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On the Cardinals: Civil Rights Game off base, but needed

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2009 - If you wonder what former President Bill Clinton is up to these days, you can catch him next Saturday (June 20) when he delivers the keynote address during Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Game weekend in Cincinnati. The game will be televised on the new MLB Network for those with cable or satellite TV.

The St. Louis Cardinals played the Cleveland Indians in the first Civil Rights Game in 2007, an exhibition contest in Memphis the weekend before the regular season began. That contest had a team that was slow to integrate (the Cardinals) against the second team to play a black man (the Indians.)

For the first time, the game will be part of the regular season schedule this year, and it will feature an interleague contest between the Reds and Chicago White Sox.

Clinton will speak prior to the game during The Beacon Awards ceremony luncheon. I hope the ceremony is equal to the outstanding name of the event, if you get my drift.

Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali and Bill Cosby will be honored with Beacon Awards and, in my opinion, once again baseball will congratulate itself for being one of the last major sports to integrate. MLB sees it differently, saying in a press release that the event “was established to honor people working toward civil rights.”

My guess is that if you’re not a sports or entertainment celebrity, you needn’t wait on the call from MLB announcing you as a Beacon Award winner. This game and the ceremonies surrounding it are for show. No more, no less.

But it will spark discussion of black participation in baseball, and that’s a good thing. I’m not angry with baseball for having the event, in fact I support it. But I’m not putting on the rose-colored glasses and excusing MLB’s sorry history when it comes to race. Nor am I ignoring the fact that there were more African-American players when I was a teenager than there are now. It seems impossible, but the sad fact is that this is the truth. Last week, KMOX’s Charlie Brennan devoted some of his entertaining show to the discussion of African-American participation in Major League Baseball. He scoffed at the notion that discrimination played a role in the low numbers. He defiantly stated “blacks play a lot of basketball, blacks play a lot of football,” in addressing the subject.

Of course, several callers backed up his point and, while you can’t really tell a person’s age or race from a voice on the radio, they sounded white to me. They also managed to throw in some shots at affirmative action and other subjects that had nothing to do with baseball or sports. I found myself somewhat offended.

The one thing Brennan and his callers missed is the fact that at many high schools, black athletes are steered to basketball and football. You might not be tall or strong, but somehow, you play one of those two sports.

Baseball is still considered a white sport in many communities. It’s not a coincidence that many schools have predominantly black football and basketball teams, and few if any black baseball players. The seasons don’t overlap. Many black athletes participate in track and field, but the numbers still don’t add up.

There is an invisible barrier separating them from baseball.

I think it is because they don’t feel welcome. This is what has to change to truly bring more black players to baseball. Speeches and awards can’t do it. A change in attitude from Little League to high school in suburban America is what will expedite an increase in African-American participation.

If baseball is indeed America’s Pastime, shouldn’t Americans want to see Americans of all races on MLB diamonds? This is not an insult to the hundreds of foreign-born players on Major League rosters. But residents of the U.S.A. favor their own on the international and Olympic sports stages, why not in baseball?

More award-winning books, plays and movies have been devoted to baseball than all the other major sports combined. If there are few black players, how will the literary and show business world view the game in the future? You can only write about Jackie Robinson so many times, and that subject matter has pretty much been covered.

MLB uses the Civil Rights Game to salute the past more than the future. This is where it strays. The game’s focus should be on generating interest among young black athletes who have not given baseball a chance.

Yes, I see race as part of baseball. I know the Cardinals have just one black player on its 25-man roster in Joe Thurston. I know the Houston Astros reached the World Series in 2005 without one black player on the roster. I know the Milwaukee Brewers are currently the “blackest” team in baseball. I’m not ashamed to say these things are important to me as a black American and a baseball fan.

I also know that the number of black players in MLB is actually up a very small percentage this season. So there is hope. And there is need for a Civil Rights Game – even if its focus is a bit out of whack.

For more information and schedule of events for the 2009 Major League Baseball Civil Rights Game, visit www.mlb.com .

Alvin A. Reid is a weekend host on the new ESPN 101.1 FM. His weekly Major League Baseball - St. Louis Cardinals column, which is now published on The Beacon website, was honored by the Missouri Press Association as Best Sports Column in 2004 and 1999. He is co-author of the book, "Whitey's Boys: A Celebration of the 1982 World Champion St. Louis Cardinals" and was a member of the inaugural staff of USA TODAY Baseball Weekly.