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March 03, 1997|MIKE PENNER

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What: ESPN examines

"Jackie Robinson's Legacy."

In 2 1/2 hours Friday night, ESPN answered questions about the staggering obstacles Jackie Robinson faced as he broke major league baseball's color barrier 50 years ago, and then had a query of its own: What have we done and where have we gone since then?

The network's "Outside The Lines" investigative series examined Robinson's life before, during and after his baseball career, piecing together evidence that in 1947, National League players held team votes on whether to strike to protest Robinson's debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Interviews with more than 90 living National League veterans of the '47 season indicated that three teams voted to strike before yielding to pressure from the commissioner's office--and how Stan Musial helped avert a walkout by the St. Louis Cardinals by persuading his teammates to play.

After retirement, Robinson continued his work as a civil-rights crusader, lending his reputation and fame to Martin Luther King's cause and continually arguing for integration at other levels of baseball.

Is baseball still listening?

The second segment of the program, a 90-minute "town meeting" hosted by Ted Koppel and titled "Sports in Black & White," argued that Robinson's message has been lost in the 25 years since his death. Currently, baseball has but four black managers and one black general manager--and professional football isn't faring any better, having employed only four African Americans as head coaches.

A lively, often contentious panel discussion was conspicuous by the absence of any major league general manager or owner or acting Commissioner Bud Selig, an absence sociologist Harry Edwards attributed to baseball being "vulnerable" on the issue of minority hiring.

The situation can change, NFL great Jim Brown maintained, if the professional black athletes in this country mobilize.

"The money that is in the African American community is enormous," Brown said. "The lack of collectively using it is atrocious . . . If you get Michael Jordan and all these powerful people together, we can make changes across the country that would be unbelievable."

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