The process started with one man and a dream, and it continues unabated decades later. Jackie Robinson forever changed baseball and American society by breaking the sport's color barrier in 1947, and his spirit lives on in several Major League Baseball initiatives designed to increase opportunities for inner-city children.
Baseball has worked hard to remind people of Robinson's legacy in unprecedented ways, chiefly through retiring his number in every ballpark and by making the anniversary of his debut a league-wide holiday. But it's the ideas that have shot up as a necessary extension of his titanic legacy -- the RBI program and the Urban Youth Academies -- that strike the most familiar chord.
RBI, which stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, has connected thousands of children to needed instruction in both sports and academics, and the Urban Youth Academies have begun to carve out their own footprint. MLB currently operates academies in Compton, Calif., Houston and Puerto Rico, and there's another facility set to open in New Orleans later this summer.
And it's this day -- Jackie Robinson Day -- that helps put everything in proper perspective. Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball development, maintains that we can never give Robinson enough credit for opening baseball and American society to a more progressive future.
"We probably don't give it the proper reflection," said Solomon of Robinson's pioneer spirit. "Our world moves so quickly, and we should stop to think about it more often. Going to urban communities is just an echo of Jackie's first step onto the diamond. Our commitment has to be unwavering. We have to provide access to the game -- and to education -- to the people who don't otherwise have it."
It's that philosophy that has led MLB to creating the Urban Youth Academies and to instituting the annual Civil Rights Game, which celebrates the history of social progress in America. The Urban Youth Academies have already seen some success in the form of dozens of players going on to college or a professional career, and a few of the graduates have even made it to the Major Leagues.
The Houston facility, in fact, will host a Family Fun Day on the day before Jackie Robinson Day, an event that features a college game between Prairie View A&M and Texas Southern. There will also be two games between local youth teams in the RBI program and some educational aspects to boot.
More than 10,000 people attended last year's Family Fun Day, and Solomon hopes that this year's event will draw the same support and also shine a light on the Jackie Robinson Day remembrance.
"It's a celebration for the industry and an acknowledgement that Jackie was more than just a baseball player," he said. "He made integration a lot easier by taking on the burden of society. He was at the forefront of the civil rights movement, and he was part of a grand experiment to allow our society to see that African-Americans and whites could play together and could live together side by side."
Memphis, Cincinnati and Atlanta have already served as hosts for the Civil Rights Game, and Solomon said that three cities have been outspoken in their desire to play host in future seasons.
The Urban Youth Academies have been met with the same positive currents, and MLB is moving forward with plans to open facilities in new cities. The New Orleans campus is scheduled to open in July, and Solomon hopes to progress with plans for Philadelphia and South Florida this winter.
While things are trending in the right direction, Solomon can't help but be aware of the flagging numbers of African-Americans in Major League Baseball. African-Americans accounted for just 8.5 percent of big league players last season, and the number hasn't topped 10.2 percent since 2001.
But if you ask Solomon, that number only speaks to a portion of the facts on the ground.
"You can't expect those numbers to change overnight. We didn't get here overnight," he said. "It's a very gradual change that takes place over a long period of time, and I think the numbers will improve as we continue to progress with RBI and the Urban Youth Academies. And even then, the numbers will get better, but they'll never be the same as they were."
And with that last comment, Solomon was referring to data of the recent past, which reportedly pegged African-Americans as more than 20 percent of the Major League workforce in the '70s. That was a different time, said Solomon, and today's circumstances reflect a different kind of reality.
"Back in the '40s and '50s, horse racing, boxing and baseball were the biggest sports in America. Only one of them remains prominent today," he said of contemporary sporting culture. "Now, we have football and basketball -- sports that African-Americans have recently played in great numbers -- and too many other forms of entertainment. We have so many choices. We have 200 channels on the TV. We have Gameboy and Playstation. And the point is not that we just need more minority players, we need more minority general managers and accountants. We can't lose sight that there are a lot of other vocations in the sport. We want to see better diversity, and we shouldn't just look at the field."