Why are there no Black catchers in MLB? Backstop prospects hoping to change perception

TEMPE, Ariz. — It’s the most stunning, appalling and numbing statistic in all of baseball.

It has been 20 years since there was an African-American everyday catcher in Major League Baseball.

Major League Baseball has seen the Black population decline to just 6.1% on opening-day rosters this past year – the lowest percentage since 1955 – and no position has had a steeper decline than catcher.

Oh, there have been back-up catchers along the way like Lenny Webster and Terry McGriff, and most recently Bruce Maxwell. There have been catchers who came up briefly like Chuckie Robinson of the Cincinnati Reds in 2022.

Cincinnati Reds catcher Chuckie Robinson (73) smiles after hitting a 2-run home run in the fifth inning of the MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.
Cincinnati Reds catcher Chuckie Robinson (73) smiles after hitting a 2-run home run in the fifth inning of the MLB game between the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati on Monday, Aug. 29, 2022.

But as far as an everyday African-American catcher?

Not since Charles Johnson in 2004.

'You have to love it': Chuckie Robinson's long journey to his Cincinnati Reds debut

“I don’t have an answer for it, I really don’t," said MLB executive Theo Epstein, who won three World Series titles as a GM with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. “It’s strange."

It would be naïve to believe racial bias isn’t involved to some extent, but it's much more than that. It’s not necessarily a matter of money for baseball equipment, youth officials say, considering there’s shin guards and masks usually available shared among youth teams.

With such a scarcity of Black catchers, there’s really no one for kids to emulate.

Who wants to play a position when there’s no one who looks like you?

“I think it’s one of those positions where there are so few scouts who were former catchers," said former Angels catcher Darrell Miller, who is director of MLB’s urban youth academy in Compton, Calif., “and they don’t know really what to look for. They don’t have a clue what goes into being a major league catcher. No one really knows the position. No one really understands it.

“So teams see an athletic kid and move him to another position. They see a valuable bat, or a great arm, and don’t want to mess him up being behind the behind the plate. The young athletic African-American athletes are kind of being pigeon-holed into different positions."

Elston Howard, a New York Yankees player and coach who had his number retired.
Elston Howard, a New York Yankees player and coach who had his number retired.

This troubled approach is why it’s such a beautiful sight this weekend at the Los Angeles Angels’ spring-training complex in Tempe, Ariz. There were 15 Black high-school catchers together at Major League Baseball’s DREAM Series, celebrating Martin Luther King Jr., hoping to open baseball’s eyes.

None of these catchers were even born the last time Johnson, a two-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove winner, played in a game.

Their parents weren’t even alive to see catching greats Roy Campanella, Elston Howard, John Roseboro or Earl Battey play.

'People ask how I chose to be a catcher. I tell them catching kind of chose me'

“I want to be someone that kids can look up to and believe they can be a catcher too," said Sir Jamison Jones, who’s projected to be drafted in the first three rounds this summer and has a college scholarship to Oklahoma State. “People ask how I chose to be a catcher. I tell them catching kind of chose me. I remember they needed a catcher in a game one day, I volunteered, and fell in love with it. It just grew up on me.

“It’s a high-demand position. You have to have leadership qualities. You have to be loud. You have to have your pitcher’s back. You have to be sane when everything’s going insane."

And, yes, you have to understand why your peers may tease you, and wonder what’s wrong with you squatting behind home plate all day instead of playing a more glamorous position.

“A lot of kids don't want to do it because I feel like it's such a demanding position," Jones said, “and they want to be cool. They don't think putting on the gear is cool. Look, you’ve got to be a little crazy to catch and voluntarily getting beat up.

“But I want to do this. I’m going to catch for as long as God wants me to catch. I want to make it and have kids look up to me and say, 'Hey, if he can do it, I can do it.''

'Hopefully, I can be that role model, and have kids that look like me catch, too'

Jeter Worthley, named after the Hall of Famer, wants to prove to Black players that being a catcher is just like being the quarterback. You’re the leader. You control the action. You’re involved in every single pitch.

“I’ve been a catcher my whole life, and I love it," said Worthley, who’s committed to the University of Michigan. “My older brother was a pitcher, and I always caught him. So it was just like natural and I fell in love with it."

Worthley has listened to friends and coaches try to talk him into switching positions. They see the speed. They wonder if he can be an outfielder or a shortstop. Why stay behind the plate?

“I wasn't alive since there was a [Black] everyday catcher so I’m like, 'I want to keep trying to grow the game.' Hopefully, I can make that difference. Hopefully, I can be that role model, and have kids that look like me catch, too."

Draft prospect Zion Rose participates in the MLB baseball draft combine, Tuesday, June 20, 2023, in Phoenix.
Draft prospect Zion Rose participates in the MLB baseball draft combine, Tuesday, June 20, 2023, in Phoenix.

There is hope along the way with players Ian Moller, a Class A catcher in the Texas Rangers’ minor-league system, considered by scouts as a potential everyday big-league catcher. Catchers George Baker and Zion Rose are playing collegiately at the University of Louisville with professional aspirations. Canadian catcher Bo Naylor has already reached the big leagues with the Cleveland Guardians.

This is a 2022 photo of bullpen coach Marcus Jensen of the Oakland Athletics baseball team.
This is a 2022 photo of bullpen coach Marcus Jensen of the Oakland Athletics baseball team.

“I see things changing," said Marcus Jensen, the former backup catcher and now Oakland A’s quality control coach, whose grandfather caught in the Negro Leagues. “I just think this has been a byproduct of the decrease in the Black population in baseball in general. The perception of the catching position is that it may not necessarily be the most athletic position, but I think that’s changing. There’s a lot of technicalities that come with the position, and we need more at the younger levels to teach it.

“It’s not a glamorous position by any means. It takes a certain mindset and desire and willingness to want to play it ... But if you can handle the rigors of the position, you can play this game for a long time.

“I’m optimistic things will change."

'It’s mind-boggling to be honest with you what’s happened'

Outside players from Latin American countries, most catchers in today’s game come from the collegiate ranks. Teams don’t want to take the time to develop catchers out of high school. They want kids who have already been groomed for the position.

Ivan Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican, was signed by the Texas Rangers and won 13 Gold Glove awards en route to the Hall of Fame. The Molina brothers all became stars with Yadier Molina almost certainly headed to the Hall of Fame, too.

Yet, when it comes to Black catchers, they’ve become extinct.

“I think a lot of the catchers that we're seeing are coming from Latin America because they're being groomed early on," Miller said. “There's a lot of African-American kids that love the game just as much as anyone else, but you’re seeing those guys get moved off the catcher’s position to protect their other tools."

But Webster, who had a 12-year career as a backup catcher, predicts that Moller will be the next Black catcher to make it in the majors.

The Jackie Robinson family flanks former MLB⁩ player Lenny Webster at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex April 2, 2019.
The Jackie Robinson family flanks former MLB⁩ player Lenny Webster at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex April 2, 2019.

“It’s mind-boggling to be honest with you what’s happened,’’ said Webster. “Typically, they've been taking these athletic kids from back there and putting them in another positions. But that’s changing. We’ve got some pretty promising kids coming along through these programs and are starting to flourish. ...

“I believe the next kid to come along will be Moller. He’s a promising young man who catches and throws well and has a good head on his shoulders. He has a promising career. And once he makes it, I believe you’ll see others follow.

“Really, that’s the dream for all of us."

Around the basepaths

– Cy Young winner Blake Snell continues to seek a contract that will pay him at least $240 million, and now awaits to see what team blinks first. The New York Yankees made an introductory offer for nearly $100 million less, which was quickly dismissed, before they turned to Marcus Stroman to fill their vacancy with a two-year, $37 million deal.

While several teams still remain engaged with Snell while seeing if his price tag drops, the Toronto Blue Jays in particular have been quietly monitoring his free agency.

– The Yankees had no serious interest in Stroman until GM Brian Cashman privately met with Stroman in Tampa this past week and became convinced that he’d be a good fit. It should be the last big move the Yankees make the rest of the winter with their payroll projected to exceed $300 million.

– The Chicago White Sox’s asking price for ace Dylan Cease remains awfully strong: They are seeking prized Yankees outfield prospect Spencer Jones or right-handed pitcher Chase Hampton in their package while asking the Baltimore Orioles for outfielder Colton Cowser or Heston Kjerstad among their prospects

“All it takes is one team to want to jump out, perhaps, and get a deal done,” GM Chris Getz said. “In the case of Dylan, I don’t think there’s a club out there that hasn’t expressed some level of interest in him.”

– Six-time All-Star first baseman Joey Votto, who was cut loose by the Cincinnati Reds, has three teams who want to sign him to a one-year deal for 2024. The Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers would each appear to be good fits. Votto is seeking regular playing time.

– If Cody Bellinger does not wind up back with the Chicago Cubs, the Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners are lurking.

– The San Diego Padres continue to shop valuable infielder Ha-Seong Kim, who earns $8 million in the final year of his contract, in their attempt to land pitching.

– The free agency for Josh Hader continues to be eerily quiet, with several GMs predicting that little will change unless his price tag drops below five years and $100 million.

– GMs and executives widely predict that the Cubs will easily be the most aggressive team the remainder of the winter.

– Kudos to documentary filmmaker Jim Gilmore, who spent four years producing a film on scouts (Fielding Dreams: A Celebration of Baseball Scouts) that will premiere Jan. 18 at the Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

Gilmore, who has a Master’s in broadcasting and film from the University of Iowa began filming the documentary in 2019. He spent time with scouts as they attempted to do their jobs during the COVID-shortened 2020 season, including the draft, and wound up focusing on five Texas Rangers scouts as they helped lead their team to the 2023 World Series championship.

Gilmore, a clinical professor of communication in journalism and screen studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, got the idea of a scouts documentary after listening to stories from Brian Williams, his second cousin, who’s a national cross-checker with the Rangers.

There will be about a dozen scouts who plan to be at the premiere with the entire Cooperstown community invited to see the film, which is scheduled to be shown later at a film festival.

“I’d love these scouts to be recognized for what they do,’’ said Gilmore. “I want people to know their stories.’’

– It’s mind-boggling how many opt-outs have been handed, even in smaller contracts. The Kansas City Royals provided opt-outs in four different free-agent contracts this winter:

Seth Lugo, 3 years, $45 million.

Michael Wacha, 2 years, $32 million

Hunter Renfroe: 2 years, $13 million

Chris Stratton, 2 years, $8 million

All have opt-outs.

– The Dodgers have so much deferred money on their books that they will be spending $83.85 million on four players in 2039.


Shohei Ohtani, who will be 44 years old that season: $68 million.

Mookie Betts, who will be 46: $10 million

Freddie Freeman, who will be 49: $5 million.

Teoscar Hernandez, who will be 46: $850,000.

– There are at least a half-dozen teams interested in DH J.D. Martinez, but are waiting for the price tag to drop.

– Rival teams believe the Cincinnati Reds will trade an infielder before spring training with their surplus of infielders on the roster.

– There’s a reason why Snell is appealing to NL West teams. Look at his career record against the division:

  • Arizona: 5-1, 1.11 ERA

  • San Francisco: 5-1, 1.61 ERA

  • San Diego: 1-0, 1.80 ERA

  • Los Angeles: 2-2, 2.59 ERA

  • Colorado: 3-2, 3.60 ERA

– Los Angeles Angels third baseman Anthony Rendon told Jack Vita on his podcast that he never thought Shohei Ohtani would return to the team.

– There’s a whole lot of debate over just how good of a pitcher Shota Imanaga will be with the Cubs, but for four years, $53 million, it could be a steal. Certainly, it’s low-risk.

– Stop the rumors now. The New York Mets are not involved in trade talks with the Chicago White Sox. Why in the world would they give up prized prospects when they’re gearing up for 2025?

– It’s hard to imagine seeing free-agent third baseman Matt Chapman anywhere but the San Francisco Giants or possibly the Chicago Cubs.

Teams still are waiting for his asking price to drop after he hit just .240 with 17 homers last season, and badly struggled after April, hitting just .205 with a .659 OPS.

– The Mets are poised to do what the Dodgers did this winter by reaching deep into their wallets a year from now with $70 million in dead contracts to Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and James McCann coming off their books.

– Pardon the Mets for hoping that Verlander doesn’t pitch 140 innings this season for the Astros, which would trigger a $35 million option that vests in 2025. And if it vests, the Mets will have to pay half of the contract at $17.5 million.

– Kudos to Atlanta for rewarding GM Alex Anthopoulos, one of the finest baseball executives of his generation, with a seven-year extension through 2031. Atlanta has gone 515-354 with six consecutive NL East titles and a World Series championship under Anthopoulos, the third-most victories in baseball and the third-most postseason victories (24) with a moderate payroll.

The man has turned Atlanta into one of baseball’s greatest and most profitable franchises.

– Jordan Montgomery is widely expected to re-sign with the Texas Rangers, but if there was any doubt, Arlington-based Hurtado Barbecue is making sure it will happen.

They have offered Montgomery free barbecue for the rest of his life.


“We’re going to give you free barbecue for life," owner Brandon Hurtado said in a video. “Not a joke, I’m dead serious. Jordan, if you come back and pitch for the Rangers this season, you’ll never pay for Hurtado Barbecue again.”

How can Montgomery possibly resist?

– Fabulous move by the Dodgers hiring former All-Star outfielder Raul Ibañez to be their vice president of baseball development and special projects. Ibañez, who has spent the past seven years working for MLB, certainly has the attributes to be a future manager or GM.

– RIP manager Billy Gardner, who I had the privilege of covering when he managed the Kansas City Royals. Gardner, who won a World Series playing for the New York Giants and New York Yankees, spent 10 years in the big leagues before managing the Minnesota Twins and Royals.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Black catchers in MLB are extinct but prospects can change that