When Lou Collier was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, 17 to 19 percent of MLB players were African American. It was the 1970s and 80s, just after Willie Stargell’s peak, and in Chicago, the beginning of Lee Smith’s Hall of Fame career.
When Collier signed with the Pirates in 1993, 16.8 percent of the league was African American, according to SABR.org.
By the time Collier retired from baseball in 2007, the number of African Americans in MLB had plummeted to 8.5 percent. Opening day last season: 7.7 percent.
“There’s no (good) reason why there’s 68 African Americans in the major leagues,” said Collier, a retired Black baseball player himself. “There’s no way you can make me understand why that is.”
Collier is on the front lines of addressing that issue, starting at the youth level. After hanging up his cleats, Collier returned to his hometown and started the Lou Collier Baseball Association. Alumni include Cubs No. 16 overall draft pick Ed Howard IV, who credits Collier with teaching him the fundamentals of the game. The way Collier sees it, MLB’s inner-city initiatives are a good start, but more can be done to reverse the decline of Black Americans in Major League Baseball.
As Cubs president of basketball operations Theo Epstein said earlier this month, “The system doesn’t fix itself. It’s on each of us to take action to stand up and make some changes.”
In 1989, MLB endorsed the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) concept, and since then, the program has expanded from South Central Los Angeles to over 200 cities.
In 2006, MLB launched its first Urban Youth Academy in Compton, California. Over the next 11 years, the league opened youth academies in Houston, New Orleans, Washington D.C, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Kansas City and Dallas.
In 2017, MLB and USA Baseball joined forces to create the Play Ball initiative, which encourages youth participation in baseball across demographics.
But there’s still a gap in access to elite programs, and widespread personal anecdotes paint a picture of an unwelcoming environment for many aspiring Black baseball players whose access is only on paper.
“I think the programs that they have in place are making an impact, making strides and helping those kids in underserved areas to develop,” Collier said of MLB’s initiatives. “Because that’s the issue: resources and opportunities. I’ve been in the youth space for 12 years, and I see thousands of African American kids playing the game all over. And they love baseball. But the issue is kids being able to develop.”
In Chicago, that’s where the Lou Collier Stars come in.
Collier’s teams, serving players from 8 to 16 years old, receive instruction from former college and professional baseball players. Several of the Stars have graduated to the White Sox Amateur City Elite program after turning 12.
The Ace program, which the White Sox created in 2007, “helps inner-city kids overcome the hurdles that previously challenged them -- financial constraints and educational opportunities,” according to its website. "ACE helps address these challenges to give inner-city kids and their families an equal playing field."
Howard was one of those players who began his travel ball career with the Lou Collier Stars and spent his teenage years with ACE. He’d received national attention as a member of the 2014 Jackie Robinson West team that made it to the Little League World Series final. According to his dad, Ed Howard III, the younger Ed Howard had his pick of travel ball teams.
“We chose to stay with the ACE program because we wanted help the African American kids get exposure, and inner-city kids,” Ed Howard III said. “… And try to get (rid of) the stigma from the Midwest and the inner-city that we don’t play baseball.”
On 670 The Score last week, Epstein applauded Howard, saying he “took advantage of all those resources and the village around him, and put it to good use with unparalleled work ethic to get to the point where he is today.”
Coaches at every level of Howard’s baseball career point out the shortstop’s dedication. Collier realized early on that Howard was a “special” talent. But Collier also believes that Howard’s path to professional baseball doesn’t have to be an outlier.
“The fundamentals started, made him fall in love with the game, and he wanted to be great at it,” Collier said. “And you see how that unfolded. … There’s hundreds of kids that that can happen to. But they need to be with the right people around, you need the resources and the programs.
“And Major League Baseball has the resources. They can put (on) the programs, they can put the coaches around these kids. They have the power to do that.”
On the night the Cubs drafted him, 18-year-old Howard fielded questions about race in America and race in baseball. Fresh out of high school, Howard tackled topics the league has grappled with for decades.
“There’s a lot of African Americans that can play,” Howard said. “There’s not that many in the league right now, but I definitely think there’s a lot more coming.”