Thirty Years of Progress Bearing Fruit With MLB RBI
In 1975, nearly one out of every four major league players was African American. From the 1950s to the 1970s, baseball tended to be the first choice for the best Black athletes. Baseball careers were longer and salaries were higher than those in other sports.
That began to change by the end of the 1970s. The NFL had surpassed baseball in popularity, and the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson NCAA final in 1979 led to an explosion of popularity and financial strength for the NBA and for basketball in general. The game of Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Henry Aaron was seen by many inner-city youths as slow, boring and the game of their parent’s generation. Some wondered if reviving baseball in inner-cities was even possible.
By the late 1970s, the dwindling number of African Americans playing baseball was noticed by officials, as was the crowds that were often composed of entirely Whites at major and minor league games. Something was needed to kick start the so-called National Pastime in urban areas. That something turned out to be a program called Reviving Baseball in Inner-cities (RBI).
John Young, a former Major League Baseball player and scout, developed the concept of Reviving Baseball in Inner-cities to provide disadvantaged youth an opportunity to learn and enjoy the game of baseball. Young grew up in South Central Los Angeles at a time when the area developed many professional baseball players. However, by the late 1970s, Young—who was working as a Major League scout—noted a significant decrease in the number of skilled athletes emerging from his childhood area.
After visiting inner-city schools and talking to members of the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation, Young discovered that the majority of kids quit playing baseball between the ages of 13 and 16. The drop off was due to many factors, including a lack of organization, funding, and community support for youth baseball, as well as an overall deterioration of the social climate in many underserved areas. More often than not, kids quit after becoming discouraged by poorly organized baseball programs and enticed by the existence of other activities, including street gangs.
Since 1989, Reviving Baseball in Inner-Cities has grown from a local program for boys in South Central Los Angeles to an international campaign encompassing more than 200 cities and as many as 120,000 male and female participants a year. Perhaps not coincidentally, Major League Baseball saw its first increase in Black players in 2008, to 10.2 percent from a low of 8.7 percent the year before. The final numbers for 2009 have not been released, but it is believed that African American representation in the Major Leagues will increase again.
Young intended to keep the Reviving Baseball in Inner-cities program local for five years before launching it nationally. However, due to the success of the program in Los Angeles, the Mathews-Dickey Boys Club in St. Louis adopted RBI in 1990, and Kansas City and New York City followed with the formation of RBI programs in 1992. In 1993, RBI programs were established in Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Miami and Philadelphia, while youth baseball programs in Atlanta, Richmond and San Juan also became affiliated with the program. In 1994, RBI expanded to 28 cities and introduced softball leagues. To date, more than 200 leagues in 203 cities worldwide support the program.
Major League Baseball, which has administered the Reviving Baseball in Inner-cities Program since 1991, serves as the central administrative office for RBI and from 1993 to 1996, along with Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA), provided start-up grants for programs demonstrating financial need. Since the inception of the program, Major League Baseball and its clubs have designated more than $30 million worth of resources to the RBI program.
“The RBI program has many benefits,” said former New York Yankee and ESPN broadcaster Roberto Clemente, Jr., who founded the Pittsburgh RBI program and is involved with the San Juan program. “It keeps kids out of trouble and off the streets, while at the same time teaching them to stay in school. They earn self-esteem and self-respect. The educational components help them realize their potential and work toward receiving college scholarships based not only on athletics, but academics.”
RBI alumni currently playing in the Major Leagues include Carl Crawford (Tampa Bay Rays), Jimmy Rollins (Philadelphia Phillies), Coco Crisp (Kansas City Royals), and Dontrelle Willis (Detroit Tigers).
Meanwhile, Young – the “father of RBI”- continues to be amazed by the success his program has achieved in reviving baseball in inner-cities. “It’s like a child to me,” he said. “To see the magnitude of RBI – what it has grown into – is unbelievable. It’s like a dream come true.”
Hirsch is a contributing writer for Regal Black Men’s Magazine.