from the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the SWAC an opportunity to showcase their talent on a national stage. The student-athletes will be selected by a committee that will include Griffey Jr., representatives from MLB and MLBPA, and scouts.
Griffey Jr., who is an Ambassador for the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation, said:
“I am excited to help these kids get the national attention that they don’t receive compared to other college baseball programs. Over the years, we have seen the decline of African American players, not because they don’t want to play, but rather because they haven’t been seen. College scholarships for baseball are not comparative to other sports, and a lot of families cannot afford to pay the difference. So, this effort is the industry coming together to give these kids an opportunity to play the game they love on the national stage. Financial restrictions prevent them from going to schools that give more exposure. The HBCU Swingman Classic will try and close that gap.”
The game also furthers MLB’s efforts to diversify the game and highlight the Black and brown talent pool that is rapidly growing in America.
Ken Griffey Jr. Helps Cultivate The Next Generation Of MLBbros
The HBCU Swingman Classic joins the annual Hank Aaron Invitational as youth-oriented and diversity-focused programs powered by the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation, a joint initiative by MLB and MLBPA to support efforts that focus on improving the caliber, effectiveness and availability of amateur baseball and softball programs across the United States and internationally.
“Major League Baseball is thrilled to continue to work alongside Ken Griffey Jr. and the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation to bring this groundbreaking event to MLB All-Star Week,” said Tony Reagins, Chief Baseball Development Officer, MLB.
Historically, many HBCU alumni have reached Major League Baseball, including Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Lou Brock as well as Marquis Grissom, Rickie Weeks, Jr., Vince Coleman, Tommie Agee, Tom Alston, Earl Battey, Joe Black and others. Hall of Famer Larry Doby is also an HBCU alumnus but did not play baseball at the collegiate level.
“This is going to make an immense difference in the perception of [HBCU] baseball to play on a stage like the All Star Game,” said former Southern University coach Roger Cador. “You’ve got to give all the credit to Ken Griffey, Jr. who wanted to make this happen to bring more Black players to the game.”
“He carried the torch on this and wanted to do something for HBCUs.”
Roger Cador Builds A Baseball Powerhouse At Southern
Cador took a startup program at Southern in Baton Rouge, LA on the opposite side of town from the powerhouse that LSU was when Skip Bertman was leading the Tigers. Despite lacking any significant financing, he built the Jaguars into the most dominant HBCU program in college baseball.
He sparked the program with help from Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, who was hitting coach with the San Francisco Giants and the late Bob Gibson who was pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves.
They provided him with used equipment that led to a 33-year run of dominance in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) featuring 14 championships and a Golden Spikes Award winner and former major leaguer in Rickie Weeks. He also beat Cal State Fullerton in the 1987 NCAA Playoffs and played for the SWAC Championship 27 times.
HBCU All-Star Events Bring Visibility To Black College Athletes
The concept is one that the National Football League and National Basketball Association adopted starting earlier in 2022 with the other leagues opening platforms for HBCU student athletes to display their talents.
Last February, Howard University and Morgan State moved a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference basketball game to Cleveland, and it became the signature event of their All-Star Weekend in the city.
In April, the first HBCU All Star Basketball Game was played in New Orleans featuring top stars from the four major conferences on the Sunday between Final Four Saturday and championship Sunday.
After no HBCU players were selected in the 2020 NFL, The “Coach Prime” phenomenon helped kickoff the two specific showcases that put elite players on a platform that was designed to give them a chance to audition and be evaluated for talent to play on the next level. The league staged an HBCU combine that gave many unseen players a chance to display their skills as they would during its annual public workout pilgrimage to Indianapolis.
With MLB hosting its first combine in 2022, look for more events aimed at highlighting the immense HBCU athletic talent pool that is often ignored by pro organizations.
Mark Gray goes “Black In The Day” to celebrate the MLBro superstars who helped put HBCU baseball on the map and produced All-Star careers in the Major Leagues; Hall of Famer Andre “Hawk” Dawson, quick stick speedster and multiple Gold Glove outfielder Marquis Grissom and Vince Coleman, one of the greatest base stealers in MLB history.