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Robinson's daughter: 'We have a long way to go'

Nearly 70 years after her father broke baseball's color barrier, Jackie Robinson's daughter Sharon recently got a stark reminder that society hasn't come as far as it might think.

"Two weeks ago, my father's statue with Pee Wee Reese in Brooklyn [was defaced] where they wrote racist and anti-Semitic marks on the statue, so the amount of hate in this country is scary," she said. "We have a long way to go."

With some of the biggest names in baseball history assembled at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile for the Beacon Awards Luncheon before the annual Civil Rights Game on Saturday, all wanted to make one thing clear.

There is still a significant amount of progress to be made, and lingering social prejudices are only part of the issue.

"We're in a different phase," Sharon Robinson said. "We need to have another Civil Rights movement. Having us all reflect on the past is hopefully helping us to think about where we need to go with it."

As for how baseball can help, some of the game's legendary figures, including Hank Aaron, said it starts with getting African-American kids as interested in the game like his generation was.

Aaron and others said declining interest among African-American youths is of great concern to them. And stemming that tide seems to be something they can't easily knock out of the park.

"Elite players can go to different sports now," said Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, the first African-American manager in Major League Baseball history. "It's a tough sell now but we're not gonna give up on it."

They're going to have to, because as former Sox slugger Frank Thomas and others said, baseball doesn't have the pop culture appeal that more glamorous sports such as football and basketball do.

Thomas was a two-sport star growing up in the 1980s and picked baseball over football.

"We had Whiffleball tournaments and stuff like that, I always seemed to be a power hitter at Whiffleball so I decided to go over and try to play Little League Baseball," he said. "It all worked out for me. It wasn't a popular choice."

Frank Robinson said part of the problem is playing baseball is more expensive now than it was when he was growing up. He recalled a conversation he had with the father of a young athlete years ago that made him take a closer look at the issue.

"That's one of the real drawbacks of getting these youngsters out to play because baseball is expensive," he said. "I heard that phrase about 10 years ago and it startled me. Now it's the travel teams and things like that. That's a change in the times."

To try and change that, Major League Baseball has implemented the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, or RBI, designed to introduce kids to the game without causing financial hardships.

It's a relatively minor undertaking but one Sharon Robinson said could have a much larger effect on our culture.

"Major League Baseball has been instrumental in [social] change since 1947," she said. "Today, we're very proud of our youth programs."

Former Sox slugger Bo Jackson, who was honored with a Beacon Award, said his goal when he works with kids is two-fold: getting kids more involved in the classroom and in the game itself.

"I have always learned and my mother always told me, she said that you can't be successful on the playing field unless you're successful in the classroom," he said. "That was the only way that I got to play sports. I brought those D's and F's up to B's and C's in order to play organized sports."

Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.

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