CHICAGO | “It’s tough being a kid today.”
Joe Torre, executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball, expertly summed up the theme of the events around the annual Civil Rights Game Saturday at U.S. Cellular Field.
While the fight for civil rights in society with baseball playing a key role via Jackie Robinson and his successors was certainly remembered, past is truly prologue with this issue. The drop of participation of African Americans in baseball from 27 to 8 percent over the last 35 years has bigger societal ramifications.
That was the message Kenny Williams, now the Civil Rights festivities host White Sox executive vice president, drove home emphatically in a roundtable discussion Friday at the downtown Chicago Cultural Center. Williams was by far the star of the show.
“A lot of young men don’t grow up in situations that give them hope,” Williams told a packed auditorium that included Hall of Famers Henry Aaron and Frank Robinson.
Williams believes in making educational opportunities available to inner-city youth first and foremost, long before he cares whether they play baseball and can restore the African-American talent pipeline to the majors. The Sox sponsor the "ACE (Amateur City Elite) program that assists in securing college scholarships for inner-city baseball players.
Before people worry about kids’ “extra-curricular activities,” Williams said, they should be more concerned about the school dropout rate and incarceration for assorted crimes.
And if these complex problems are not tackled, “the game of baseball will be weaker...,” added Thomas Tull, chairman and CEO of Legendary Entertainment, producer of the critically-acclaimed Jackie Robinson biopic “42.”
Football and basketball have long drained away inner-city talent that once flowed heavily toward baseball.
“The glitz of other sports is what we’re up against,” Williams said.
He suggested major-league stadiums be used to host more youth tournaments “to get a taste of glitz…to see the dream.”
Meanwhile, Williams added, “Let’s identify the kid (not good enough play at a high level) who has a passion for the game” to push toward job opportunities in marketing, sales and scouting.
At a star-studded luncheon Saturday at the downtown Marriott, Aaron conducted an uncommon in-depth interview. Exactly 40 years ago in the summer of 1973, Aaron started his run at Babe Ruth’s record of 715 homers, enduring torrents of hate mail and requiring FBI protection for his family. He prevailed over all.
“The only thing I can tell (youths) is that in spite of all of my success, some of them never probably will play baseball,” Aaron said. “We need to think about baseball second, and education first. That’s what I would tell them.”
Still another new civil rights angle is the merging of different Hispanic and Asian cultures into mainstream American baseball. The talent inflow from many directions has prompted Major League Baseball to change its ways.
“That’s a good question,” said Torre. “The last rule change that we’ve had is we’re allowing interpreters on the field during the game. I’ve had experience obviously with Cuban players and Asian players. Even though somebody is going to translate for you, sometimes the terminology is different. Even though the translation may be right, it doesn’t mean you understand what you’re trying to say to them.
“I think we’re making inroads into that area. What’s making this game more welcoming for a lot of these players is teammates rally around them and support them.”