HOUSTON -- It was never just a game. The links between Major League Baseball and the ongoing struggle for civil rights in America took center stage Thursday, when a distinguished panel of athletes and executives sat down for a discussion on how sports have helped shape society.
The event -- a Roundtable Discussion at Union Station in Houston's Minute Maid Park -- was the first of the Civil Rights Game weekend, and it took place in front of a diverse audience that included Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron and a whole host of Houston-area students.
Ernest Green, one of the guests of honor, spelled out the link between sports and social progress in strikingly clear fashion. Green was one of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students that were the first to integrate Arkansas high schools in the wake of the Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, and he said that he took inspiration from the obstacles faced by Jackie Robinson in baseball.
"We saw baseball as a vehicle that would lead to us being accepted," Green said of the sport's societal impact. "It was something that brought courage in our communities and made people stand up a little bit straighter. It made them believe they could achieve as much as anybody else. I tip my hat to baseball. It made a significant difference in how this country is providing for itself today."
Green's story was undoubtedly the most dramatic, but it dovetailed nicely with the tales of the other participants. Linda Alvarado -- the first Latino woman to be part of an MLB ownership group -- took part in the discussion, as did former players J.R. Richard, Harold Reynolds and Bob Watson.
Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, was also part of the panel, and the discussion was moderated by Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree. Time and time again, the focus came back to how baseball has doubled as an engine for progress.
Alvarado, a member of the Colorado Rockies' ownership group and the chief executive officer of Alvarado Construction, said that civil rights aren't always about ethnicity. Sometimes, they're about gender, and women are constantly proving that they can thrive in any industry they choose.
"I've been told constantly I don't look the part," Alvarado said of her dual careers. "What is the part? The stereotypical idea that there are traditional fields for men and for women. We have to change that stereotype, and we are. Being a Hispanic and a woman -- a woman of color -- they call that the double whammy. ... But even in math, if you multiply two negatives, what do you get? A positive."
Green, the first of the Little Rock Nine to graduate, later served in President Jimmy Carter's cabinet and was honored by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. But there was a time when his simple quest for education was controversial, and it was a time that many Americans today would find hard to fathom.
Green and his fellow eight pioneers stepped into a cauldron of hatred in Little Rock in 1957, and the state's governor called out the National Guard to stop them from entering the school. A few weeks later, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent federal troops to make sure the students were properly protected.
That decision -- and the fortitude showed by Green and his peers -- helped irrevocably change the country for hundreds of millions of people, but the seeds for social progress had been sown a decade earlier when Robinson broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
"Baseball was more than a game," Green said. "My experience in Little Rock, that first day with the troops out front barring our entrance, I thought to myself, 'What would Jackie Robinson do?' It was breaking through that fear. That's what baseball represented to me. Once you thought about what Jackie Robinson was going to do, that crowd, those troops, the government -- all of that -- didn't matter."
Indeed, before Robinson, the country was a totally different place. Kendrick spoke of the Negro Leagues and how they represented a symbol of unity and nationalism for minorities in America.
Yes, they may have been barred from competing in the Majors before Robinson's triumph, but African-Americans and Latinos were adamant in proving they could play the national pastime. And the interesting thing, said Kendrick, is that their fans proved there was a market for diversity.
"It wasn't just creating a platform for black and hispanic players to showcase their world-class baseball ability. This was big business," Kendrick said. "The players weren't making a lot of money, but the owners were making a lot of money. They were selling out ballparks around the country.
"It's a celebration of the power of the human spirit to persevere, and that's a story that never goes out of style. It's the kind of story that young people should be introduced to. It's such a powerfully impacting story about men that just flat-out refused to accept the notion that they couldn't do something."
Watson, who later became the first African-American general manager in the Major Leagues, was just 1 year old when Robinson changed the game and the nation forever. But by the time Watson was ready to play professionally, the enviroment was still racially charged and insensitive.
Watson grew up in California, and he said Robinson's name was often invoked in his house as a source of inspiration. But when he played his first Minor League season in Salisbury, N.C., Watson said that he was so demoralized by the living conditions that he considered packing it in for good.
"If you hit a home run or threw a shutout or were the star of the game, you got a certificate for a Salisbury steak," Watson said. "I couldn't go in the restaurant to get the steak. They wouldn't even let me have it out the back door. Again, I talked to my grandmother and said, 'I'm coming home.' She said, 'No, no, no. Jackie went through a lot worse than that. And if he can do it, you can do it."
One interesting side note from the group discussion came from a question posed by Ogletree to the panel, and that involved whether there is more to athletic success than talent. One by one, they answered and said that physical skill was important but useless without the proper attitude.
"For the most part, that's true. But in a lot of senses, that's not true, because there are things that go along with the process," Richard said. "You've got to be able to listen. And you know as well as I do that everything starts at home. If you don't listen at home, you're not going to listen out here."
"Attitude is part of your ego. It's the part that drives you. But in one sense, you have to rein it in and go along with the organization that you're with," Watson said of a player's temperament. "Being a general manager, I had a couple sayings: 'Be on time and check your ego at the door.' And if you didn't want to do that, I'd make a phone call or two and see if we can't move you down the highway."
Robinson and Aaron, two of the game's greatest players, took in the whole conversation and took their own turns addressing the crowd. Robinson, the only player to win Most Valuable Player in both leagues and the first African-American manager in Major League history, spoke of his humble roots and how he had to slide on asphalt -- frequently ripping his pants in the process -- to play the game he loved.
Robinson played on clubs with segregated housing in the Minor Leagues, and he said that he endured persistent racism on his trek to the Majors. But he didn't let it deter him. Robinson, in fact, said that the entire experience with prejudice made him that much more determined to realize his ambitions.
Part of that strength, he said, came from his mother, who understood how much he loved the game and could sense that he had a talent for it. Robinson said his mother pushed him to succeed and encouraged him to follow his dreams, and he was fortunate enough to live them to a "T."
"Today's a little different, but you still have to be determined and know what you want to do and be willing to work for it," Robinson said. "[My mother] said, 'Don't ever expect for anything to be given to you. Be willing to work for it.' ... I'm very happy that I grew up in that time. Times are greater now and there's a lot of opportunities out there for young people. Take advantage of them."
Aaron, who retired as the game's all-time home run king, spoke of succeeding despite humble origins. There were no fences at the parks he frequented, and players shared gloves. But the important thing, said Aaron, is making sure that you always keep the sport in perspective.
"I played it for 23 years, and I did the very best that I could possibly do in it," Aaron said. "Remember one thing: The only thing you want to prove in this world is how you achieve your goals, what you set for your sights. If you want to hit home runs, you can hit home runs. If you want to play the game the way it's supposed to be played, you can play it.
"But the most important thing is to make sure you get the most out of your ability. How do you do that? Continue your education, please. Continue your education and don't let anybody tell you that you can't do it. Please remember that you can do whatever you set in your sights to do. And that means baseball, football, basketball. Whatever it is."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com