06/19/09 11:55 PM EST
Panelists discuss moments of pride
Civil Rights Game roundtable reveals key experiences
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
That was the touching question moderator Charles Ogletree, a Harvard Law School professor, asked each person on the marquee panel during the second round of questions at the Civil Rights Game roundtable discussion on Friday afternoon at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. What was a moment that made you feel a little more confident in the progress of race relations -- that important moment we're sharing now?
Here are some of the answers:
Richard Lapchick, founder and director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport:
"I want to emphasize a positive one. I was lucky enough to be invited by Nelson Mandela for his inauguration. We drove that day from Johannesburg to Pretoria, where it was about to take place, and all along the highway was the military hardware used to oppress those people for all those generations. And to think that within a matter of hours, that hardware was going to be turned over to a man of peace. It was just an exhilarating feeling, and to see him be sworn in that day on steps of union building. That told me that if this prisoner for 27 years could become president of the most racist state on the face of the earth in the second half of the 20th century, then anything is possible. There were 67 embassies in Pretoria, all of which wanted to have parties to help Nelson celebrate it. Instead, the president got back in the helicopter to go back to Johannesburg to attend a soccer match between South Africa and Zambia. I was lucky enough to sit in the box with him. I asked him -- and I think I knew the answer but wanted to be sure -- 'Mr. President, with all of these parties being held, why did you come here?' He said, 'Because I understood that so many of my athletes sacrificed for so many years to become what they have, I became president sooner than I would have if they had not made those sacrifices.' It really showed me the way to communicate important issues in life."
Oscar Robertson, NBA Hall of Famer
"It was at the Olympics in 1960. First, I'd never been on an airplane to go anywhere. Over all that water, I was scared to death. We get into Rome, and I run into this guy named Cassius Clay. And this guy kept saying, 'Tell me you're the greatest, man.' 'Tell me how great you are.' I said, 'Cassius I can't do that.' He said, 'Yes you can, man. Tell me how pretty you are. Watch me in my fight at home. We'll whip this boy in my fight. I'll tell 'em I'm the greatest of all time.' He did just that."
Ogletree then added: "At Major League Baseball, we're honoring Muhammad Ali [on Saturday]. And he'll still tell you, 'I'm the greatest of all time.'"
Tony Perez, Hall of Fame first basemen from the Reds:
"When I got to Cincinnati, and I went through all that I explained before, and I see how all the people were treating us, my family and myself -- I never had seen personally what changed. I see when I got to the big leagues, when I got here. I never went looking for something. I just wanted to play baseball. But I see the difference. I see the change, the civil rights, what Jackie Robinson did for us, and that's what I see through my early years when I didn't speak English. I still have problems, but then, I really had to concentrate to understand what's going on."
James Clingman Jr., chairman of the Economic Development Committee of the NAACP Cincinnati branch:
"I moved to North Carolina -- was sent there -- to live with my aunt in 1960. I was in Winston Salem, 20 miles away. I lived through, on the way down, on the bus, having to go to the back to get the sandwich, that kind of thing, and then having to sit in the balcony in theaters and not being able to go to certain theaters as well. So I lived through it. But in athletics, I have a collection of moments. I have to give credit to Dr. Paul Smith, who's deceased now, who used to teach at University of Cincinnati, for opening my eyes to a lot of things that took place at that time. I remember how I felt not only with Muhammad Ali, but also with Curt Flood, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Brown, how they stood up. Craig Hodges, what he went through in basketball. To see people, men and women, who were willing to stand up and simply say, 'I'm going to do the right thing, because this is the right thing to do.' I have a collection of moments in athletics that keep me connected to the whole civil rights struggle."
Nathaniel Jones, former judge with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and Reds minority owner:
"I worked as a reporter for a black newspaper called the Buckeye Review in Youngstown, and I was a sports reporter. The Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Indians sent press passes to the newspaper, which I used as sports editor. I was every bit of 21, I guess. I was covering the Indians when Bill Veeck signed Larry Doby, the first black in the American League. In those days, you had free access to the dressing rooms and sidelines. I could stand on the sideline during warmup, and I could stand there watching the players throwing and doing their thing. And then during the game, you'd go back to your regular seat. I was able to engage in conversations with Larry Doby. Later they signed Luke Easter as the first baseman. I talked to Luke. And then they signed Satchel Paige.
"Now, all these black players who played in the Negro Leagues -- and they struggled -- they got paid peanuts. But now they're in Major League Baseball. And after the games I had access to the dressing rooms. You can go in and interview the players. I'm a kid, I'm trying to pretend I'm a hotshot reporter and I wanted to interview Satchel Paige. So I walked over to his locker and he was sitting on a stool. I said, 'Mr. Paige, may I ask you a question?' He looked at me and said, 'What's your name?' I said, 'Nathaniel Jones.' 'Who you with?' I said, 'The Buckeye Review.' He said, 'Never heard of it.' I said, 'Well, I'm from Youngstown, Ohio, it's a weekly newspaper and I'd like to ask you a couple questions.' 'Well, it's about time you got around to me.' So I made up a couple questions -- don't know what they were -- got a pad and took them down. Then he broke into a laugh. He knew he'd been messing with me because I was a kid.
"But recognizing that these players, what they had been through, from having read their accounts in the black newspapers, and having seen them now as a part of Major League Baseball, was very moving. Then after Jackie Robinson reached the twilight of his career -- and his life -- he became very ill as a diabetic. He came to Cincinnati to throw out first ball in the second World Series game of 1972. It was October 15. And in his comments to the fans that day, he expressed appreciation for the honor of throwing out the first ball, but said he was looking forward to the day when he could look over to the Reds dugout and see a black manager.
"We now have Jackie's wish. We now have a black manager [Dusty Baker] in Cincinnati."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.