Ken Griffey Jr. Partners With MLB For First-Ever ‘HBCU Swingman Classic’


July 14, 2023

It was a celebration of Black baseball!

This past July 7th, baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. partnered with the MLB for the first-ever “HBCU Swingman Classic,” Andscape reports. Kicking off All-Star week in Seattle, the game brought players from 17 historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) to showcase their talents on a national stage. Co-sponsored by the MLB & the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) Youth Development Foundation, the goal is to create a pipeline for more African American baseball players, with the hopes of reclaiming the heyday of Black baseball

“[The goal of the Swingman Classic is to amplify] the strength and talent of Division 1 HBCU players and telling the world that HBCU baseball programs are great and strong…Allowing these players to shine on this national platform during All-Star week, that’s a victory,” said Jean Lee Batrus, executive director of the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation. 


Once known for iconic Black figures in the sport like Jackie Robinson, the MLB is now struggling with diversity in the sport and looking for ways to bolster Black inclusion, like many American institutions. By sponsoring Griffey Jr. ‘s Swingman Classic, they were able to bring together budding Black players and fans of the sport in what many described as an HBCU-esque homecoming type of feel. 

“This is the most Black folks I’ve seen in a stadium here since Beyonce played at Lumen. I’m not even being funny,” attendee Omari Salisbury told Andscape

Nearly 10,000 people gathered in Seattle’s T-Mobile Park for the festivities, which featured HBCU bands, players, and informational booths featuring various universities, and every member of the Divine Nine. Former MLB pitcher Marvin Freeman, who acted as a pitching coach for Team Manuel said “anyone who’s anyone in Black baseball was there.” 

Ken Griffey Jr. partners with MLB for first-ever “HBCU Swingman Classic”/Alabama State infielder Randy Flores celebrates MVP award at the HBCU Swingman Classic/Photo Courtesy of Qwest Courtney/Getty Images


The Swingman Classic is the latest MLB sponsored effort to re-ignite the glory days of African American baseball, adding to previous DEI initiatives like the Dream Series, held during MLK Weekend, The RBI program, first launched in 1989, which focuses on baseball programs in inner cities across the globe and the Black College World Series, launched in 2021 by former Major League player Michael Coker. Griffey Jr. said he was both honored and overwhelmed by the support for the inaugural event. 

“There’s a lot of people who wanted this to happen. Everybody jumped on board. We were turning down coaches who want to be a part of it,” he explained. 


While many companies look to bolster diversity from a business revenue standpoint, reports show that the Major Leagues have actually continued to do just fine even without the presence of the Black community. According to Forbes Baseball, MLB grossed almost $3 billion last year alone but for the league, it’s not about the money, it’s about the legacy. A legacy that saw Black players at the forefront of the sport at one time, a legacy built upon the Negro Leagues and iconic players like Griffey Jr., inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016, and his father, Ken Griffey Sr. who played 18 seasons and won 2 World Series championships with the Cincinnati Reds. It’s a legacy Griffey is hoping to continue by funneling more Black superstars into the league. 

“It’s not just about me. It goes back to Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Willie Stargell, all the greats who came before me. All of those guys are part of me. You want the game to be better and we have an opportunity to make it better,” said Griffey Jr. 

Ken Griffey Jr. partners with MLB for first-ever “HBCU Swingman Classic”/Host Ken Griffey Jr. at HBCU Swingman Classic/Photo Courtesy of Seattle Times/Getty Images



Baseball is an expensive sport and Griffey is trying to make sure the playing field is leveled so kids from underrepresented schools get a chance to be seen on the national stage. In 1991, African American players made up about 18% of MLB rosters. In 2022, they were just 7.2% of the roster and in last year’s World Series, there were no African American players on either team. And while there are currently two Division 1 HBCU athletic conferences, not all HBCUs can afford to sponsor baseball. 

“We don’t have the resources to fund a baseball team…We don’t have a field and we don’t have the space to expand to a field…I’d love to see it grow in the Black community, but I can’t figure out a way to make it work. Without some help, from somewhere,” said Howard University athletic director Kery Davis. 

It’s a sentiment held by many HBCUs. While every school in the Southwestern Athletic Conference has a baseball program, only four schools in the Mideastern Athletic Conference have one, and it’s hard. Even those with softball programs still find the sport extremely isolating for Black athletes. Events like the Swingman Classic are hoping to change that. 


“I think when you possibly look back at this in history, you’ll know if you were here you could feel that something was somehow released in this atmosphere, that was born here tonight. What we have to do as people in baseball, we just have to keep breathing life into projects like this. We got to come out in full forces, like these guys did. There’s something I will say, from those colleges – I didn’t go to college – but there seemed to be a nurturing aspect to those Black college people. They seem to nurture the next generation more than our generation,’ said manager Jerry Manuel. 

No word yet on dates for next year’s Swingman Classic but we gotta be there!

Cover photo: Ken Griffey Jr. partners with MLB for first-ever “HBCU Swingman Classic”/Grambling State pitcher Lorenzo Petersen poses with fans at HBCU Swingman Classic/Photo Courtesy of Jorden Dixon/MLB Photos/Getty Images


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