LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Looking to break an unenviable trend of poor April starts, the Indians thought better of playing an extra exhibition game outside Florida before the '06 season. The club was happy enough with the resulting 6-1 start to the season that the plan was to avoid such "barnstorming" again before the 2007 season opener in Chicago. Then came an invitation to play in the inaugural Civil Rights Game, which, as announced at Monday's Winter Meetings, will commemorate the Civil Rights Movement and acknowledge the African-American players who broke baseball's color barrier. The exhibition will take place March 31 at AutoZone Park in Memphis.
The opportunity, as general manager Mark Shapiro explained, was one the Indians simply couldn't turn down. "Not barnstorming at the end of Spring Training is something we discussed, from a competitive standpoint," Shapiro said. "But [the Civil Rights Game] immediately aligned and fit with our values and beliefs. It was a cause we thought was fit to honor, and the competitive concerns went aside." The World Series champion Cardinals will oppose the Tribe in the game, which will become an annual MLB event. Because the Cardinals' Triple-A club is based in Memphis, their selection for the event seemed a logical choice. The Indians, meanwhile, were chosen for their history in contributions to integrate the game -- specifically, the 1947 signing of Larry Doby, who became the first black player in the history of the American League, and the 1975 naming of Frank Robinson as baseball's first black manager. "The Cleveland Indians organization considers it an honor to participate in the inaugural Civil Rights Game," team president Paul Dolan said in a release. "We are extremely proud of our role relative to the integration of Major League Baseball." Sadly, the waning appeal of the game of baseball to young African-Americans has led to historic lows in the number of black Major Leaguers. In 2005, just 8.5 percent of big leaguers were black, according to a study by sport sociologist Richard Lapchick. Twenty years earlier, that figure was 27 percent. Acknowledging that disturbing trend, MLB has made efforts in recent years to expand its impact in the inner cities, spreading its RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program into more than 200 cities and opening an Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif.
Indians ace C.C. Sabathia has done his part to support those initiatives. Over the course of his contract with the club, he will donate a total of $250,000 to the Larry Doby RBI Program in Cleveland. "I've talked with C.C. Sabathia many times about how we can get African-American Major League players to make baseball accessible and tangible to inner-city athletes," Shapiro said. "Our game has made a strong effort to do that. The efforts made the last couple of years are important to build off." All the more reason, Shapiro said, it was a no-brainer for the Indians to take part in this event, the proceeds of which will benefit several charities, including the National Civil Rights Museum, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the Negro Leagues Museum. "A set of values and beliefs that starts with our ownership and transcends down our organization leads to the belief that the history of civil rights should be honored," Shapiro said. "The values of compassion and tolerance need to be looked out for and fought for. That history is the root of our pride and the root of our thanks for being asked to participate in this."
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.