Did the MLB Strike Out with RBI?

By Charles Williamson

In 1989 John Young, a former Major League Baseball player and scout, noticed a significant lack of inner city African-American kids choosing to play baseball.[1] To remedy this situation he developed R.B.I. – Reviving Baseball in the Inner city.[2] Mr. Young successfully procured financial backing from the MLB sufficient to start a youth baseball league in his hometown of South Central Los Angeles.[3] The program quickly expanded to other urban areas and currently exists in over 200 cities, providing leagues for 13-16 year old kids.[4] Despite Young’s hope to increase the numbers of African-American athletes on MLB rosters, the percentage of Black players has steadily decreased since RBI’s inception from 17% in 1990 to 9.1% in 2010.[5] These numbers would suggest that the program has had little, if any, impact on reviving the game in the inner cities.  However many unseen obstacles have masked the positive effect that the RBI has actually had on this population.

One of the flaws in the initial program was that it only included 13-16 year olds.  Most professional baseball players begin playing baseball through Little League, which begins at age 7.[6] By age 13, when the RBI players begin, they are already six years behind their suburban peers in fundamental training.  Although the kids compete primarily within their own league, ultimately, all these athletes are pooled together as high school seniors for their first opportunity to be drafted.  Dave Winfield, an African-American Hall of Fame baseball player said, “To play this game you have to start early and play continuously.  You can’t say, ‘Oh, this is a good opportunity’ at 14 or 15 years old. It’s too late.  You’ll never catch up.”[7] In its history, RBI has had only 170 players drafted, which represents just 8% of the total players drafted in that time.[8] Last year, perhaps in recognition of this problem, the MLB established the Jr. RBI program to provide the same coaching for athletes ages 6-12.[9] It remains to be seen whether Jr. RBI will serve as an effective feeder for the RBI program itself and reverse the trend of declining numbers of Black baseball players.

The explosion of baseball’s popularity throughout Latin America in the 1990s further affected the waning percentage of African-Americans in the league.  Beginning in 1987 when the Los Angeles Dodgers opened Campo las Palmas in the Dominican Republic, nearly every Major League organization has created baseball academies throughout Latin America.[10] Each of these academies trains hundreds of aspiring ballplayers beginning at very young ages.[11] Since the Latin education systems have virtually no requirements, these athletes are able to train all day, as though they were already in the minor leagues.[12] With so many Latin-American baseball factories churning out young talent, it is no surprise that the percentages of Hispanic players has more than doubled from 13% in 1990, to 28.3% in 2010.[13] In 1998 one legal scholar remarked that “the percentage of blacks and hispanics in major league baseball more-or-less reflects their percentage in society.”[14] However the footnote afterward predicted quite accurately that the percentages of African Americans would soon fall short of that mark, based upon already waning numbers.[15]

Besides the RBI program, Major League Baseball has taken other steps to renew the passion for the game within the African-American community.  Those efforts primarily center on Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to break the color barrier in baseball.  In 1997, MLB retired Jackie Robinson’s number 42 jersey throughout all major league teams.[16] Ten years later MLB instituted the playing of the annual Civil Rights game, during which all players are now encouraged to wear number 42 in a tribute to Robinson.[17] Although baseball had intended to make amends with this gesture, it is primarily an acknowledgment of its checkered past.  The MLB would be better served to promote the current African-American stars of the game, rather than to focus on the difficulties past players endured.  The next generation of African-American athletes is unlikely to choose a sport in which their skin color may make success more difficult.

While the creation of the RBI program has not rejuvenated the numbers of African-American participants thus far, it has slowed down their rate of departure.  Perhaps in the next 10 years, once the new crop of participants who learned their fundamentals through the Jr. RBI program are ready to be drafted, the number of Blacks in baseball will return to where they were in the early 1990s.  Regardless of the end result, it appears that the system now in place will give inner city kids the chance to compete with the suburban travel teams and the Latin academy machines.  This is a good start to creating a truly level playing field.


[1] Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, available at http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/official_info/community/rbi_history.jsp (last visited September 23, 2010).
[2] Id.
[3] Id.
[4] Id.
[5] Richard Lapchick, et al, The 2010 Racial and Gender Report Card: Major League Baseball (2010), available at http://web.bus.ucf.edu/documents/sport/2010_MLB_RGRC.pdf (last visited September 23, 2010).
[6] Little League World Series Alumni, available at http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/story/10295091 (last visited September 23, 2010).
[7] Woody Baird, Major League Baseball Celebrates Civil Rights History (2007), available at http://www.usatoday.com/sports/baseball/2007-03-30-138232572_x.htm (last visited September 23, 2010).
[8] About Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, available at http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/official_info/community/rbi_facts.jsp (last visited September 23, 2010).
[9] Jr. RBI is being offered as a nationwide program for the 2010 season, available at http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/official_info/community/rbi_jrrbi.jsp (last visited September 23, 2010).
[10] Paul Gutierrez, Island Fever (1999), available at http://articles.latimes.com/1999/dec/05/sports/sp-40841 (last visited September 23, 2010).
[11] Id.
[12] Id.
[13] Lapchick, supra note 2.
[14] Paul Finkelman, Baseball and the Rule of Law, 46 Clev. St. L. Rev. 239, 255 (1998) (discussing the discrepancy between percentages of minorities employed as players versus those employed in non-playing roles on the team).
[15] Id. at 255, note 79.
[16] Retired Uniform Numbers in the American League , available at http://www.baseball-almanac.com/feats/feats10.shtml (last visited September 23, 2010).
[17] Baird, supra note 4.

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