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Aaron a perfect stand-in in Memphis

Aaron a perfect stand-in in Memphis

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Commissioner Bud Selig couldn't be here this weekend for the second annual Civil Rights Game and all its related events, but who better to be his surrogate than the iconic Hank Aaron?

Selig was in between returning from Japan, where the A's and the Red Sox split a two-game, season-opening series earlier this week, and appearing in Washington on Sunday for the opener of the new Nationals Park. So Selig asked Aaron to be his surrogate.

"Bud and I go back a long, long way," Aaron told MLB.com on Friday before a spirited panel discussion that included Major League Baseball's place in the civil rights movement and the diminishing impact of black players on big-league rosters.

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"The Commissioner's got an awful big plate, a lot of things to worry about. I'm here because I think that this is the right place for me to be. I love being around this and I'm going to do as well as I can."

Aaron was a member of the stellar panel, and later Friday night was front and center at the Beacon Awards dinner. But because of an illness in his family, Aaron had to leave on Saturday morning and was not in attendance as the White Sox played the Mets in the second annual game at AutoZone Park, said Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball's Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations.

Aaron, currently an executive vice president for the Braves -- the franchise he played with in Milwaukee and Atlanta for the first 21 of his 23 big league seasons -- is never at a loss for words.

The only man in history to amass 700 home runs (755), 2,000 runs batted in (2,297) and 3,000 hits (3,771), Aaron said there's one necessary element missing that would help escalate the interest of young African-Americans in the game.

"We've never owned a piece of the rock," said Aaron, who played his last two seasons for the Brewers when Selig was the owner. "And a piece of the rock is owning a club."

Asked when he thought that would happen, Aaron added: "I wish it would happen yesterday."

None of the 30 MLB clubs have majority African-American ownership, although Selig mandated that blacks own a portion of less-than-controlling interest in the Nationals when MLB sold the club to the Lerner family two years ago. As far as total ownership of the rock is concerned, Arte Moreno, a Mexican-American, owns the Los Angeles Angels, and is the only minority in that position.

In the other sports league, Robert Johnson, the founder of BET, owns the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats. He's the first and only African-American to own a professional sports team in the U.S.

Aaron, who played in the Negro Leagues and began his Major League career with the Braves in 1954, said he recognizes the fact that under Selig, the sport has made great strides investing in inner-city programs to try and interest black kids in again playing baseball.

Aaron, of course, was MLB's all-time home run leader until Barry Bonds passed him last year.

At the peak of Aaron's career, black players made up more than 20 percent of the players on Major League rosters. Though minority presence is still well above that level, black participation has now fallen below 10 percent.

"We don't have enough African-Americans in the game, and somehow we've got to beat that," Aaron said. "We've got to do something about it. Progress was made, but now it's going backwards."

Aaron, who last month turned 74 and is eying knee replacement surgery, said that he's passing the torch on to another generation to tackle the problem, even though he remains one of the highest-ranking black people in an MLB executive position.

"I am, but there are other people who should be doing this, not me," Aaron said. "I'm 74 years old and I'm walking on one leg. I've already done what I can do."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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