HOUSTON -- Credit an industry for spurring social progress. Major League Baseball mixed business with idealism Wednesday at the second annual Diversity Business Summit, a day-long conference that allows the league to evaluate potential employees and entrepreneurs seeking work in sports.
Wendy Lewis, MLB's vice president of diversity and strategic alliances, had conceived of the summit long ago, and she patiently watched as the event birthed itself last year in Chicago. This year, the second incarnation of the Summit, meant that Lewis had seen her concept turn into an institution.
Lewis, along with Commissioner Bud Selig, played host to the Diversity Business Summit on Wednesday at the George R. Brown Convention Center, and she beamed as hundreds of job-seekers milled about the premises and met with representatives from each of the league's teams.
"I'm very, very, very pleased," said Lewis of the second summit. "I'm pleased to be here in Houston, which is truly rich in diversity and business and opportunity. We really feel blessed to have the kind of leadership and support that Commissioner Selig displays year after year, along with the leadership of [Astros owner] Jim Crane. To have all of those worlds come together, it's really a good day."
Crane took part in a panel discussion involving a few of the league's high-powered executives on Wednesday morning. That was only part of the draw, though, and many attendees were swayed by the chance to pitch their own credentials.
Each of the MLB teams had a few representatives on hand to meet with potential job-seekers, and several of the conference attendees got a face-to-face sitdown with their chosen employer. For Selig, though, the novel idea goes all the way back to an iconic player.
Selig, a student of history, often references Jackie Robinson as one of the most influential people of the 20th century. Robinson didn't just change sports and society by breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947, said Selig, he also set an example for how responsible industries should act in the future.
"When Jackie Robinson entered the big leagues and ended segregation in baseball and in all sports, this sport was thrust to the forefront of the Civil Rights movement," said Selig. "Baseball must continue to be more than just a game on the field. The game's remarkable ability to serve as a common bond can be used to create opportunities for all people, regardless of race, religion and gender."
That remarkable power was on display, when hundreds of job-seekers from all ages and backgrounds flooded the George R. Brown Convention Center. Some were recent graduates seeking entry-level positions, and some were vendors hoping for a chance to do business in baseball.
But the bottom line is that these two groups need each other. The conference attendees were hoping to find meaningful employment, and Major League Baseball was looking for new people with new ideas. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Congresswoman who represents the local constituency, wasn't able to attend the Summit, but she succinctly phrased why it was an important event.
"I know why you're here at the second annual Summit in Houston," said Jackson Lee via a video message. "I'm so proud to say to you that the 18th Congressional District and the city of Houston is one of the most colorful, excitingly diverse districts and cities in the world. And because of this diverse population, we are perfect for this Summit, because we work together harmoniously. We stand side-by-side. We appreciate and respect each other's cultural and ethnic differences."
Dr. Richard Lapchick, son of former Knicks coach Joe Lapchick and one of the nation's foremost authorities on diversity in sports, was on hand to introduce Selig. Lapchick, who helms The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, has graded each of America's major sports on its ability to introduce diversity in its hiring practices, and he saved special praise for Selig.
Back in 1998, said Lapchick, when Selig officially became the Commissioner, just 13 percent of front-office employees were people of color, and only 18 percent were women. Fast-forward 15 years, said Lapchick, and baseball's executives are now 36 percent minority and 31 percent women.
And that's not a coincidence. Lapchick credited Selig for introducing a rule in 1999 that forced teams to interview a diverse group of candidates when seeking a new manager. The National Football League later enacted a similar policy, and Lapchick said that drew an inordinate amount of praise.
"Bud Selig responded to the need to have more managers of color because it was the right thing to do and really doesn't get anywhere near the credit the NFL does," he said. "Bud Selig did this two years before them. ... He and his team, led by Wendy Lewis, have transformed Major League Baseball from front offices that looked almost all white to front offices that now look like America."
Selig delivered the keynote address, and he underlined why Houston was an appropriate place for the conference. He lauded the Astros for their involvement in refurbishing local fields as part of the RBI program -- short for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities -- and he credited the Astros for building an Urban Youth Academy and hosting the league's Urban Invitational tourney.
Over time, though, MLB would like to see each of the big league cities host the Diversity Business Summit, and Selig referenced Robinson again to explain why. Robinson may not be bigger than the game, per se, but his experience has irrevocably altered the league and its landscape.
"Baseball would not be the national pastime without pioneers like Jackie Robinson and all of those that followed his example," said Selig of the heroic icon of sports and society. "That's why Jackie's words have stayed with me every day that I've held this position. He once said, 'A life is not important except for the impact it has on other lives.' We must always shine a light on Jackie's life and legacy and we must use his words to guide the direction in which we take our great game."
Baseball figuratively followed that compass, and the coming weeks will bring new opportunities for countless conference attendees. Dozens of people found new positions through the first Summit, and all of the attendees were entered into a database for future openings.
The number of attendees was relatively stable between the first year and the second, and MLB hopes to see the phenomenon grow over the next few seasons. Word of mouth will travel once more jobs open up, and Lewis said that some networkers are thrilled to come back for more.
"One growth metric that's interesting is how many people are here that were in Chicago. There's no better way to measure success than repeat business," said Lewis. "It's more than we expected considering that some of the people that have gone to both weren't from Chicago. They traveled to another city, Houston, and we also have a small contingent that came from Chicago. I'm getting a lot of questions about where it will be next, so I think we might have something here."
Lewis was smiling with that last comment, and it was the grin of someone who had seen her dream come to fruition. MLB will continue to try to find ways to increase diversity on the field and in the front office, a neverending process that enriches the game by seeking different trains of thought.
"We need to continue to create opportunities in as many places as is humanly possible," said Selig. "This program is huge today. In five or 10 years from now, it will be stunning."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com.