Heyward, Howard, Rollins carry ball for Jackie

Heyward, Howard, Rollins carry ball for Jackie

Heyward, Howard, Rollins carry ball for Jackie
It has been more than six decades since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier and changed baseball -- life, really -- as we know it. But the responsibility of carrying that torch continues to be felt among today's African-American ballplayers.

Current stars like Jason Heyward, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins can shine comfortably because years ago, beginning in 1947, Robinson endured and overcame verbal abuse and threats because he was the first black player in the Majors.

Heyward was born more than 40 years after that landmark achievement. But the impact those who came before him made on the world doesn't go unnoticed.

"It's better by far because a lot of people sacrificed for us to be here today," Heyward said. "I'm not saying that [racism] isn't all the way removed, but it's definitely come a long way. You have to be appreciative of that."

On Sunday at Turner Field in Atlanta, Major League Baseball will once again show its appreciation with the fifth annual Civil Rights Game, played between the division-rival Phillies and Braves. It will take on a meaning far deeper than baseball.

CRG 2011 Include

After staging the event as an exhibition in Memphis from 2007-08, then shifting it to Cincinnati as part of the regular-season schedule for the past two years, MLB moved the Civil Rights Game to the city that was a central hub for the civil rights movement. It will be played in Atlanta next year as well.

The fact that three of the game's most prominent African-American stars -- Heyward of the Braves, Howard and Rollins of the Phillies -- happen to play for the teams taking part this season makes it even more special.

"I think this is a great way to tell the story," MLB executive vice president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon said, "because unfortunately, when you tell the story, young kids like to see superstars that look like them, because they can then relate to the sport and relate to that player. And I think that's why it's a great time to showcase those players, those teams, at this venue."

The Delta Civil Rights Game will stage several off-the-field events -- a roundtable discussion, Youth Summit and Beacon Awards banquet -- that will celebrate those who fought for racial equality while also looking toward the future. But the games themselves can symbolically do the same.

On Saturday, the Phillies and Braves will sport Negro League jerseys -- the Braves will honor the Atlanta Black Crackers, while the Phillies will represent the Philadelphia Stars -- as MLB looks back on the impact of a league that folded shortly after Robinson's arrival with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Then, on Sunday, they will each wear throwback uniforms from 1974 for the Civil Rights Game.

"It's cool," Howard said, "because this is kind of how we get to pay homage to them."

Braves first-base coach Terry Pendleton believes it's important that today's athlete knows about the man who paved the way.

"[Robinson] still means a lot to the game and a lot of us who are in the game as African-Americans," Pendleton said. "Those coming into the game should learn something about Jackie Robinson and what he brought to the game."

The parents of Howard, who gives back via his Ryan Howard Family Foundation, marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Meanwhile, Heyward's parents went to Dartmouth College and were good friends with Solomon -- the man leading Commissioner Bud Selig's efforts to promote the game in African-American communities.

The percentage of black players making up Major League rosters stood at 8.5 percent at the start of this season, according to the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, and hasn't surpassed 15 percent since 1997.

In the 1970s, that percentage was reportedly in the 20s.

MLB believes the current numbers should be higher, and seeing players like Howard and Heyward carrying forth can go a long way in helping that cause.

"There are a lot of things that are good that are going on to curb the decline of African-American players," Solomon said, "and I think that bringing in these two teams that happen to have superstars of African-American heritage on either side of the field, I think it's a great way to show African-American kids there is a place for you in Major League Baseball."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. Mark Bowman and Todd Zolecki contributed. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.