John Young is hardly a household name. But the former professional baseball player’s had a profound effect on thousands of kids in Southern California and beyond.
Young’s life is one that started bright, flickered, then burned anew with a passion to help inner-city boys and girls.
When John Young was growing up in South Los Angeles in the late 1950s and ’60s, most black kids played baseball. “This is approximately 10 years after Jackie Robinson and for African-Americans, baseball was the sport. The Dodgers were the team, ya know.”
Young was 6'2" and muscular, and a superior baseball player. And he knew it.
“Ya know, I was a spoiled brat athlete. My greatest ambition in high was to get me a brand new car. In fact, a deuce and a quarter," says Young. "A Buick 225. And signing my bonus. I was a first-round draft choice. And getting an apartment in the jungle, which was this place off of Exposition and La Brea. That was where all the good parties were.”
The Detroit Tigers did draft Young in 1969, but his dream soon came crashing down. A wrist injury cut his career short after just handful of professional games.
He bounced around in the minor leagues for a decade, and ended up as a scout. “I was a scout and I was scouting in the south, and when we would go to like New Orleans and Birmingham and Atlanta, we would see these great baseball parochial or private school programs and just saw that the inner-city programs were seriously inferior. And so I started talking about this in 1979.”
On a baseball field in South L.A., Young started working with 11 kids. That program grew into Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, or RBI, that now operates in 185 cities with tens of thousands of boys and girls.
He concedes his initial interest was luring black kids who’d gotten more interested in football and basketball back to the big leagues. “We get a lot of recognition for graduates that came out of RBI like C.C. Sabathia, Jimmy Rollins, and our Los Angeles Dodger James Loney. But basically the kids that we are really focused on are the kids who probably won’t even play high school ball, that they get some life skills, competition and conflict resolution skills.”
Young, who’s 62 years old and lives in Irvine now, sees himself in some of these kids. He says he was a brat in need of a good role model – and he found one.
“I had a kid I idolized – a kid by the name of Edward Hamm, who was into sports. And I just thought so many times that if Edward Hamm were to have been into drugs or gangbanging, I kind of think I would have led that way.”
His pro career cut short, Young says RBI saved him. “I think I was headed toward that path of coulda, woulda, shoulda, ya know, maybe a lifetime of bitterness ‘Why me?’ And when RBI got into my life, it’s been just a blessing.”
For John Young – and for the thousands of kids he kept in the ballgame.