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03/30/07 9:21 PM ET

Panel opens Civil Rights Game activities

Q&A tackles issue of re-engaging African American youth

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A distinguished panel of baseball experts, college professors and civic leaders opened the festivities surrounding Saturday's inaugural Civil Rights Game between the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Indians with a rousing two-hour discussion late Friday afternoon.

The question-and-answer session delved into Major League Baseball's effort to re-engage African American youth. It was held in front of a largely African American audience of several hundred at the National Civil Rights Museum and broadcast live on BaseballChannel.TV.

"I believe that the leadership of this sport today realizes there must be change in this area," said Lou Melendez, a vice president of international business operations who represented MLB on the nine-person panel that was moderated by Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor. "Whether you're an owner or a Commissioner you're only a caretaker of the game. That's what makes this game so great. They believe that we have a social responsibility. This sport is changing now, but there will be bigger changes ahead."

The Civil Rights Game, presented by AutoZone and slated for a 5:30 p.m. ET start, is expected to annually precede the opening of the regular season and be staged in Memphis on what panelists called "the hallowed ground" of the civil rights movement. It will be carried live on ESPN and MLB.TV -- the latter beginning its coverage with a two-hour pregame show beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET.

The panel discussion -- the first of its kind associated with a Major League event -- was conducted in a meeting room on the second floor of a museum that is incorporated into the Lorraine Motel. Down the hall on the balcony in front of a room that is marked by a wreath, Rev. Martin Luther King was assassinated 39 years ago next Wednesday.

It was the motel, on the outskirts of downtown and just off bluesy Beale Street, where African Americans were forced to stay during Minor League swings in the 1950s and '60s while their white contemporaries were housed at the Peabody, located a few blocks away in the central district.

"It was the best African American motel in town," recalled, Steve Cohen, a baseball fan as a youngster and currently a Democratic U.S. Representative from the Tennessee's 9th District. "And it wasn't much of a motel even then."

Cohen was joined on the panel by Branch Rickey III, whose grandfather signed Jackie Robinson for the Dodgers in 1947; Bill White, a former All-Star player and the first African-American president of the National League, and Dave Winfield, the Hall of Fame outfielder now a vice president of the Padres.

Melendez, Claire Smith of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Peter Gammons of ESPN, Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at Penn's Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, and Ted Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, rounded out the group.

Ogletree posed the questions and kept the conversation moving, asking at one point what could be done to draw African American players into the game. Despite numerous inner-city programs, plus the one-year-old baseball academy in Compton, Calif., the panel determined that MLB is going to have to do more.

According to figures presented by the panelists, only eight percent of the players on the 40-man rosters of the 30 clubs are currently African American.

"It's going to take a multi-tiered approach," said Winfield, who played 22 seasons with six teams and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2001. "It's going to take a partnership that hasn't existed yet in MLB between baseball and the players. A better platform has to be utilized to get present-day players to reach the kids.

"You can do it with Minor Leaguers or you can do it with former players. But the relationship has to be such that the present-day players, who are the role models, have to be used in a different fashion. You have to let these kids touch them and talk to them and want to grow up to be like them. Although we're shining some light on this issue now, our entire sport is a little behind."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.