HBCUs and Baseball: An Interview with Major League Baseball Executive Vice President Jimmie Lee Solomon
Written by HBCU Digest, Posted in Alabama, Alabama State University, Features, Grambling State University, Headlines, Louisiana, Prairie View A&M University, Southern University, Sports, Texas Southern University
Major League Baseball recently announced the lineup for its fifth annual Urban Invitational next month in Houston. The event, which will be hosted by the Houston Astros’ Urban Youth Academy program, will be the first time that the game will be played outside of Compton, CA., and will feature five HBCU baseball teams - Alabama State, Grambling State, Prairie View A&M, Southern and Houston’s Texas Southern – in its round-robin styled tournament.
The Invitational is the capstone event for Major League Baseball’s overarching initiative to increase African-American engagement and participation in baseball. One of the visionaries behind the program, MLB Executive Vice President of Baseball Development Jimmie Lee Solomon, spoke exclusively about baseball’s outreach efforts to black communities, how the Youth Academies have changed lives, and how his own personal ties to historically black colleges and universities.
How critical are HBCUs in Major League Baseball’s efforts to spark interest within African-American communities?
“Five years ago, we planned to have HBCUs a part of it. The beauty in bringing HBCUs to the west coast was that kids in Southern California did not have great exposure to HBCUs, and did not know about HBCU baseball programs. They (HBCUs) have very limited recruiting budgets, so we wanted to develop away to increase that exposure. I grew up in Houston, and most of my friends went to Prairie View A&M, Texas Southern and Southern. I was very well aware their programs, their opportunities. My grandfather went to Tuskegee, so I was certainly knowledgeable about the tremendous opportunities at these schools, so when I had the opportunity to start this program, I wanted to make sure HBCUs could be involved.”
“This year will be great, because for the fifth time, the event will be televised by the MLB Network, and that’s also in keeping with our effort to promote inclusion and exposure.”
“A lot of people may not know this, but the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim helped finance the Compton Academy. (Angels outfielder) Torii Hunter helped launch one of the earlier little league programs with his own money. We’ve had a lot of players come out and say a lot of positive things about the event, and we get a lot of support from a lot of the players to showacase the talent at HBCUs.”
“While I was at Dartmouth, I played football, and there was always a big push for us to play Grambling. I always wanted that opportunity, because you want that kind of great competition. When you play strong teams, your program has a chance to get better. There should be more opportunities for HBCUs to play outside of conference. UC-Irvine is a college baseball powerhouse, and they are in this tournament. The cross-pollination is something we should strive to have.”
What kind of measurable successes have you seen in Black communities embracing baseball as a result of MLB’s efforts?
“We have close to 100-175 students currently in college in some form of baseball or softball program as a result of the Compton Academy. We’ve had approximately 75 kids that have been drafted out of the Academy. When we first went to Compton, it was like the wild, wild west. At the time, it was one of the most crime ridden areas in the country. People were telling us that you couldn’t put a ballfield in the kind of area we were planning around. Now, we’ve received reports indicating that crime has been cut in half. A shopping mall is near the area in Compton. Where there used to be a bunch of abandoned cars, burned out buildings, there’s new development. So we see that the Academy has not only become a source of pride for the community, but a chance for the region to develop in a positive way. And so we televise these games to make sure the community can see their kids playing and to see how the community is growing.”
“The demographics there now are about 60 percent Latino, 35 African-American, a two-to-three percent Asian and the rest white. I think it has done a lot to get kids to find out that the Academy is a place to propel you into society. We have not only baseball, but vocational programs, coaching, scouting, umpiring, groundskeeping, etc. It all goes to getting a full-rounded experience in the sport, and helping kids understand that there are professional opportunities available to them in baseball.
In racial terms, baseball’s lasting legacy is Jackie Robinson integrating the sport. How does MLB work to position it’s diversity efforts outside of race, or within it regarding some of its biggest success stories (Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, etc)?
The backstory of baseball is America’s backstory. Jackie’s integration was before Civil Rights, before Dr. King, before Brown v. Board, before armed forces integration. At the time, more African-Americans played baseball, and as football became more popular, basketball became more popular, it created a national decline. When city planners went in to develop in urban areas, they found that blacktops were cheaper and easier to install than greenery and ballfields in the cities. So we’ve seen a substantial decline in the number of black athletes participating in baseball, for a number of reasons.
And think about this; Division I football has 85 scholarship opportunities while baseball has 11.7. You add all of these things up. Athleticism is less of a determinant to success in baseball than football or basketball. In baseball, an athlete has to have a honed set of skills to be able to perform at a high level, and you can’t develop the skills without having started at a young age. His chances of success in football or basketball are greater, because the exposure is there. In urban America, those who are single mothers weren’t and aren’t teaching their sons baseball, as its just not a sport they’ve grown up learning or valuing. We’ve got to reenergize young people to come to the ballpark, and also to learn our sport.
If we don’t incent young people to learn our sport, it will be difficult to get them to gravitate to our sport. We’re trying to get young people by providing access to baseball where they are.
What is MLB’s long-term vision for continuing to expand diversity in its sport and beyond?
I won’t be around forever, but our Commissioner (Bud Selig) has led a great focus on diversity in our workplace, our front office, and he’s empowered me to go out and do a lot of things. We’ve got two currently playing in the major leagues from Compton out of our programs, and several kids listed among the top ten prospects in the country. As we start getting a critical mass of kids coming out, then coming back and working in the academies where they were trained, they will communicate back to the communities how this can and is working.