CHICAGO -- Major League Baseball, under the leadership of Commissioner Bud Selig, has taken gigantic steps in its effort to not only diversify the game, but also create opportunities for young people to someday pursue careers in the industry, both on the field and off.
The movement continues to push forward, but there is still work to be done, according to a blue-chip panel that gathered to discuss baseball as -- in the infamous words of Commissioner Selig -- a "social institution," with responsibilities extending far beyond turnstiles, statistics and standings.
Fittingly, a group of kids from the White Sox RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and ACES (Amateur City Elite) programs, both of which extend opportunities to local inner-city kids, were in the audience. This created a perfect forum for the group to offer life lessons, including a need to understand where they came from and have a clear vision of where they want to go.
"If you don't know your history, you don't know where you're going," moderator Harold Reynolds of MLB Network said. "You don't know where you're going if you don't know where you came from."
Education, presentation and the importance of first impressions were overlying themes of the 90-minute civil rights roundtable discussion that officially kicked off a Civil Rights weekend celebration in Chicago. The Civil Rights Game will take place Saturday night between the White Sox and Rangers at U.S. Cellular Field. On the dais in the 200-seat auditorium at the Chicago Cultural Center were Thomas Tull, chairman and chief executive officer of Legendary Entertainment and producer of the feature film "42"; Kenny Williams, executive vice president of the Chicago White Sox; Wendy Lewis, senior vice president, diversity and strategic alliances for Major League Baseball; Larry Reynolds, founder and CEO of Reynolds Sports Management; and Shari Runner, senior vice president for strategy and community development of the Chicago Urban League.
The audience was also full of major star power. Sitting in the front row were former MLB player and manager Willie Randolph; Tigers star outfielder Willie Horton and Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron.
The decrease in the number of African-American players in baseball over time has been a concern throughout the industry for years, despite major strides that have been made thanks to programs such as RBI and the Urban Youth Academies that have been, and will continue to be, built all over the country. Still, there is more work to be done, and, according to passionate dialogue by several panelists, it has to start with one overriding concept: education.
No one was more emphatic about this than Williams, who directly addressed the kids in attendance from the White Sox RBI and ACES programs, both of which extend opportunities to local inner-city kids.
Williams spoke of growing up in a household with a mother who was "a second or third member of the Black Panther Party in Oakland" and of a father who had to take legal measures in order to be a firefighter in San Jose. He was to be the first black firefighter in the region, and the journey to attain that goal was anything but easy.
"He had to go to court to fight for the right to risk his life to help people," Williams said.
Political discussions were plentiful in his house as he grew up, Williams said, but the one thing that was lacking was any resentment of what they had to go through to get where they wanted to be.
Instead, Williams said, "They chose to educate their children. First of all, to empower them by making them develop their minds just as vigorously as they were developing their body and their athletic skills. That was a must in that household."
Williams is an advocate for creating opportunities for minorities in baseball and finding ways for everyone -- regardless of economic backgrounds and financial challenges -- to play or work in the industry. It needs to start with education and building character, and to show kids there are opportunities, including outside the playing field, that can help build a bright future.
Larry Reynolds, a longtime and well-known sports agent, insisted baseball can't progress significantly on the professional level without supporting youth programs and making sure kids have a sound teaching program in place before the age of 12.
"It's going to be difficult to get kids playing Major League Baseball if they're not playing Little League," Reynolds said.
One of the major hurdles? Expense. It's not cheap to be a part of traveling teams and select leagues, and then later, in the college ranks, kids have a hard time making a commitment because of the lack of scholarship dollars available to baseball players.
On the youth level, Williams said executives are kicking around the idea of giving kids a bird's eye view of how it would feel to play on a Major League field -- literally.
"Why not let each individual team allow their particular youth programs to play in that Major League stadium so they can get a taste of the glitz?" Williams said. "Those tryout camps, those tournaments can be held in Major League ballparks. Then they can start to dream."
While monetary hurdles are still very much on the table and are still in need of a resolution, Lewis suggested a sure-fire, free way to help the generations behind us: the offer of time, and assistance.
In other words, help those who are seeking it with wisdom, advice and a gentle nudge in the right direction.
"The people sitting in front of you, the people sitting behind you," Lewis said. "The people who aren't here. You're worth investing in. If you don't know who they are, believe they are there. Don't ever stop believing in yourself."
Harold Reynolds said later he didn't want to be too politically correct during the discussion, preferring instead to tackle the topics head on.
"We got the issues out and they hit home, and I think we did a good job," he said.
While there is still work to do, obviously, Reynolds noted how much change he's witnessed over the last several decades since he first broke into the big leagues in 1983.
"There was still the question of the mentality of African-American players," he said. "Are they strong enough, are they smart enough? That's changed an awful lot in the game. That's not really a question now. It comes down to ability. That's been the biggest change, I think."