Civil rights take center stage

CHICAGO -- The first pitch Saturday kicked off Major League Baseball’s annual Civil Rights Game, but the event was more about the events that occurred leading up to the contest between the Chicago White Sox and Texas Rangers.

Bo Jackson and Aretha Franklin were given the MLB Beacon of Change Award before the game. Jackson was on hand to receive his, while former major leaguer Willie Horton accepted for Franklin.

There was a roundtable discussion Friday on baseball and civil rights, followed by Saturday's Beacon Awards luncheon to honor those who "embody the spirit of the civil rights movement."

Sharing in the honorary first-pitch duties Saturday were former Negro Leagues pitcher Ernie Westfield, former Negro Leagues player and White Sox legend Minnie Minoso, Sharon Robinson, who is the daughter of Jackie Robinson, and Larry Doby Jr., son of Hall of Famer Larry Doby. White Sox assistant hitting coach Harold Baines caught the first pitch.

“A lot of this is paying tribute to the guys who came before us,” said Baines, one of two African-Americans on the White Sox coaching staff, along with Daryl Boston. “They should never be forgotten.”

According to a White Sox release, “The Civil Rights Game will pay tribute to all those who fought on and off the field for equal rights for all Americans. The game, along with the ancillary events, allows MLB to pay tribute to all of those who have fought and continue to fight injustice.”

It was the seventh time MLB held a Civil Rights Game. It started in 2007 as an exhibition contest between major league teams in Memphis, Tenn., before it became a regular-season game starting in 2009. The White Sox have taken part in three Civil Rights Games, but were hosting one for the first time.

“It’s just recognizing what we’ve all been through, where we’ve come from and where we are going,” said pitcher Donnie Veal, the only African-American player on the current White Sox roster. “Absolutely, there is a sense of pride to that.”

Former players participating in events around Chicago this week in support of the Civil Rights Game included Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ferguson Jenkins and Frank Thomas.

White Sox manager Robin Ventura was asked about the continuing debate surrounding the dwindling numbers of African-Americans in baseball.

“For baseball, you're seeing that effort out there,” Ventura said. “Around here, we saw the Jackie Robinson Little League almost make it to the Little League World Series. That's great stuff to hear, and we do have a lot of African-American players that are up and coming. I don't think it's one of those that they're steering away from it.”

Highly regarded African-American players in the White Sox’s system include Jared Mitchell, Keenyn Walker, Courtney Hawkins and Trayce Thompson. Overall, though, the lower numbers suggest a lost generation of African-American players in baseball.

“I think you can probably blame Michael Jordan for that,” Ventura said. “I don't think it's a bad thing for them to look up to [Jordan] and play other sports. There is baseball, and I think it's been a big movement to be able to get Little League and baseball into the inner cities and give them a chance to play.”