NEW YORK -- Their missions dovetailed before they shared the same day. The Diversity Business Summit corresponded with Jackie Robinson Day for the first time on Tuesday, providing both a celebration of diversity in baseball and a promise that it will continue for generations to come.
A thousand hopeful job-seekers and entrepreneurs came to the Manhattan Center on Tuesday to meet some of the game's biggest decision-makers and to see how baseball could fit into their future. And everywhere they went, Robinson's memory was celebrated in ways both simple and profound.
Sharon Robinson, daughter of the sports and civil rights icon, has long been connected to the game through the Jackie Robinson Foundation and her many educational pursuits. Robinson, who works as an educational consultant for Major League Baseball, said on Tuesday that she was touched to have the Summit on Jackie Robinson Day, and she reserved high praise for the executives that made it happen.
"Wendy Lewis has been talking about trying to see if we can work this out, and I'm so happy we did; it gives it an added dimension," Robinson said of Lewis, MLB's senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances. "You can't just go by the past. You have to think, 'How is this impacting today? How is it continuing to make a difference in people's lives? To have a job fair, to have business meetings with all of Major League Baseball in one place and to have it on Jackie Robinson Day is just beautiful."
Lewis concieved of the Diversity Business Summit years ago, and she presided over the third annual edition of the conference on Tuesday. The event sold out for the first time, and the conference attendees were invited for a gala event at Yankee Stadium and a free screening of the 2013 feature film "42."
But it was the basic concept of the Summit that underlined how far the game has come. Baseball has convened an active task force to deal with the dearth of African-Americans on the field, and with the success of the Diversity Business Summit, a similar effort is happening on the supply side.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson, a former presidential candidate and a close friend of Jackie Robinson, attended the inaugural Summit two years ago in Chicago. Jackson was back at the event on Tuesday, and he was enthusiastic about the way the game has embraced its role in society.
"Wendy Lewis has done a phenomenal job and [received] the full cooperation of the owners," Jackson said before MLB Commissioner Bud Selig made his keynote address. "There may be just 25 players on the field, but there are 300-plus employees, plus vendors. It's a whole industry. I talked to a kid from New York University studying sports medicine. There's sports law for agents, marketing and advertising and products -- all that stuff. This is a huge statement. This is the infrastructure of the American middle class, the food vendors and those who serve tables in the suites. Those are solid jobs and they're year-round jobs, you know. I think baseball has taken an initiative here that is worthy of being praised."
Jackson said it hasn't always been that way. He said that he could recall the 25th anniversary of Robinson breaking the color line, and baseball still hadn't hired an African-American manager by that point. Now, four decades later, Robinson is one of the most venerated former athletes of all time.
And it hasn't happened by accident. Selig has often spoken about how baseball is a social institution, and he frequently cites the belief that Robinson's debut was the most important day in the history of the game. Sharon Robinson gave Selig -- who will retire at the end of the season -- a celebratory plaque featuring No. 42 on Tuesday, and the Commissioner was visibly touched by the gesture.
"Baseball would not be the national pastime without pioneers like Jackie Robinson and all those who have followed in his path," Selig said. "That is why his words have stayed with me every day that I have held this position. He once said, 'A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.' We must always shine a light on Jackie's life and legacy, and we must use his words to guide the direction in which we take this great game. Because of the special passion that our game inspires, we have one of the most unique platforms in society. It is our duty to make the most of this important opportunity we have to make an impact on other people's lives. That is why we constantly strive to find ways that would make Jackie proud of his chosen sport."
The Robinson family has had to share its family member with the world, and Sharon Robinson said Tuesday that her late father loved to visit children and speak to them about their future. So how might he have felt to have seen this veritable flood of humanity, all inspired by his name and the search for a future that he helped make possible? Sharon Robinson can tell you only how it makes her feel: Incredible.
"I had one kid just stop me, and he said he'd come all the way from Korea," she said. "This reaches out to a lot of people. I met a young teacher. He said, 'You work with kids? I'm a teacher, and that's what I want to do. Can I send you my resume?' And I was like, 'I don't hire, but yes, send it to me. I'll put it up and you can look into our program. Think about how you might be involved.' It's an opportunity."
It's an opportunity that may not have existed a generation or two ago, and Robinson is thrilled to speak about the people who have made it possible. Robinson praised Selig, Lewis and Tom Brasuell, MLB's vice president of community affairs, for setting a tone that everyone else can follow.
"The baseball in the community stuff is just wonderful," Robinson said of the league's charitable endeavors. "Major League Baseball does some really good things. They really are committed to beyond the playing field, and it makes you feel good to be part of a company that is so invested in the community."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less