06/19/09 9:05 PM ET
Much work to be done
Race relations remain a work in progress in society
The Civil Rights weekend began with a roundtable discussion of the topic: "Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement." The panel was suitably distinguished. The venue for the discussion was ideal -- the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
The moderator of the panel, Charles Ogletree, a professor of law at Harvard University who mentored both President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama, suggested that Harriet Tubman herself was looking down with joy at this gathering. Why not? Both the subject and the site were exactly what this occasion merited.
But the celebration of the game's leadership in civil rights, with Jackie Robinson breaking the Major League racial barrier in 1945, always is leavened with the knowledge that, in this society, race relations remain a work in progress.
One reminder to that effect was made by baseball's leading living legend, Henry Aaron. The Hammer was not a member of the panel discussion, but he was in attendance and was asked to speak. Aaron said pointedly what needed to be said:
"I just want people to understand that we are still trying to get a piece of the pie. There have been a few of us that have reached the top, but a lot of us are still trying to reach the top."
The struggle for civil rights did not come to a glorious conclusion with the election of Obama, although that election did signal the progress that had been made in the American republic over the last 140-plus years. In the same way, Robinson's arrival in the Major Leagues did not mean that anything like true equality had come to Major League Baseball.
Baseball took a leading role in integration, at a time when the U.S. armed services were not integrated, at a time when U.S. public schools were not integrated.
But reflecting on this history, baseball was just as biased as the next American institution before Robinson became a pioneer. Nathaniel Jones, a former federal judge and a longtime civil rights leader, noted that the process of integrating baseball did not begin with Robinson's signing by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1946. For a quarter century before that, black newspaper had led the way in making this issue a matter of public record and debate.
There was, Jones said, a certain amount of hypocrisy in fighting World War II against fascism and oppression while major American institutions, including baseball, still were segregated.
"Baseball being a national pastime was America's embarrassment," Jones said of the pre-Robinson era.
The panel included two icons of Cincinnati sports. There was Oscar Robertson, "The Big O," three-time College Player of the Year at the University of Cincinnati who went on to the NBA and established himself as nothing less than one of the greatest basketball players of all time. And there was Tony Perez, Hall of Famer and a mainstay of the era of "The Big Red Machine."
The Big O was a special favorite here, making his points with his usual acuity and wit. People have individuals who helped them along the way, and this is a natural area to pursue with a great athlete. Robertson said one person who really helped him was the late Indiana University basketball coach Branch McCracken.
"He wouldn't give me a scholarship to go to Indiana, so I came to Cincinnati," Robertson said as the audience roared.
This also was a logical arena for the African-American athletes to tell of the racism they had encountered. Robertson recalled a college game in Texas when someone put a black cat in the Cincinnati locker room. This was a fairly crude racial statement, but it initially was lost on its target, Robertson.
"Folks, where I'm from in Indianapolis, a cat is there to kill rats," he said. "I thought they had rats in that locker room."
Another huge laugh followed Robertson's droll delivery of this story.
A wide-ranging discussion of the sort this roundtable offered is ideal for measuring both how much progress has been made and how much progress still is needed. But it also can produce a moment that is simply heartwarming.
Jones told of Robinson throwing out the first pitch at Game 2 of the 1972 World Series in Cincinnati, just days before Robinson's death. Robinson, Jones recalled, spoke of what an honor it was to throw out the first pitch, but he also added that he hoped for the day when he could look into the Cincinnati dugout and see a black manager.
"We now have Jackie's wish," Jones said. "We have a black manager [Dusty Baker] in Cincinnati."
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.