Civil Rights weekend roundup: on the issues, the progress and the work still to be done.

Emptying the notebook after a fantastic Civil Rights weekend in Chicago, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington…

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Is college baseball hurting the Major Leagues?

The Civil Rights roundtable discussion last Friday at the Chicago Cultural Center touched on several talking points, one being that the lack of African-American ballplayers in the Major Leagues can be attributed partly to the lack of substantial baseball scholarships offered at the collegiate level. Most baseball programs don’t offer full rides, opting instead to utilize partial scholarships that not only don’t fully cover tuition, but don’t provide enough for books, room and board, etc.

This deters a large population of the young athletes who can’t otherwise afford it from pursuing baseball. They go the football/basketball route, where scholarship money is more plentiful.

“It sets the African-American baseball player back 15 years,” said MLB Network’s Harold Reynolds, who moderated the roundtable discussion. “These days a lot of teams like to draft college players and not high school players, and you just cut the legs off of African-American players.”

The notion that baseball has become too expensive would have been laughed at one or two generations ago. But not anymore. The intensity level of competition seems to have increased over the years, with select and traveling teams often the only way for a kid to participate in competitive organized baseball. This costs money. And subsequently, it eliminates a huge number of kids from being able to pursue baseball in earnest.

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Hank Aaron and Harold Reynolds at the roundtable discussion at the Chicago Cultural Center.

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Longtime sports columnist Michael Wilbon, a veteran newspaper man perhaps best known for his work as half of the duo on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” was the keynote speaker at the Beacon Awards Luncheon honoring Bo Jackson and Aretha Franklin on Saturday. A native Chicagoan, Wilbon spoke passionately about his love for baseball as a kid growing up on the south side. Apparently, he could play a little, too.

“I thought I was unhittable,” he said. “Until this tank of a kid — five-foot-six, 200 pounds…he crushed a pitch that I threw about 370 feet.” Wilbon asked a teammate after the game who that kid was.

“Somebody said, ‘You don’t know who that is?'” Wilbon recalled. “‘It’s Puckett. Kirby Puckett.’

Wilbon laughed as he remembered responding, ‘OK. Let’s keep track of him.”

Fast forward 10 years. Wilbon was now a sports reporter for the Washington Post and, upon walking into the Minnesota Twins clubhouse, Puckett approached him.

“He said, ‘Don’t I know you? You look familiar,'” Wilbon recalled. “I said ‘Nah. It’s got to be someone else. We’ve never seen each other.”

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Wilbon was a White Sox fan, but later rooted for the Cubs as well, despite a disturbing incident his father encountered many years earlier at Wrigley Field. An avid Cubs fan at the time, Wilbon’s dad attempted to buy a ticket to watch Jackie Robinson’s first game at Wrigley, but he was, according to Wilbon, “shooed away from the box office.”

Apparently, the racism Robinson experienced as the first black player in the big leagues extended to the grandstands as well.

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Hank Aaron, as has been well-documented, had to deal with unspeakable racism during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record. He heard the taunts from the stands and received terrible, threatening, hateful letters from the lowest of the low, many of which included death threats that promised not only to affect him, but his family, too.

Yet to hear Aaron talk about it today, he feels anything he had to endure was nothing compared to what Robinson had to deal with when he broke the color barrier in 1947.

“Listen, I just went through a little tidbit of what Jackie went through…I had nothing,” Aaron said before the Beacon Awards luncheon. “All I had to do was walk out there and hit a baseball, go back in somewhere and hide and go back out the next day and hit another baseball. Jackie had some tough times. I happened to play against him the last two or three years that he played. He probably had the toughest of all.”

On a lighter note, Aaron asked by a local reporter to conjure up any fond memories of his time playing at Chicago-based Wrigley Field, remembered one particular game that left him, at the time, speechless.

“The thing I remember most about playing at Wrigley Field was hitting probably the hardest ball I ever hit in my life off Kenny Holtzman when he pitched a no-hitter,” Aaron said. “I thought for sure I hit a home run, and the wind blew it right back.

Aaron felt like it could have cleared the bleachers. But, no.

“It was the hardest ball I ever hit,” he said. “I don’t know how it stayed in the ballpark.”

Aaron was also quick to add that he was Holtzman’s final obstacle before nailing down the no-hitter: “He wasn’t afraid to pitch to me. He came right back and got me out for the last out.”

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Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was just entering the big leagues when Jackie Robinson was nearing retirement, and other than the two taking a picture together before a game, they didn’t cross paths as active players.

“My manager took me over and we posed for a picture, but after that, it was business as usual,” Frank Robinson said. “I believed in not fraternizing with the opposition while you’re in uniform.”

That changed once Jackie was finished with his playing career. Frank visited him at his office when Jackie was working for Chock Full O’Nuts.

“I spent a couple of hours with him just talking about baseball, about life, about the game away from the field and what the responsibilities were of me coming in and people of my color coming in at the time,” Robinson said. “Our responsibilities on and off the field. Really, it was the only time I talked to him.”

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Spend five minutes talking with Sharon Robinson, Jackie’s daughter, and it becomes apparent she’s a true slice of living history, with amazingly moving anecdotes about her father.

Jackie was of course well-known for the impact he had on Major League Baseball, but what he did once he retired shouldn’t be overlooked. After retiring in 1957, he really had two full-time jobs: as an executive for Chock Full O’Nuts, and as an advocate for the Civil Rights movement that took up almost as much time.

Jackie had a deal with his boss that he would be allowed to take off work to fulfill commitments all over the country as a Civil Rights Movement spokesman. In his free time, he and his family hosted jazz concerts at their home to raise money for various organizations as well as for families of victims of hate crimes.

The first guest? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., not long after he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.

“It was an unbelievable moment in our lives to see him at the March on Washington and then to see him up close and personal and see he was a warm and engaging person,” Sharon remembered.

Jackie Robinson died before a Major League Baseball team hired its first black manager, but he spent the final years of his life tirelessly pressing the league to break down that barrier, as well. His last statement to baseball was, according to Sharon, “I’m glad we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary [of his debut]. We might have broken this color barrier but still, I’m looking out there and there are no black managers.”

“He was still egging them on at the last moment,” Sharon said. “That baseball has to continue to change. That America has to continue to change.”

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3 Comments

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Good writing. It’s criminal the college football programs cannot spread more of their wealth to other programs so full rides can be given in other sports. That is over simplification of a complex situation I’m sure, but I never knew baseball scholarships at college level might not be full ones. In regards to 42, I almost wish the brutality of what he endured could have been put on full display. What we saw in the film was surely watered down to make it palatable.

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