Former Tiger Young, who started RBI program, dies

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — John “Duke” Young, who played two games in the major leagues with the Tigers, served as a scout and in the front office with the team and later founded MLB’s wildly successful RBI program, died Sunday at the age of 67.

Young, who suffered complications from diabetes and recently had a leg amputated, had been in failing health for some time.

“John just did things,” former Tiger Willie Horton, a friend of Young’s for years, said Monday. The two spoke as recently as last week. “He didn’t brag about it. He just did things.”

Young’s biggest achievement was founding the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program in the 1980s, coming up with the idea while scouting for the Orioles.

Stunned by how few black players were selected in the baseball draft, he came up with an idea to generate more interest. He took his idea to then-Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, who then took the idea to then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who was intrigued — and helped secure a $50,000 donation from the City of Los Angeles, helping launch the program in 1989.

It started small, with 180 kids, but eventually, using connections like Darryl Strawberrry and Eric Davis, grew to include more than 200,000 kids, alums including current Tigers Justin Upton and Anthony Gose, who got involved in the program as kids in California.

Major League Baseball assumed control of the program in 1991, though Young always remained a key force behind its vision and growth.

“All of us at Major League Baseball are saddened by the loss of John Young, a trail blazer and champion of both professional and youth baseball,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in a statement Monday.

“The legacy John has left with the RBI program is evident in the impact it has had on young people who have grown to be important contributors to our society as teachers, police officers, doctors, youth coaches and as professional baseball players. On behalf of Major League Baseball, I extend my deepest condolences to John’s wife, Sheryl, their children Dorian, Jon and Tori, and their entire family, as well as his many friends throughout our game.”

Funeral arrangements are pending. Horton could represent the Tigers at services near Young’s home in Irvine, California.

Young, a native of Los Angeles, was the Tigers’ first-round pick (16th overall) in 1969, and debuted in the majors two years later.

His major-league career was short, just two games. He was a substitute in two September games that season, pinch-hitting for Ed Brinkman in his first game, and Al Kaline in his second.

He went 2-for-4, yes, finishing his career with a .500 batting average. The rest of his pro career was spent in the minor leagues, being traded to the Cardinals organization in 1974. He retired in 1978.

Young returned to the Tigers as a scout, and was head of the Tigers’ scouting department from 1979-81, before moving on to scouting jobs with the Orioles, Padres, Rangers and Marlins.

But his heart, in many ways, remained with Detroit — “He loved him some Gates Brown,” Horton said, laughing. He was a popular Tigers alum, helping organize Tigers alumni reunions in 2013 and 2016. Young always was willing to help Horton’s foundation.

“That’s his life,” Horton said. “This is sad news for everybody around baseball.”