Showcasing Black Baseball Talent Amid a Pandemic

October 7, 2020 0 By Michael

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Aspiring Black high school and community college baseball players gather for the Pro-Youth Foundation College and HBCU Showcase at South Gwinnett High School. Photo by Harold Michael Harvey

There is a myth that Black youngsters are not playing baseball these days. If you look at Major League Baseball (MLB) rosters and most Historical Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), it is easy to come away with that impression. Around eight percent of professional baseball players are Black Americans. This number is down from approximately 30 percent in the late 1970s, thirty years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier that kept Black baseball players off major league rosters.

By 1993, Latino baseball players moved passed Black players claiming 27.4 percent of all roster spots in 1993, and at no time after 2013 has the percentage of Latino players dropped below 27 percent, rising to 29.2 percent in 2005 and tipping the scales at 29.8 percent in 2017, according to the Society of American Baseball Research.

Black college baseball teams, once a fertile recruiting farm system for Negro Leagues Baseball teams, are today, on average, comprised of over 85 percent white players. This situation is especially true for the state-sponsored HBCUs like Albany State University, Alabama State University, Alabama A & M University, Kentucky State University, Florida A & M University, and North Carolina A & T University.

Private HBCUs like Tuskegee University, Morehouse College, Claflin University, Voorhees College, and Clark-Atlanta University maintain rosters with nearly 100 percent Black players.

Two small private church-supported schools have taken a different route in assembling competitive teams. Lane College and Miles College are supported by the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, founded as the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church in 1870, to service Black Americans newly freed from enslavement.

Lane College maintains a majority Black roster, while Miles has a majority white registration. Three years ago, Miles College won the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference by defeating Lemoyne-Owens, another small private HBCU that fielded a 99 percent Black roster.

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PYF founder former professional baseball player Chip Lawrence. File Photo

Chip Lawrence, a former professional baseball player, is out to increase the level of participation of Blacks on MLB rosters, in other lucrative jobs in the front offices of MLB franchises, and Black College baseball.

Lawrence played collegiately at Southern University, an HBCU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and in the Baltimore Orioles minor league system before becoming a scout for the San Diego Padres. He is currently the National Cross Checker for the San Diego franchise and leads the Pro-Youth Foundation (PYF). The foundation’s theme is “providing resources and opportunities.” In addition to teaching baseball skills to kids from little league to high school, PYF includes life skills that enable youngsters to develop good habits that lead to successful lives.

Several years ago, Lawrence started hosting a baseball showcase in the metropolitan Atlanta area, a hotbed for Black baseball talent in America. This year’s event was doubtful because of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe.

“I started not to have a showcase this year,” Lawrence said while a steady stream of young men waited in line to confirm their registration.

“I wasn’t sure if we should do it, but I kept getting more and more interest from parents wanting an opportunity to showcase their son to college coaches, so we made the decision that we had to fulfill this need in the community.”

Usually, Lawrence hosts a two-day event dubbed the “PYF HBCU/All College Showcase Camp.” Go figure, in the year of the pandemic, instead of calling off the showcase, he expanded it to three days, opening on Friday and running through Sunday.

“The response was so good that we decided to do three days this year. We average about 100 kids each day, so this year we will service about 260 kids,” Lawrence said.

Parents hoping to get their athlete in front of an HBCU head baseball coach flocked from all over the country to attend the showcase.

One family, the McCollins, drove overnight from the Mississippi Delta, hoping their son, Jordan D. McCollins, would catch the interest of Reggie Hollins, head baseball coach at the historic Tuskegee University. They delayed their trip several hours because the young man’s mom, Sheenah, had to administer dialysis to his father, Dexter before the three of them could get on the road.

“Plans called for the Friday showcase, but when I heard about their situation, I scrambled to make room for them in the Saturday session,” Lawrence said.

The young student-athlete, 5 feet 8 inches and 158 pounds, has a 3.6-grade point average and wants to be an engineer. If successful, he will become the fifth engineer in the family. Jordan, a middle infielder, who sometimes plays on the corner at third, is attracted to Tuskegee not so much for its baseball program, which is on the rise, but because of its nationally acclaimed engineering program.

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From L-R Roosevelt Barnes with the Cincinnati Reds RBI Program and Tuskegee University Head Baseball Coach Reggie Hollins. Photo by Harold Michael Harvey

“I have been to about three other showcases,” Jordan said, “this one was the best. I learned some things about footwork drills from some of the other guys that I can work on by myself.”

Jordan did not get to talk with Coach Hollins on Saturday but did text him a couple of days later.

When asked what he liked about Tuskegee, McCollins said, “ I like the fact that it is such a historic campus, and I understand that they have a good baseball program. I want to stick with an HBCU because of the historical people who come out of the HBCUs.”

Former major league pitcher Courtney Duncan brought his son down from Huntsville, Alabama, to showcase. Duncan knows the importance of an HBCU experience. He played collegiately at Grambling University under the direction of Head Coach James Randall, who is now the Head Coach at Claflin University. Coach Randall also played baseball at Grambling before a brief stint in the major league. Duncan was reunited with his college coach as Coach Randall was at the showcase looking for that next Courtney Duncan.

Families came from New York, Chicago, Arizona, California, and all over Georgia. Jeffery Hammonds, a 13 year MLB outfielder, retired in 2005 after belting 110 homers and batting a respectful .272. He is currently the Associate Director for Player Programs and Initiatives for the Major League Baseball Players Association. He brought his son down from New York to shop for his skills to HBCU coaches.

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Former major leaguers Courtney Duncan and Jeffrey Hammonds. Photo by Harold Michael Harvey

Hammonds played college baseball at Sanford in the late 1980s. Yet, he understands the importance of HBCUs to the total development of young people today.

“Major league scouting does not go to the source of the talent these days. That is why Chip’s [Lawrence] showcase is so important,” Hammonds said.

Then added, “We have to do a better job of bringing Black baseball players back into the conversation.”

In recent years, MLB has shown an interest in improving its relationship with youth league baseball in the Black community and HBCU baseball programs. For instance, the Atlanta Braves franchise has partnered with Tuskegee University, located 130 miles south of Atlanta, to sod Washington Field where the Golden Tigers began playing baseball in 1893. The ball field bears James Washington’s name, the brother of the school’s first principal, Booker T. Washington.

This partnership will allow the Tuskegee baseball program to resume playing home games on campus. Since 2009, the school had to rent a minor league park in Montgomery, Alabama, to play their games thirty miles away.

Speaking of Tuskegee, Coach Hollins came out to assess the talent on the field. He was impressed with three things: The physical size of the kids, high-grade point averages, and a high level of baseball IQ.

There was a time when the larger Black athletes opted for football and basketball after the middle school years. Now the bigger kids are sticking with baseball longer. The registration printout was replete with kids between 6’ 2’-6’5’, many ranging from 200–225 pounds.

“I am impressed with the size of the kids. Many of them have good grades, and good baseball IQ,” Hollins said. He added that he is recruiting for the class of 2022 because the NCAA has extended the playing time for kids whose eligibility took a hit due to the pandemic.

Also, the St. Louis Cardinals announced a $1.2 million renovation and construction project at Harris-Stowe University to restore Star Park on campus, where the Negro League St. Louis Stars played baseball from 1923–31. Star Park will open for play during the 2021 season. The complex will host Harris-Stowe’s baseball and softball facilities.

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Marcus Smith Head Baseball Coach at Voorhees College. Photo by Harold Michael Harvey

Marcus Smith, head baseball coach at Voorhees College, delivered opening remarks at the showcase. He provided the athletes and their parents with helpful information about applying for college and the NCAA Clearing House requirements for college athletes. Smith then pivoted to a personal note and told the young men to “Find a way every day to tell your mother how much you appreciate what she does for you.”

Before the athletes showcased their skills, numerous former professional baseball players, including the hard-hitting Mark Whitten, offered tips on hitting, base stealing, fielding, pitching, and throwing.

Mark Adair, a former major leaguer and National Cross Checker for the Oakland A’s, told a group of up and coming hitters that he was not impressed with the batter who hit the ball out of the park. He wanted to see “how fast the ball goes through the infield on a line drive or ground ball.”

Adair then added, “When you get in the batting cage, I want to see control violence. Hitting is like a head-on collision of two cars. The more violence on impact when the bat meets the ball, the better.”

Harold Michael Harvey is the Living Now 2020 Bronze Medal winner for his memoir Freaknik LawyerA Memoir on the Craft of Resistance. He is a Past President of the Gate City Bar Association. Harvey is the recipient of Gate City’s REThomas Civil Rights Award, which Harvey received for his pro bono representation of Black college students arrested during Freaknik celebrations in the mid to late 1990s. He is an engaging public speaker; contact him at hmharvey@haroldmichaelharvey.com.