CHICAGO -- They came from all over the country, from different cultures and different communities, but all with the same goal in mind. Major League Baseball held its first Diversity Business Summit on Tuesday, with the hope of broadening the backgrounds of people who work in the national pastime.
The conference -- believed to be the first of its kind in American sports -- brought together 1,000 people hoping to forge a relationship in baseball or with one of the suppliers. The Hyatt Regency McCormick Place and adjoining convention center served as the host of the event.
Wendy Lewis, MLB's senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances, had discussed the concept a handful of years ago with Commissioner Bud Selig, a supportive advocate, and Tuesday meant the realization of the dream. For Selig, it was something more, it was something more, equating to a chance to help shape the face of baseball's future.
"This is really historic, and it means a great deal to me," said Selig of the first Business Diversity Summit. "I remember when we started in the '90s and it was nothing. When you really understand the history of the sport, you really understand what diversity was and is [now]."
Selig didn't have to tout his sport's accomplishments in diversity, which include the creation of the RBI Program and the Urban Youth Academies among other endeavors. The Summit, which beckoned job seekers from all backgrounds, was another step in baseball's diversity efforts.
The conference started Tuesday with a discussion panel that included five of the game's owners, and it later broke down into individual matchmaking sessions. Job candidates could meet with the team or MLB division of their choice, and they also had a chance to learn about the game.
The Summit included business briefings designed to bring novices up to speed in the different ways the game could impact their lives. Job seekers, for example, could choose to sit in on a briefing in any of the following categories: baseball operations, licensing, international and community.
Peter Woodfork, MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations, conducted one of those lectures, and he applauded Lewis for coming up with the concept in the first place
This Summit was unique in that it combined a job fair with a chance for entrepreneurs to meet with representatives of teams and supplier networks. And by stressing diversity, MLB opened up its doors to people with ideas and perspectives that may not have been heard before.
Rev. Jesse Jackson -- former presidential candidate and creator of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition -- was on hand to support baseball's efforts on Tuesday, and he said that the other American sports would do well to heed the call and start similar programs of their own.
"It's an effective way to broaden the base of baseball, because beyond being a sport is a business and beyond that is an industry," said Jackson of the Summit. "If more people are involved, then more people have an interest in its success. There are more team players before the game and after the game than during the game. We didn't know how good baseball could be until everybody could play. And we don't know how good business can be until everyone can play. Major League Baseball is marketing. It's advertising and promotions, making and designing uniforms. It's vendors."
That concept -- the idea that diversity means more than the composition of the teams that play the game -- took center stage on Tuesday, and Lewis said the day was all about engagement. It's one thing to teach someone, she said, but something else entirely to make them feel like they belong.
"If you tell me, I'll forget," she said of her credo. "If you show me, I'll remember. But if you bring me in and engage me, I will understand. That's what today's about, so learn and grow and be with baseball."
The conference briefly broke for lunch, and then Selig delivered an address to kick off the second half of the Summit. The matchmaker sessions and business briefings continued after that, and the main ballroom featured a panel discussion on the game's emerging forms of technology.
The final event of the night was a reception -- and a baseball game -- at U.S. Cellular Field, where the White Sox continued their series against the Minnesota Twins. Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of the White Sox, served as co-host of the event and served as part of the owners' panel earlier in the day.
Selig, meanwhile, said that he may have become a full-time history professor if his path had turned out differently, and he showed his scholarly bent when asked to comment about the Summit. It all goes back to Jackie Robinson, he said, for changing both baseball and America for the better.
"Jackie Robinson became -- in my opinion -- one of the two or three or four most important Americans in the 20th century," said Selig. "I had a student ask me this in one of my classes this spring. 'Why do you keep saying that, Commissioner?' Well, I said, 'Think about this: Jackie Robinson came to the big leagues on April 15, 1947. Harry Truman didn't desegregate the U.S. Army until 1950. Brown vs. Board of Education was in 1954 and the actual Civil Rights movement didn't start until 1962.'
"I often say we're a social institution, and to be able to do something like this -- create this, watch it grow and do other things -- means a great deal to me. I don't know how else to say this, but this is what you're supposed to do. It's a privilege. And a lot of people say, 'Oh, you have to do this.' I don't have to do anything, but you're lucky to be in a position like this so you can do things like this."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.