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In Selig's legacy, civil rights is at the core

Commissioner makes honoring Jackie, baseball's civic history a point of focus

HOUSTON -- It had been a long day, an emotional day. It had been a good day, too.

"You're proud to be a commissioner of baseball when you have a day like this," Bud Selig said.

He'd spent time with Hank Aaron, a friend for almost 60 years. He'd visited with Jackie Robinson's widow, Rachel, and daughter, Sharon.

"They are like family to me," he said.

He began it with one of the most powerful speeches he has ever given, a tribute to baseball and civil rights, to sacrifice and service.

He finished it by contemplating again the complicated, incredible story of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson.

One of these days, we'll look back and attempt to assess Selig's amazing legacy as commissioner.

We'll agree he reshaped his sport in ways large and small, that baseball has gone places that seemed absolutely incomprehensible when he took over in 1992.

Among his accomplishments: Interleague Play, Wild Card playoff berths, competitive balance, a generation of new ballparks and one of the great success stories in American business -- Major League Baseball Advanced Media.

To some of us who've known and admired him through the years, it's a day like he had on Friday that might be No. 1.

Under Selig, baseball has embraced and celebrated its role as an agent of change in the American civil rights movement.

Selig is proud that Jackie Robinson's breaking of the sport's color barrier in 1947 was a catalyst for change.

"As much as any man, Jackie Robinson helped make the nation complete," Selig told the Beacon Awards luncheon Friday afternoon.

Later, he again contemplated all that was riding on Rickey's decision to sign Robinson and Robinson's ability to play well and keep his cool.

"It is emotional," Selig said. "I've often said that April 15th, 1947, was the most powerful and important moment in baseball history. In fact, that day elevates Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey. It was amazing if you think back on it.

"Think of the pressure on [Robinson]. Branch Rickey brings a player to the big leagues even though he knew the other 15 clubs didn't want him. The pressure on Jackie Robinson. ... I can't even imagine. And Henry Aaron. We've been friends for 58 years. He said he wouldn't have played but for Jackie Robinson. What if Jackie had failed? It eventually would have happened, but who knows what eventually means? Twenty years? Thirty years?

"So here's baseball, clearly a social institution. It has all the indigenous characteristics. Three and a half years before Harry Truman desegregated the United States Army, seven years before Brown versus Board of Education, Jackie Robinson comes to the big leagues. Amazing story."

Selig has made Robinson's legacy a focus of his 22 years as commissioner. He retired Robinson's No. 42 throughout baseball and set aside a day to celebrate Robinson's memory once a year.

As a result, an entire generation of fans -- and players -- understands both Robinson's pain and his importance to the game.

That's also what the Civil Rights Game is about. This is the eighth one. The Astros beat the Orioles, 2-1, at Minute Maid Park on Friday.

It was a day that began with Maya Angelou, Berry Gordy and Jim Brown being honored at the Beacon Awards luncheon for their contributions.

"The Civil Rights Game has become our platform to commemorate the courage and dignity of those who contributed to our sport during this ground-breaking era," Selig said to the packed ballroom. "We applaud those who've broken barriers, paved new paths, enriched our culture in various ways.

"Ultimately, the great American game became the catalyst for social change. That's why we're here today -- to remember and reflect and shine a light on a chapter in our history that put us on the road to equality."

He saluted the host team, the Astros, for their charitable works, saying, "These powerful examples show how our clubs use their stature for the best possible end."

He also quoted President Woodrow Wilson, who in 1913 said, "You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand."

And that was the theme for the entire event. Much has been accomplished. Much remains to be done.

"I recognized a long time ago that there's nothing greater than helping another human being take a positive step," Brown said.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
Read More: Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros