When one thinks of the elite African-American baseball players of the past, present and future, you quickly realize that these are many of the great faces of the game no matter their ethnicity. Jackie Robinson, Andrew McCutchen, Dazmon Cameron, Hank Aaron, Jason Heyward and Jahmai Jones are all front of mind when compiling that list. While you might not be aware of Cameron or Jones, chances are that you will be in the next few years. Both are top prospects as we draw closer to the 2015 MLB First-Year Player Draft, both are African-American and both are headliners in the 13th edition of the Perfect Game All-American Classic to be played at Petco Park on Sunday, August 10. The annual contest features a collection of elite players beginning their final year of high school. It will be televised on the MLB Network. Cameron and Jones also share the roster with 12 additional African-American players. That number can do nothing but encourage those that have been discouraged by the decreasing population of African-Americans on Major League Baseball rosters. It’s a stat that caught the suddenly optimistic eye of 04’ PG All-American and current Atlanta outfielder Justin Upton.
“I think it’s awesome,” Upton said Wednesday at Dodger Stadium. “The numbers have been down lately and the Perfect Game All American is a big event. To have African-American players playing at an elite level again is awesome. It’s very good to see.”
According to the 2013 United States Census, an estimated 13.2 percent of the nation’s population is African-American, while on Opening Day 2014, 8.3 percent of players on rosters identified themselves as African-American or black, according to MLB research. But with 14 of the 54 players on this year’s PGAA roster African-Americans, quick math puts that number at close to 26 percent.
“I actually believe it’s growing. I haven’t really done the research to have the actual numbers, but I see it growing,” according to Perfect Game President and National Director Jerry Ford. “At our National Showcase this year, it was phenomenal how many African-American players were there. We’re looking for the very best players in the United States. At that level, if you’re looking at the top 300 high school age players in the United States, that number’s definitely growing.”
Ford, who founded PG in 1995, estimated that close to 23 percent of the players that took part in the National Showcase this past June in Fort Myers, Florida were African-American. Major League Baseball and team executives, scouts and MLB Players Association leaders all joined Ford at the showcase. He joins them in the passion and drive to have those numbers back up at the big league level.
“I look at it partly from a baseball fan perspective. Let’s face it, some of the greatest; as a matter of fact many of the greatest players that we have known and have ever seen are African-Americans,” Ford shared, “So it just stands to reason that the game would be better if more African-Americans were participating.”
Royal Palm Beach Community High School’s Triston McKenzie is the top ranked right-handed pitcher in the state of Florida according to Perfect Game; he’s an All-American and an African-American. The Vanderbilt commit has a firm grasp on the past, while looking forward to tomorrow.
“I think it’s a great thing to see other African-American baseball players and it’s a great thing for the sport. Before, we weren’t even in the league with the other players,” McKenzie said. “We were in our separate league and we were integrated with the help of Jackie Robinson and other black baseball players. Now we’ve come to the point where there are 8 or 9 percent…and hopefully that number will increase.”
The only science behind the optimism about the possible growth in the numbers at the big league level is the actual history of the PGAA Classic. In the first 12 years of the game’s existence, 149 alumni of the game have been taken in the first round of the draft, and 84 have advanced their careers all the way to the major leagues. Therefore with a higher percentage of African-American players playing in an event that sends so many to the highest level, one could take the leap that MLB rosters could take on a different look over the next decade.
“It’s exciting. It just so happens that this year, and by the way it looks like it’s going to be this way next year also, that number has pretty much doubled. I think more can be done to increase those numbers. Looking at our rosters for the All- American game and then going back and looking at some of the players we’ve seen this year, to be honest with you there’s a few more (African-American players) that we could’ve named,” Ford said. "Kids like Jalen Miller, as far as I’m concerned he belongs in that game. But you run out of positions and you run out of the East/West combinations, so you just can’t include everybody. But I really believe that if you were to take the top 100 players in the country this year, at least 25 percent of them would be African-Americans.”
In the McKenzie household, Triston, one of those top 100 learned the game from dad Stainten. Not only has he learned it; he’s loved it and flourished. Two summers ago, he was 6’2” and threw 79 mph. At the National Showcase a few months back he towered to 6’5” and touched 92.
“My dad is a very loving and caring person and I think that he would do anything in the world for me. He’s been there for me since I was born and he taught me the game of baseball,” the younger McKenzie shared. “He taught me the game I love. He really liked baseball and to help me with the game, he would study the game. He would watch baseball non-stop and learn tips from pro guys just to teach me things.”
MLB’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program has impacted more than 1 million young athletes in its history of more than two decades. Some of the alumni include Justin Upton, James Loney and Coco Crisp. Their mission has many layers, but to increase the number of talented athletes prepared to play in college and minor leagues sounds very similar to the passion of Ford.
“I love baseball. Whatever I think would make baseball better and more popular in every way, I support it. I’ve had people ask me why I’m so interested in this subject and I almost get this feeling that somebody’s going to turn it into some type of racial discussion. To me it isn’t that at all. I like baseball. I want what’s best for baseball, which means the best players and the best athletes. When I was young, Willie Mays was my favorite player. I keep thinking, ‘What would this game have been like if Willie Mays would have been a football player or a basketball player?’ You just go right down the list; guys like Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds, these guys are the game. These guys are part of the game, a big part of the game. So I don’t want the next young potential Willie Mays to never hit a baseball field.”
It’s only one game, but it might be worth keeping an eye on the impact it could have over the next few years.