CINCINNATI -- This weekend marked the second annual Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati between the Reds and the St. Louis Cardinals. Before the game I spoke with manager Dusty Baker about his team. He stated, "I'm sure we will get them today. I'm pretty sure of it."
I guess Baker was right because his team beat the Cardinals 4-3 yesterday and today they won 7-2.
Prior to yesterdays game there was a tribute to Civil Rights and athletic activists who helped pave the way for equality of opportunity in society and sports. It was an honor being on the field covering the festivities as they unfolded. Meeting icons like Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Willie Mays prior to the first pitch was a "field of dreams" moment I won't soon forget. Activists Billie Jean King and Harry Belafonte were honored along with Mays.
But the focus of the evening was about the man who utilized his athletic platform to help to ignite the Civil Rights Movement in the mainstream.
Robinson became the first African-American to play in the Major Leagues when he suited up at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson was more than a baseball player; he was a pioneer, activist, and man who ignited change in American sport and society despite racism.
Robinson was an exceptional baseball player who played his entire career with the Dodgers from 1947-1956. In his first year he was named Rookie of the year in the National League. In 1949 Robinson had his finest season where he had a .342 batting average and was named the Most Valuable Player. In 1955 Robinson helped the Dodgers to a World Series title over the perennial American League power New York Yankees.
Before gaining notoriety as being the first African-American to break baseball's color barrier Robinson served in the military and was a four-sport star in college at Pasadena Community College and UCLA.
After leaving UCLA in 1945 Robinson played baseball for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues. Before Robinson African-Americans were not allowed to play Americas Pastime because of racism so they formed a league of their own. It's difficult to phantom the notion of African-Americans fighting in World War II abroad but weren't permitted to play in the Major Leagues because of race.
Robinson played for a Triple-A club in Montreal before being called up to the Majors in 1947. For the first two years of his contract Robinson wasn't allowed to retaliate against any verbal and physical abuse he'd be subject to. Most cities Robinson traveled to as a member of the Dodgers he was routinely called ni**er; had watermelons, black cats and bottles thrown at him by white fans. Some opposing white players also routinely spit him on.
Dodger owner Branch Richey knew Robinson would endure racism on and off the field. There was also a league-wide boycott where players of opposing teams threatened not to play if Robinson took the field April 15, 1947. He would also endure racism from some of his white teammates. Several white players on the Dodgers signed a petition because they didn't want Robinson on the team.
Robinson breaking the color barrier came seven years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus and the Brown vs. The Board of Education decision; it was sixteen years before Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in Washington DC and the height of the Civil Rights Movement.
Many current African-American professional athletes and citizens stand on the shoulders of the likes of Jackie Robinson, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Curt Flood, and Muhammad Ali: They utilized their athletic platforms to make change in society during a time it was needed. Without these sacrifices and championing for causes larger than themselves the opportunities that exist today would be far and few.
Robinson spoke out against racism while he was athlete with Dodgers and as a citizen in society. Unlike most African-American stars today, Robinson didn't opt for silence when faced with inequality and racism.
Robinson was asked to attend and speak at the 1972 World Series by commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Days before his death in October Robinson issued the following before a packed house at then Riverfront Stadium in Cincinnati. "I'm extremely proud and pleased to be here this afternoon, but must admit I'm gonna be tremendously more pleased and more proud when I look at that third base coaching line one day and see a black face managing in baseball."
Robinson's request wouldn't be honored until 1975 when Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was named player/manager of the Cleveland Indians.
Fitting place to have this years' game huh?
I had the pleasure of meeting the Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jimmie Lee Solomon in the Commissioners suite. Solomon was the catalyst responsible for making this remarkable event a reality. He suggested it would be "an annual event" that will hopefully become "a bigger and better event" with time.
Without question Civil Rights Game was a smash but facts are facts. The event marked the achievements of pioneers from the past yet it also showed that work still needs to be done.
Major League baseball historically has denied African-Americans access in terms of ownership opportunities, executive level posts, and managerial positions. There has been improvement with respect to overall minority hiring but from an African-American standpoint things need to be better.
When Jackie Robinson integrated Americas Pastime in 1947 there were no African-American owners, General Managers, or Field Managers. Sixty-three years later there's no African-American sole ownership; three African-American General Managers and four African-Americans Field Mangers.
Can this be considered real progress?
African-Americans account for 9 percent of the players in the Major Leagues which is one of the lowest percentages in the last 30-years. How can the numbers for African-Americans be so disappointing sixty-three years after Robinson?
When I think of Robinson's legacy I think of the bitter cruelties he endured because of racism; I think of him speaking out and being a man's man. I think of Robinson and other African-Americans who sacrificed their lives, careers, and money to make things better for everyone.
Few athletic stars today fear taking stands because of the potential ridicule and societal backlash. If pioneers of the past were afraid of the establishment would such celebrations like the Civil Rights Game be possible today?
Racism wasn't enough to silence the likes of a Jackie Robinson. His talent as an athlete and courage as a man wouldn't allow him to bow down to racism.
When Robinson spoke in 1972 at Riverfront Stadium he wanted to see a "black face managing baseball." If Robinson was alive today he would've saw Dusty Baker managing the Reds.
I'm sure he'd be pleased with Baker managing but disappointed about the lack of African-American participation on the field.
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