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PHOENIX -- On the shelf behind Commissioner Bud Selig's desk in Major League Baseball's western office sits a bronze bust of Nelson Mandela, the former South African president who spent 27 years as a prisoner, fighting apartheid in his home country.
The bust was gifted to the Commissioner last year by the South African Baseball Union when that contingent made its trip to the U.S. to compete in the inaugural World Baseball Classic.
Selig certainly doesn't equate himself to Mandela, but during his more than 14 years as Commissioner, he has strived to better integrate and diversify MLB.
"I am proud of what we've done," Selig said. "But we can do better. I want to say that at the outset. We can do much better."
As Black History Month kicks off, it is clear that baseball has made inroads, some of which will be on display this season, including the one-year anniversary of the opening of MLB's first baseball academy in inner-city Los Angeles, the first Civil Rights Game this March 31 in Memphis, and the 60th anniversary celebration on April 15 of the day Jackie Robinson broke the Major League color barrier.
"I think it's going to be a fantastic year," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, who, as MLB's vice president of baseball operations, is one of the highest-ranking African-Americans in the sport.
Solomon helped spearhead the first Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., and on Feb. 28, the program will celebrate its one-year anniversary. Since the Urban Youth Academy opened, hundreds of kids have played baseball and gone through the academy, which was born as an antidote to the dwindling participation of African-American children in the national pastime.
While Black History Month is celebrated only in February, baseball's efforts to diversify are year-round, and the spotlight may shine brightest on March 31 when the inaugural Civil Rights Game will be played in Memphis, the city in which Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. That exhibition game will be played by the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and Cleveland Indians.
But the event is about more than just the game on the field. The two-day festivities will feature a civil rights panel discussion on March 30; players and civic leaders conducting tours through the National Civil Rights Museum; a luncheon honoring the Civil Rights Movement, and the inaugural game itself.
The festivities will stand in honor of the people who gave their lives and lent their honor to a just cause, Solomon said.
"It's not an easy subject to talk about sometimes," Solomon said. "It's easier to talk about something less emotional. But people have to understand the place baseball had in that movement and that we're heading forward in the future to be part of the real human struggle to attain human rights."
A little more than two weeks later, on April 15, baseball will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Robinson's emergence to be staged in venues all over the Major Leagues with its focal point at Dodger Stadium.
Many are fond of saying that baseball's integration prefaced the brunt of the Civil Rights Movement by more than a decade.
"Diversity is very important to the industry of baseball," Solomon said. "As I've said many time before, baseball integrated before the public schools and before the armed forces. Some people have lost sight of that. We have to put the focus on that again."
These events, and a host of on-going programs aimed at re-vitalizing the interest of African-American youths in baseball, will no doubt be part of Selig's legacy when he retires in 2009 or beyond.
Core outreach programs such as Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI), Breaking Barriers, the Urban Youth Academy, Baseball Tomorrow Fund, Diverse Business Partners program and MLB's annual donation of finances, time and energy to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America have all helped MLB make inroads in the African-American community.
has grown from a local program for boys in South Central Los Angeles in 1989 to an international campaign encompassing more than 200 cities and as many as 120,000 male and female participants a year. It is managed in conjunction with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the official charity of MLB.
Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life is a multi-cultural, award-winning program teaching children in grades 4-6 the values and traits they need to deal with the barriers, obstacles, and challenges in their lives. The curriculum is based on the values demonstrated by baseball great Jackie Robinson, and is directed by his daughter, Sharon Robinson.
The Urban Youth Academy in Compton, a 10-acre, $10 million state-of-the-art facility, was designed to provide free baseball and softball instruction, as well as educational and vocational support, to Southern California youth, ages 8-17. Thousands of youth have participated in programs at the facility, which also hosted the 2006 RBI World Series.
The Baseball Tomorrow Fund is a joint initiative between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association that has awarded over $10 million in grants in both rural and urban communities to fund programs, fields, coaches' training, and the purchase of uniforms and equipment to encourage and maintain youth participation in the game.
Diverse Business Partners is the leading supplier diversity program in sports, and has resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars being spent with thousands of minority and women owned businesses.
"These programs show the Commissioner's commitment to making sure that baseball has its rightful place with respect to diversity," Solomon said. "It shows that the decline of African-American participation is something that we're addressing, working toward curbing and actually reversing. It also shows that diversity is very important to our industry."
Selig, the son of an automobile dealer and an elementary school teacher, grew up as a member of a Jewish liberal family in Milwaukee that long taught and practiced diversity. As a young man, Selig can recall sitting in the upper deck at Wrigley Field to see the Dodgers play the Cubs after Robinson's debut on April 15, 1945, and was awed by the gathering of African-American fans.
"It was so energizing," said Selig, who broke into baseball in 1970 as head of a group that bought the Seattle Pilots and moved them to Milwaukee. "I've said it before and I really do believe that what happened in 1947 is the most powerful moment in baseball history, perhaps even in American history."
Selig never had a son, but he taught his daughter, Wendy Selig-Prieb, who once ran the Brewers after Selig became Commissioner, that she could do anything in life.
"We need to do better and we can do better. A great institution like ours needs to lead by example. We've made great progress, but I won't rest until we do better."
-- Commissioner Bud Selig
"It never occurred to me that because I was a woman there wasn't any career I couldn't do," she said. "I was just raised to believe that if you worked hard, if you studied, if you got good grades, graduated, whatever your passion was, you'd be able to do it. It's because of the household I grew up in. It's the way my father has run all of his businesses.
"In respect to baseball, not only does he believe personally it's the right thing to do, but it's just a natural extension of his fundamental beliefs."
Selig's first imprint on baseball in this area came in 1997 when, on the occasion of Robinson's 50th anniversary of joining the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers, he retired the infielder's No. 42 throughout baseball. He also marked that April 15 with a series of celebrations that will be matched again this year.
At the time, Selig also demanded that clubs begin hiring minorities in front-office positions, and promised that teams would be fined for failing to include minority candidates in their search for on-field managers.
It may be no coincidence, then, that the Brewers, under the leadership of Selig-Prieb and her husband, Laurel Prieb, hired Ulice Payne as the first (and only) African-American team president in Major League history, and tried Davey Lopes and Jerry Royster as managers.
Though none of those hires worked out long-term, they showed a commitment to putting in place the best person available, Prieb said.
"You believe to the core of the fiber of your being that this is the right thing to do, that you have the best people in front of you to do the job," he added. "Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. But for people to think that you'd do so for any other reason is folly."
Selig said he is proud of the fact that baseball's off-field work force was at 2 percent minority hiring when he became Commissioner as opposed to 25 percent now.
"When I started, baseball had been very slow to move forward," Selig said. "I just feel that as a sport we are a social institution with social responsibilities. We had a chance to be a leader. We had a chance to do well. When you look at all the programs, I really think we're making progress."
To be sure, the Commissioner knows there are areas that need improvement. There is only one minority principal owner - Arte Moreno of the Los Angeles Angels, a Mexican American. There are no current minority club presidents. Among the general managers, only Kenny Williams (an African-American) of the White Sox and Omar Minaya (a Dominican native) of the Mets are minorities.
"We need to do better and we can do better," Selig said. "A great institution like ours needs to lead by example. We've made great progress, but I won't rest until we do better."