The Dodgers have built one of MLB’s biggest international brands in part by signing players from foreign countries and playing in foreign venues whenever given the opportunity. Countless examples of the franchise making shrewd moves to widen its global reach during the 20th and 21st centuries can be found.
Many of these decisions have positively impacted the sport, with other teams in MLB quickly copying the Dodgers’ tactics after seeing the on-field and off-the-field success that was achieved. Some of the ball club’s favorable outcomes in building a positive reputation abroad can be attributed to the fact that it has been located in two global cities with substantial and very diverse populations as well.
The Dodgers’ current brain trust establishing an academy along with finding prospects and coaches in Uganda is the latest chapter in this unique narrative that spans almost an entire century. The African continent’s relationship with baseball is barren compared to the other demographics in the African diaspora that participate in the sport. Still, it has taken exponential leaps forward during the 21st century so let’s take a look at the bigger picture and similar prior events before focusing on Los Angeles’s participation involving Ugandan players.
Observing a rich history
When Branch Rickey & Co. were looking for a suitable Black baseball player to be the first to integrate MLB during the early to mid-1940s, they didn’t only consider African-American players. They extensively explored Latin America and the Caribbean, making multiple attempts to sign Afro-Cuban shortstop Silvio Garcia and Jamaican-Nicaraguan center fielder Edward “Eduardo” Green before setting their sights on Kansas City Monarchs middle infielder Jackie Robinson. The Dodgers built a vast network of scouting connections and strong brand recognition in Latin America during the early 1940s by holding spring training and exhibition games in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. This network allowed them to find out that their crosstown rivals in the NL were plotting to acquire Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente when he was a highly coveted teenage prospect and potential Olympian living in Puerto Rico. The Dodgers more than doubled the New York Giants’ final offer after an intense bidding war that also included the Atlanta Braves, St. Louis Cardinals, and Boston Red Sox front offices, doing whatever they could to prevent the Giants from having Willie Mays and Clemente on the same roster.
The Dodgers Triple-A affiliate which was located in Montréal, Quebec, Canada from 1939 until 1960 became the first MiLB team to integrate when Jackie Robinson played for the club in 1946 before he crossed MLB’s color line wearing Dodger blue during the 1947 season. In 1987 the Dodgers established the first MLB team-affiliated academy in the Dominican Republic. In February 1995 the Dodgers agreed to a contract with NPB superstar Hideo Nomo after he exploited a “voluntary retirement” clause that freed him from his contract with the Kinestsu Buffaloes, making him the second player from Japan to reach MLB and the first in over thirty years. The Nomo signing was the first domino to fall, eventually leading to MLB and NPB replacing the restrictive working agreement with the more lenient posting system in 1998.
Baseball in continental Africa
The development pipeline of amateur talent directly from the African continent to MLB is a relatively new endeavor in comparison to the history of African players being selected in the MLB Draft. Nigerian-Saudi outfielder Babawande Olabisi was the first African player in MLB history to be chosen in the First-Year Player Draft. He was selected by the San Diego Padres in the 30th round of the 2009 MLB Draft out of Stanford University and played in MiLB for two seasons before retiring. Haitian-Kenyan swingman Touki Toussaint was selected 16th overall in the 2014 MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks directly out of high school in Florida and made his MLB debut in 2018 with the Atlanta Braves.
Nigerian-Canadian outfielder Demi Orimoloye was drafted in the fourth round of the 2015 MLB Draft as a high school selection from the Greater Toronto Area by the Milwaukee Brewers and played in MiLB for six seasons. Ghanian-Trinidadian outfielder Akil Baddoo was drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 2016 MLB Draft’s second round directly out of high school in the suburbs of Atlanta before being selected by the Detroit Tigers in the 2020 Rule V Draft. Nigerian-American outfielder Jordan Nwogu was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the third round of the 2020 MLB Draft after walking onto the University of Michigan’s baseball team with an academic scholarship and carving out an impressive collegiate career.
Many cite 2002 as the specific year baseball was established in Uganda and by 2012 the landlocked East African country had Little League teams competing in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Three Ugandan nationals have participated in collegiate baseball within the United States so far as well. The Dodgers were the first MLB team to sign players from Uganda as international free agents, doing so during the 2022 international signing period. They inked deals with catcher Ben Serunkuma and relief pitcher Umar Male, both receiving $10,000 signing bonuses and $10,000 education bonuses. Ugandan Joshua Kizito Muwanguzi was also announced as a coach at the Dodgers academy in the Dominican Republic on the same day.
Los Angeles established the first MLB-team-affiliated academy in the Eastern hemisphere during the late 2010s in a small transit town called Mgipi, Uganda. It is a very clandestine operation located about 25 miles southwest of Uganda’s capital. On the initial day of the 2024 international signing period, it was announced that catcher Allan Ajoti had reached a deal with the Dodgers.
Besides the Dodgers, the Pittsburgh Pirates are the only MLB team with a comparable track record as it pertains to signing and developing African baseball players. South African infielder Gift Ngoepe was the first player from continental Africa to appear in an MLB game during the 2017 season with Pittsburgh after nine seasons in MiLB. Sierra Leonan-American outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba made his MLB debut with the Pirates during the 2022 season after being drafted by the New York Yankees in the fourth round of the 2017 MLB Draft and later traded to Pittsburgh in the Jameson Taillon deal. The Bucs also signed pitcher and former Mgipi Academy participant David Matoma during the 2023 international signing period as the third Ugandan to ink a deal with an MLB team.
Even as MLB teams transition between cities, owners, and front-office groups certain themes and traditions tend to stick around whether intentionally or inadvertently. The Dodgers' secretive moves in Uganda directly allude to its history of recruiting talent from foreign countries and being the first team to integrate MiLB/MLB. It will be extremely exciting to see this development unfold over the rest of the decade as there could be some extreme reverberations throughout the baseball world.
How far-fetched is it to throw out the idea of Uganda possessing the talent to compete in a World Baseball Classic qualification tournament sometime during the 2030s or 2040s? All in all, the Los Angeles Dodgers have the qualifications and history to fulfill an ever-expanding role in exponentially accelerating the quality of baseball in Uganda and the entire African continent for the near and far future.