HOUSTON -- On that first day at Little Rock Central High School in 1957, Ernest Green was inspired by Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella and Junior Gilliam.
On the shoulders of giants ...
"It was my connection to baseball that helped me through that time," Green said Thursday.
Indeed, baseball shined a fearless light on this chapter of American history. As Commissioner Bud Selig has said, Jackie Robinson stands alone as baseball's finest hour.
And that's what Major League Baseball is celebrating this week. Its eighth annual Civil Rights Game between the Orioles and Astros on Friday is the culmination of two days that are a celebration of Jackie Robinson as well as a discussion of race in America.
It began Thursday at Minute Maid Park with a roundtable discussion on an assortment of topics. Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson told a packed ballroom with a large number of school children about their own journey and about the importance of education and perseverance.
Both men say they were inspired by Jackie Robinson. Along the way, they helped make things easier for the generations that followed.
On the shoulders of giants ...
"These men (Aaron and Frank Robinson) are inviting you to stand on their shoulders," said Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, who moderated the discussion.
Frank Robinson said that Jackie's debut with the Dodgers inspired him. Suddenly, there would be no manmade barrier.
If he was good enough, he would have a chance.
"That's what drove me," he said.
Jackie Robinson's spirit hovered over the discussion. So did that of Maya Angelou, the poet and pioneer who died on Wednesday. She was scheduled to be on hand to be honored at the Beacon Awards Luncheon on Friday.
"We lost a great warrior," Ogletree said.
Through the years, countless other warriors have emerged. Green was one of the Little Rock nine, a group of students who endured an ocean of threats and insults to integrate one of the largest high schools in the South.
When he walked amid the troops that day in Little Rock, when he confronted almost paralyzing fear, he was inspired by baseball's pioneers.
"Baseball was more than a game to me," Green said. "It was my connection to baseball that would help get me through those years. When you thought about what Jackie Robinson had done, what he had gone through, those troops didn't matter."
It was way, way more than a game.
He remembered a trip to St. Louis to see the Dodgers play the Cardinals when he first laid eyes on Jackie Robinson. What would have happened to the American civil rights movement if Robinson hadn't broken baseball's color line in 1947 with such courage and dignity?
If he had failed as either a player or a man, how long would it have taken to integrate schools and restaurants, to make discrimination illegal and to elect a black President of the United States?
"To me, baseball was just a vehicle that brought us courage and help make people stand up a little bit straighter," Green said. "I tip my hat to baseball." At times, Jackie Robinson has become more of an idea than a living, breathing human being, one who suffered almost incomprehensible cruelty to help change the world.
And he did change it.
Martin Luther King Jr. often credited Robinson with forcing white America to see the world differently than they'd ever seen it before.
If Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese could be teammates and friends, if they could treat one another with respect and work together for a common goal, why can't the world change in other ways, too?
Again and again, the discussion returned to Robinson.
Bob Watson played 19 seasons in the big leagues and worked as general manager of both the Yankees and Astros.
In the beginning, though, he was a scared kid from Southern California assigned to a Minor League team in Salisbury, N.C.
One day, having been told he could not enter either the front or back door of a popular restaurant, he phoned home ready to quit.
"Now you have to understand, we were Dodger fans," he said. "My grandfather was a huge Dodger fan.
When Watson thought he'd had enough, he was reminded of Robinson.
"Jackie had it a whole lot worse than that," he was told. "If Jackie can do it, you can too."
Watson played his first big league game a year later and arrived for good three years after that. He remains grateful -- and respectful -- of Jackie Robinson.
In the end, that's what baseball is remembering. Baseball is paying tribute to its greatest pioneer while also attempting to inspire another generation of players.
"Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do it," Aaron said.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less