Jimmie Lee Solomon was the major force in the founding of the MLB Urban Youth Academy (UYA), a groundbreaking inner-city program which provides underprivileged youth access to professional training for MLB careers. The Compton, CA flagship academy’s doors opened in February 2006. The UYA has since opened locations in four more US cities, with plans for an additional two more underway. Since its inception, the UYA has produced over 20 First-Year Draft picks and over 50 Amateur Draft picks, and counting.
Public service has always been viewed as a necessary means for advancement by Jimmie Lee Solomon, who, as a young boy in rural south Texas, participated in after-school volunteer programs to avoid farm work at home. What began as a chore-dodging strategy evolved into a lifelong passion for giving back, a passion which Solomon has channeled into the development of the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy.
Upon familiarizing himself with baseball during his transition into the business of the sport, Solomon realized that MLB was far less populated by African-Americans than it had been a few decades ago (at their peak in 1978, African-Americans made up for 27% of MLB players; that percentage had dropped to just 9%). With the rise in popularity of basketball and football, and the decline in college baseball scholarships compared to those offered for the aforementioned sports, baseball had simply lost its appeal in the inner city. In 2005, Solomon began developing the first UYA in Compton, CA, one of the roughest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, which opened in early 2006. The academy, which resides on 15 acres of the campus of El Camino College’s Compton Community Education Center, boasts four full ballparks, as well as an administration building that also contains classrooms. The MLB contributed $3 million to this initiative, while Solomon tirelessly worked with sponsors and donors to raise the remaining $7 million needed to realize this vision.
At the UYA, distinguished baseball veterans conduct intensive training for inner-city youth for whom the prospect of working in the MLB would otherwise seem impossible. In addition to baseball training, the academy offers instruction in umpiring, athletic grounds keeping, sports photography, scouting, broadcast journalism, field management, public relations and even statistics, all as they pertain to the baseball industry. If a young person seeks a career in baseball, the academy has the tools for them to pursue that career in any capacity. It even runs a softball program for girls. The UYA has tapped a valuable new source of future talent for MLB, while also providing a safe, constructive alternative to involvement with the gangs and drugs prevalent in Compton and most inner cities. Solomon’s execution of a public service initiative, which was highly lucrative for MLB, was a dramatic improvement in the inner city (and the lives of its youth), and unprecedented in the baseball industry.
In 2011, two graduates of Compton’s UYA were the first from the academy to play in the Major Leagues: Trayvon Robinson (now with the Baltimore Orioles, formerly with the Seattle Mariners) and Efren Navarro (Anaheim Angels). Since then, many big names in MLB have come from an Urban Youth Academy, including Anthony Gose (Toronto Blue Jays), Carlos Correa (Houston Astros), Aaron Hicks (Minnesota Twins), and Jonathan Singleton (Houston Astros). The UYA has now expanded across the country to Houston, Cincinnati, New Orleans and Puerto Rico, with plans to open locations in south Florida and Philadelphia underway.
In addition to providing baseball industry instruction, the UYA holds annual events to further advance baseball initiatives in the inner city. The Compton academy hosts a national tournament showcasing Historically Black Colleges and Universities, “The Breakthrough Series”, which exposes players to collegiate and professional scouts, and organizes the Academy Barons, a summer league for college-aged players. The UYA also collaborates with Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities, a separate MLB-backed initiative whose aim is to increase the number of ballparks in inner cities.
Through the Urban League Academies, Solomon has played an integral role in reinvigorating MLB with the minority population which was once prominent in the sport. These academies have reminded the world that not only are inner city youth capable of succeeding in the big leagues, they are in fact a commodity that will prove invaluable to the future success of the industry.