HBCU graduates represent a variety of professional sports, but for one league, the Minor Baseball League, in particular the representation is lacking. A new article from Mitchell Gladstone at the Arkansas Democrat Gazette is exploring possible reasons behind why.
There are several players with college ties on this year’s Arkansas Travelers squad.
Stephen Wrenn and Keegan McGovern are both Georgia Bulldogs. Dom Thompson-Williams, Reid Morgan and Adam Hill all played for the University of South Carolina.
Those are both SEC programs rich with players now in the majors. The same can’t be said of most historically Black colleges and universities.
Yet just last week, the Travs featured a pair of HBCU alums in pitchers Devin Sweet and Leon Hunter.
That such a fact is notable speaks to the paucity of HBCU representation in 21st century baseball. As recently as the 1980s, there were stars such as Andre Dawson and Vida Blue who played college baseball at HBCUs. Before that, there was St. Louis Cardinals legend Lou Brock and Larry Doby.
As of Opening Day 2021, there were just two former HBCU players on MLB rosters — Nationals reliever Kyle McGowin, who is white, and Reds starter Jose De Leon, a Puerto Rico native.
“[The problem] didn’t start at the HBCUs,” said former Southern University coach Roger Cador, who served on former MLB commissioner Bud Selig’s On-Field Diversity Task Force in 2013. “It started at the Little Leagues and the high-school level. They never get to be in college and then get to the pros because they’re being eliminated at a tremendous rate … because of costs.
Although Hunter was sent back down to High-A Modesto after a short stint at Class AA Arkansas, Sweet remains part of the rotation for the Travelers despite a 1-3 record and 6.37 ERA through 6 starts.
By just making it to this level, Sweet already has made history. He’s the first former North Carolina Central player to reach Class AA.
It’s a minor milestone that Sweet’s been working toward since he started playing baseball at age 4 in Greensboro, N.C.
Early on, Sweet was one of just a handful of Black players on his Little League teams. The same was the case with his travel teams before meeting D.J. Artis, another Black player who is currently playing for the Chicago Cubs’ Class AA affiliate.
The boys’ fathers created their own travel programs, looking to bring more and more Black players into the sport.
But it wasn’t until later, particularly in middle and high school, that Sweet started to recognize the lack of diversity in baseball.
“The sport wasn’t really equal when it came to black and white,” Sweet said.
Sweet accepted a scholarship to pitch at N.C. Central, yet it wasn’t with the intention of going to an HBCU. He transitioned to being a pitcher late in his high school career and had just two offers — one from the Eagles and another from another HBCU in North Carolina A&T.
When he got there, he realized how deep the inequities ran.
“We weren’t given a lot of necessities [other teams] were, and we didn’t get the same stipends,” Sweet said. “Our team was probably one of the lower-funded teams at our school and in the state for Division I. So it made the baseball experience a little tougher, but I didn’t know any better.”
Sweet said he wouldn’t have wanted to play college baseball anywhere else, but being at an HBCU made things challenging for a professional career. N.C. Central rarely got pro scouts at their games, and generally, that only happened when it would play against local power-conference opposition such as North Carolina and Duke.
By the time a Mariners scout first came to watch him, it was late in his senior season and Sweet ultimately went undrafted.
As much as Cador wished his players at Southern would get more attention, he understood the predicament guys like Sweet faced.
“The scouts are going to see the best players,” Cador said. “Scouts don’t have time to see players who can’t play. It’s a profession, it’s a business, it’s their job.”
Sweet knows what it would mean to make the majors. Just 7.7% of MLB players last season identified as Black, and that percentage has been on a steady decline. That goal is still a ways off, and he’s just looking for a positive start when he returns to the bump Saturday afternoon.
“It’s not something that I pressure myself with,” Sweet said. “There are HBCU players who have been in the big leagues before and had long careers. But it’s just really cool [to know I have the chance].”