MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Major League Baseball began an effort to emphasize its place in the history of America's struggle for racial equality just one day after a study said only 8.4 percent of its players last season were African American, the lowest level in at least two decades.
Participants in a panel discussion Friday night on baseball's civil rights history agreed that baseball should crank up efforts with community groups, schools and others to interest more young blacks in the sport.
"To play this game you have to start early and play continuously," Hall of Famer Dave Winfield said. "You can't say, 'Oh, this is a good opportunity' at 14 or 15 years old. It's too late. You'll never catch up. Baseball is tougher than the other sports in that respect."
The panel discussion was held on the eve of the first "Civil Rights Game," which is expected to become an annual event. The
inaugural game was set for Saturday between the Cleveland Indians
and the St. Louis Cardinals.
The game is part of an effort to highlight its place in the history of America's struggle for racial equality.
"Baseball integrated long before [the public schools] and also before the armed forces," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations.
Baseball's color barrier was broken when Jackie Robinson, signed by Dodgers' executive Branch Rickey, started playing for Brooklyn in 1947.
Rickey's grandson, Branch Rickey III, said at the panel discussion that both men put their careers in the other's hands with the historic move.
The elder Rickey needed not only a talented player, but also one would keep his cool and not strike back at detractors, Rickey III said, and Robinson needed a league executive he could trust.
"It was an extraordinary partnership and I think a wonderful example for us today," Rickey said.
While panel members offered few specifics, they agreed that baseball must look for ways to make big league players more attractive as role models for African American youngsters.
"It's going to take a partnership that hasn't existed yet in Major League Baseball between Major League Baseball and the players," Winfield said. "A better working relationship has to be established ... where you can utilize present-day players to really reach the kids."
As recently as 1995, 19 percent of big leaguers were African American, according to Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. Nine percent were African American in both 2004 and 2005, and the current figure is the lowest since at least the mid-1980s, he said.
Just 3 percent of pitchers were blacks in 2006, Lapchick said Thursday in his annual study, the same as the previous year.
African Americans were banned from major league baseball for about 60 years until Robinson stepped on the field for the Dodgers.
With so many young African Americans attracted to basketball and other sports, too few grow up knowing how to play baseball or understand strategic moves of "the game within the game," said Solomon of the MLB.
The annual "Civil Rights Game" is part of baseball's efforts, he said, "to make sure that the American pastime remains just that, the American pastime."
Before Saturday's game, baseball scheduled a luncheon to present its first "Beacon Awards" for efforts to further civil rights. Chosen to receive the awards were filmmaker Spike Lee; Vera Clemente, the widow of Pirates great Roberto Clemente; and the late Buck O'Neil, a former Negro Leagues player and the first black coach in the major leagues.