KANSAS CITY, Mo — After school, 14-year-old Thomas Smith can be seen pursuing his biggest dream at MLB Urban Youth Academy, a place he attends with his family at least six times a week.
“It’s quite fun, they have a lot of opportunities, even at my age,” Smith explained. “You can travel around the world and play the game you really love.”
Thomas’s goal is to one day become a baseball player, a sport steeped in black history. In 1947, it became one of the first sports to break the color line when former KC Monarch player Jackie Robinson became the first black player to play in Major League Baseball.
However, decades later, America’s favorite pastime tells a different story.
“I just see mostly white kids playing and I barely see people who look like me,” Smith said.
According to a 2022 report from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, diversity on the field is striking. In 2022, 7.2% of players on Opening Day rosters were black, down from 19% in 1995.
The past World Series was the first time in 72 years that no American-born black players were included on the roster.
Bob Kendrick, president of the Negro League Baseball Museum, believes cost is a major contributing factor to the decline in black American players, which can be seen even at the youth level.
“Here is a sport that was once a blue collar sport that is now a country club sport and it pains me to say that the days of sandlot baseball are a thing of the past,” Kendrick said.
The Smith family gave KSHB 41 News an idea of how much they spend on Thomas’ baseball equipment. Ted Smith, Thomas’ father, says quality helmets start at $80. Cleats that need to be purchased every two years cost $125, uniform packs start at $250, and gloves and bats vary but can cost hundreds of dollars each. Ted says this is in addition to the costs associated with travel, tournament fees, and time spent driving Thomas and his brothers to practice or play.
“It’s not cheap, but you make it work,” said Ted Smith. “There are some sacrifices as a parent you have to make.”
MLB Kansas City Urban Youth Academy is aware of the problem and is stepping forward by introducing baseball to more children within the city’s urban core. UYA Senior Manager Phillip Hannon believes it’s in everyone’s best interest to ensure baseball is accessible, saying the lessons learned on the field play a bigger role in life.
“It’s the camaraderie, the chemistry that kids build, leadership and teamwork that are taught, that’s why baseball must continue and we must succeed at UYA,” Hannon said.
UYA offers free training to young players, and in the last year, the number of black and brown players in the academy has increased by 37%. Hannon believes the increase in minority participation is a direct result of their efforts to hire and recruit a diverse staff and volunteer base such as former MLB player, Willie Akins.
In 2020, MLB announced a partnership with the Major League Baseball Players Association and the Players Alliance to commit $10 million to help improve representation of Black Americans at all levels of baseball.
“We want to make sure every kid has the opportunity to afford to play this game, but I don’t want them to just dream of playing in the major leagues,” Kendrick said. “I want them to dream about the other possibilities that are part of this game both on and off the pitch.”
Thomas says despite the obstacles, now more than ever it’s important to achieve his biggest dream.
“It gives me more of a challenge to actually be able to play at that level, especially since I’m black,” said Thomas Smith.