July 18, 2024

With HBCU Classic, Major League Baseball Comes to ATL to Spark Black Interest – Capital B Atlanta

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The Atlanta Braves will again be hosting a two-game series between two historically Black universities, a series the team hopes will bring attention to Black players in the sport.
The Florida A&M University Rattlers and the Grambling State University Tigers will meet March 1 and 2 at Coolray Field in Lawrenceville, home to the Gwinnett Stripers, which is the Atlanta Braves’ Triple-A affiliate team. The event is dubbed the Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic, for two Black players who are alumni of Grambling and FAMU, respectively, and who were both inducted into the Braves’ Hall of Fame in 2006. Lucas also became the first African American general manager of a professional baseball team in 1976, almost 30 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball.
“We appreciate how well the Braves treat our players; they treat them like major league players for the two days that we’re involved in the tournament,” said Jamey Shouppe, FAMU’s head coach.
This is the fourth year for the event, with the Rattlers winning two out of last year’s three games. But baseball officials and data about who’s playing baseball, and where, indicate that it has an importance beyond which team walks away with a trophy. 
The number of Black American players in Major League Baseball has been steadily declining since the league began collecting this data in the 1990s.
On opening day in 1991, 18% of MLB players were Black. On opening day in 2023 only 6.2% of players were Black, the lowest since the league began collecting the data in the early ’90s. In response, the league has begun to be more intentional about promoting baseball specifically to Black Americans.
Every Martin Luther King Day weekend since 2017, MLB has invited 80 of the country’s top African-American amateur baseball players to play in a four-day showcase called the DREAM series. During last year’s MLB All-Star Week, the league launched the HBCU Swingman Classic, an invitational game with the top players from HBCUs across the country.
This week, HBCUs including Grambling and FAMU will compete in the Andre Dawson Classic, a round-robin tournament named after the retired player, who is one of three FAMU graduates in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Shouppe said he’s optimistic about attracting more Black players to college baseball, but he also knows there are still some major barriers in place — a major one being how the NCAA regulates scholarships in baseball compared with sports like basketball or football.
A school that plays football at the NCAA’s highest level, the Football Bowl Subdivision, can offer 85 full scholarships. Division I basketball teams can offer up to 13 full scholarships for a team of around 15 players.

Baseball has tighter restrictions. FAMU, a Division I school that plays in the NCAA’s Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, is capped at offering 11.7 full scholarships for their 40-man roster. But even that doesn’t tell the full story, since those scholarships can be divided among as many as 27 players, according to NCAA rules. Currently, Shoupe said the scholarships are divided so that none of FAMU’s baseball players is on a full ride.
“If I’ve got a son who’s a very good athlete and he wants to go to college to pursue his career or to pursue a career in athletics, I’m gonna target my son in the direction of sports that offer full scholarships,” he said.
Clarification: The Atlanta Braves are hosting the HBCU Ralph Garr-Bill Lucas HBCU Baseball Classic. An earlier version of this story did not clarify the Braves’ role in the event.
Capital B is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to uncovering important stories — like this one —about how Black people experience America today. As more and more important information disappears behind paywalls, it’s crucial that we keep our journalism accessible and free for all. But we can’t publish pieces like this without your help. If you support our mission, please consider becoming a member by making a tax-deductible donation. Thank you!
Madeline Thigpen is Capital B Atlanta's criminal justice reporter.
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Capital B is a Black-led, nonprofit local and national news organization reporting for Black communities across the country.


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