CINCINNATI -- Reds manager Dusty Baker isn't just a student of the game's African-American pioneers, he's a bridge to them.
Baker came to the Major Leagues in 1968 with the Atlanta Braves, and was a teammate of the legendary Hank Aaron. In 1984 with the Giants, he played for Frank Robinson, a Hall of Famer as a player and baseball's first African-American manager.
Much of Baker's career was spent with the Dodgers, a team long heralded for its diversity efforts -- beginning of course with Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in 1947. Another friend is Chuck Harmon, the Reds' first African-American player.
When Major League Baseball announced Thursday it was moving the annual Civil Rights Game to the regular season and the Reds and Cincinnati would be hosting it the next two years at Great American Ball Park, Baker was pleased.
"I think it's pretty exciting to have those games here," said Baker, who played from 1968-'86 with the Braves, Dodgers, Giants and A's. "Especially when you have the Freedom Center right there next door, how historic the town is, and especially since they've had some trouble in the past and some things they'd like to get better here."
During the 1960s, baseball was not immune to society's battle through the civil rights movement. Like his many African-American friends and former players, Baker endured tough times as a minority in the game. As a Double-A outfielder in the Southern League, he heard taunts from white fans in the seats. As a teenager, his parents were members of the NAACP and he joined the junior NAACP as a 15-year-old.
"Everyone knows Jackie and the cultural impact he had in the U.S., but we're so far removed from it," Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo said. "Dusty is more aware of it than anyone here. He's one of the last guys around here old enough to remember going to a place he wasn't allowed to be in because he was black. I'm sure he dealt with it in the Minor Leagues."
The Reds and White Sox will play the Civil Rights Game on June 20, 2009. Baker attended the press conference with representatives of Major League Baseball, the Reds and the city of Cincinnati on Thursday.
"I think it's much needed," Baker said. "It's going to bring the city together and educate a lot of us on a lot of the things that we thought we knew. It's always nice and always comforting to learn something about the sport of baseball and each other. That's what's going to make us all better. It's going to make the world go round. It's going to make us a much better city and organization."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.