KANSAS CITY, Mo — After school 14-year-old Thomas Smith can be seen chasing his biggest dream at the MLB Urban Youth Academy, a place he frequents with his family at least six times a week.
“It's pretty fun, they they have a lot of opportunities, even at my age,” Smith explained. "You get to travel around the world and play the game that you really love.”
Thomas’ goal is to one day become a baseball player, a sport rich 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 past time tells a different story.
"I just see mainly see white kids playing and barely see any people that look like me,” Smith said.
According to a 2022 report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, diversity on the field is striking out. In 2022, 7.2% of players on opening day rosters were Black, that's down from 19% in 1995.
This past World Series was the first time in 72 years were no American born Black players were included in the roster.
Bob Kendrick, President of the Negro League Baseball Museum believes cost is one of the major factors contributing to the decline in black-American players which can also be seen on the youth level.
“Here's a sport that was once a blue collar sport, that is now a country club sport and it pains me to say the days of sandlot baseball are a thing in the past,” Kendrick said.
The Smith family gave KSHB 41 News a ballpark idea of how much they spend on Thomas' baseball gear. Ted Smith, Thomas' father, says quality helmets start at $80. Cleats which have to be bought every couple of years are $125, uniform packages start at $250 and gloves and bats vary but can cost hundreds of dollars each. Ted says this is on top of the costs associated with travel, tournament fees and time spent driving Thomas and his siblings to practice or games.
"It's not cheap, but you make it you make it work,” Ted Smith said. “There are some sacrifices as a parent you have to make.”
The MLB Kansas City Urban Youth Academy is aware of the problem and is stepping up to the plate by introducing baseball to more children within the city's urban core. Phillip Hannon, Senior Manager at UYA believes it’s 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, the leadership and teamwork that's being taught, that's why baseball has to continue and we have to be successful at UYA,” Hannon said.
UYA offers free training to youth players and over the past 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 like former MLB player, Willie Akins.
In 2020, MLB announced a partnership with the Major League Baseball Players Association and the Players Alliance in committing $10 million to help improve representation of black americans in all levels of baseball.
“We want to make sure every child has the opportunity to afford to play this game, but I don't want them to just dream about playin Major League,” Kendrick said. “I want them to dream about the other possibilities that are also part of this game both on and off the field."
Thomas says despite obstacles, now more than ever it's important catch his biggest dream.
"It gives me more of a challenge to actually be be able to play at that level, especially because I'm Black,” Thomas Smith said.