Game epitomizes best of baseball

Game epitomizes best of baseball

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- It is rare that you can look at a mere exhibition baseball game and think: "This event epitomizes what is basically best about this sport."

But that was the inaugural Civil Rights Game on Saturday. Whatever else happens along the long and winding road of the 2007 season, the day before it all started again baseball remembered the civil rights movement, its own role in that movement, and its own commitment to diversity.

The game, an exhibition game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cleveland Indians -- the Civil Rights Game presented by AutoZone -- was not only appropriate, it was necessary. This is part of what baseball is as a game and as a part of American history. The game and the related ceremonies seemed not like something baseball elected to do, but something baseball should have done.

"Every so often there's a day when you're really happy and proud to be the Commissioner of baseball and today is one of them," Bud Selig said on Saturday. "Today has been just really wonderful."

The history of baseball is interwoven with the history of civil rights in America because in 1947, Jackie Robinson came to the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking what was then known as "the color line." Put that event into the context of the history of American society. The Voting Rights Act, for instance, was not passed until 1965.

Before 1947 baseball was no better on this issue than the rest of society. It was an all-white proposition. Romanticizing baseball before 1947 is widely done, but it ends up being an awfully narrow undertaking. The arrival of Jackie Robinson opened the game up, allowing it to become multicultural, not to mention bigger and better. Today, the game flourishes with the tremendous influx of Latin American and East Asian talent. Baseball started as culturally one-dimensional and has gone all the way to being global. Robinson's arrival stands as a turning point, not only in baseball, but in America.

"Jackie Robinson's coming to the big leagues was baseball's proudest and most powerful moment, and I believe that," Selig said. "The more one studies history, and those who know me know that I am a history buff to say the least, you look back on April 15, 1947, it was really remarkable. To celebrate all of that today is an honor. It's an honor for me and it's an honor for this sport.

"You can take it one step further. You look at the 20th century. I think Jackie Robinson coming to the big leagues was clearly one of the most powerful moments in American history in the 20th century. I don't think that's farfetched at all."

The struggle for civil rights in America is at the core of this nation's history. The events along that path, the good and the tragic, touched everyone in some way. Tony La Russa, the manager of the Cardinals, was a member of the Oakland A's in 1968 on the day when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.

"I think this carries a lot of significance," La Russa said of the Civil Rights Game. "My suggestion is, however they figure it, they figure it to make an impact on young people because they're the ones that don't know the history. The [National Civil Rights] Museum here is really impressive, very powerful. But a lot of us who have a few years on us, we're aware of the history of it.

"I remember in 1968, it was hard to believe but I made the Oakland A's, it was the first year that they were the Oakland A's after moving from Kansas City. We were in Baltimore and we heard that Martin Luther King had been shot."

Along with the sadness and shock, the Athletics ran into some logistical difficulties. The team bus was stopped, because rioting had broken out along its intended route.

"I have a very vivid memory of that," La Russa said. "I remember we were pulled over because they had some kind of blockade, we were told that we going to have to wait for an hour or so. Right in the midst of this, we had to make some alterations to our plans. We got out at this playground and we started playing basketball, five-on-five, in our street shoes. Sal [Bando] was elbowing everybody in sight; that was my last memory."

Even as Major League Baseball underscores its own history and the civil rights movement with the Civil Rights Game, there is work to be done. The percentage of African-American players has declined from 28 percent in the mid-1970s to about 8 percent now. Baseball would not be baseball if the legacy of Robinson is further eroded.

"With our (baseball) academy at Compton, with the other academies we have going, with our inner-city programs, we hope to reverse that trend," Selig said. "There is such a great heritage, that I hope that all of our efforts will be rewarded. Baseball means so much to us in terms of its history and traditions, that I want the African-American influence increased. In some ways, we've come a long way. When I took over, 2 percent of our staffs in Major League Baseball were minorities. Now, it's 28 percent."

On the field, the Cardinals defeated the Indians, 5-1, in a game that showcased Adam Wainwright's transition from bullpen savior in the 2006 postseason to rotation regular in 2007. The game also was a terrific national showcase for AutoZone Park. It's a gem of a ballpark, the home of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, perfectly located in the heart of the city.

There are plans to make the Civil Rights Game an annual event, with Memphis as the host. This would be the intelligent thing to do, the sensible thing to do, and more than anything else, the right thing to do.

After this one had ended, as the clubhouse crowd thinned out and the Cardinals prepared to depart for their Sunday night opener in St. Louis, Albert Pujols was asked what it meant to play in the Civil Rights Game. His answer was what you hoped it would be.

"It's an honor," Pujols said. "It's showing respect for Jackie Robinson and those guys that broke the color barrier. Because of them, that's why we're standing here, the Latin players, because back then we used to be the same. Now, everything is equal. I'm honored and blessed to be a part of it and to be in the first game."

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.