Marking the 67th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, the Rev. Jesse Jackson praised Commissioner Bud Selig for the strides the sport has taken in minority opportunities over the past two decades.
Jackson traveled to baseball's 1992 winter meetings to criticize its lack of minorities in management, and he pushed for change.
Selig retired Robinson's No. 42 in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of the big league debut of the Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman. Selig established a Diverse Business Partners program the following year and in 1999 started requiring clubs to consider at least one minority for each manager and major executive opening. MLB also sponsors 35 Jackie Robinson Foundation Scholars.
Jackson said Jackie Robinson Day had become "a national holiday for all practical purposes."
"To honor Jackie in this way honors the best in America," Jackson told Selig on Tuesday at MLB's third Diversity Business Summit. "In many ways, had Jackie not succeeded you could not have Atlanta Falcons or the Braves or the Carolina Panthers. You could not have these southern teams if Jackie had failed."
Robinson's daughter, Sharon, presented Selig with a large plaque. Jackson spoke from the audience after Selig's speech and told him "you took to heart that challenge."
"I guess if you're commissioner long enough, things can turn around," Selig said later.
For the first time since Robinson's number was retired, no players in the major leagues were wearing No. 42. Players using the number were grandfathered at the time of Selig's announcement, and the last to use No. 42 was Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera, who retired at the end of last season.
"Today all of our players league-wide will wear No. 42 to celebrate the man who helped change the future course of our game and more importantly our country," Selig said.
A ceremony had been scheduled for Yankee Stadium to unveil a plaque commemorating Nelson Mandela's visit to the old Bronx ballpark in 1990. The Yankees' game against the Chicago Cubs was rained out, and the ceremony, which includes Zondwa Mandela, a grandson of the late South African president, was pushed back until Wednesday evening.
Selig frequently points out that Robinson's first game occurred more than a year before President Harry Truman desegregated the US military and seven years before the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board of Education decision that ruled state laws requiring segregated public schools were unconstitutional.
"Baseball must continue to be more than just a game on the field," Selig said. "The game's remarkable ability to serve as a common bond should be used to create opportunities for all people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender."
Selig became acting commissioner in 1992 and got the job permanently in 1998. He plans to retire in January. He said the Diverse Business Partners program had led to purchases of more than $1 billion in goods and services from minority- and women-owned businesses.
But the percentage of African-American players in the major leagues has been cut in half since peaking at about 18 percent at times from the mid-1970s to mid-1980s.
Seattle Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon, who is black, says some of this generation's players don't know of Robinson's accomplishments.
"They don't know a lot about the history, and I don't really blame it all on them. I think their generation is a generation that was force-fed these things," he said, holding up a smart phone. "Everything's now. Not much of an appreciation for the past and what it meant, particularly when it comes to baseball and baseball players. The paths that were paved for them, I don't think they really get it, or really understand it."
AP Sports Writer Stephen Hawkins in Arlington, Texas, contributed to this report.
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