AS SAM COOKE'S "A Change is Gonna Come" accompanied the video tribute for Jackie Robinson, Bill "Ready" Cash sat in his wheelchair, his hands folded near his face, nodding his head to the melody and lip-synching the lyrics.
From his expression, you could tell Cash, a former Negro Leagues catcher with the Philadelphia Stars, was taking in each word of the song, relating them to his playing days with the Stars nearly 57 years ago.
"We knew it was going to happen; it had to," said Cash, referring to the opportunity Jackie Robinson created for African-Americans to play in the majors when he broke the game's color barrier April 15, 1947.
Cash, 88, one of four living Stars, was among those on hand at Citizens Bank Park last night as the Phillies celebrated the 60th anniversary of Robinson's big-league debut in a progam postponed from April 15 because of rain.
David Robinson, the youngest of Jackie's three children, threw out the first pitch to lead off a series of pregame festivities, which featured members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Jackie Robinson Foundation and the Anderson Monarchs South Philadelphia baseball team.
Mahlon Duckett, 84, a third baseman with the Stars from 1940 to 1949, said that while Robinson is still honored and remembered for contributions to baseball, he occasionally gets frustrated by the declining number of African-American players in the majors.
A study by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports revealed that only 8.4 percent of big-league players were black last season - the lowest in two decades.
"Is it a problem? Yes. I mean, you look at the numbers, and there are less than 9 percent of black players playing in the [majors] right now. I think it's a huge problem," Duckett said. "I can only hope that they correct it sometime soon."
Duckett, who sits on the Negro League Baseball Players Association Board of Directors, said the biggest difference he notices between the Negro Leagues and today's major leagues is the lack of interest in the black community. He vividly remembers that when he was in the Negro Leagues during the 1940s, baseball was a huge staple of the African-American community. Now, he says, more black youth prefer basketball or football over baseball in a heartbeat.
"When we played, we always knew that blacks would eventually get a chance to play in the major leagues, but I didn't think it would happen when it happened." Duckett said. "They had been talking about [allowing blacks in the big leagues] for so long that when it finally did happen, they were probably hoping Jackie would flop, so they can at least say, 'Well, we gave them a chance.'
"Well, yeah, they gave us a chance, and look, Jackie made the best of it, became a legend," Duckett said.
Others are making the most of Robinson's legacy, as well, through the Jackie Robinson Foundation. More than $14.5 million in scholarships have been distributed to more than 1,100 students nationwide since Robinson's widow, Rachel, established the foundation in 1973.
This fall, the foundation plans to award $1.8 million in scholarship support to 266 students.
Adam Franklin, a senior guard on Penn's basketball team last season, was a scholarship recipient 4 years ago. He said yesterday he doesn't know whether he would be the person he is now if not for Jackie Robinson, on and off the field.