Ueberroth recalls ride with Parks

There were a million people at the Martin Luther King Day parade in Atlanta in 1986, several hundred of whom still have a picture of Peter Ueberroth somewhere in their scrapbooks.

Many of them probably didn’t know who the white guy in the white Cadillac was on that cold day a generation ago.

Ueberroth was sharing the Cadillac with Rosa Parks.

As the two grand marshals made their way through the parade route, hundreds of moms and dads stepped up to the car and handed their small children through the window to the baseball commissioner, so he could hand the kids to Parks and the parents could have their babies’ pictures taken with an icon of the civil rights movement.

A generation later, Ueberroth still remembers it as one of the most touching, consequential moments of a life that has seen plenty of those. He’s been thinking about it a lot lately, with Martin Luther King Day coming Monday, to be followed by the inauguration of America’s first black president, Barack Obama, a day later.

“The key thing is to celebrate success and think about what a treat it would’ve been if Rosa Parks had lived to see this day,” Ueberroth said in an interview with The Associated Press.

He recalled shivering in the cold and having Parks – who had every reason to have bigger things on her mind – come to him to offer him a ride in her car, which was furnished with warm blankets, instead of the two riding separately through the crowded streets in Atlanta.

“You look very uncomfortable,” Ueberroth recalled Parks saying to him.

“Just trying to stay warm,” he replied.

Her response: “I think it’s something else. White Cadillacs, white face, all those black faces out there.”

And so, the invitation was made and a friendship was struck.

“I’d love to ride in a car with her anywhere, to listen to her thoughts and enjoy her great kindness at the time of this inauguration,” Ueberroth said.

The architect of the modern Olympic movement, Ueberroth is also remembered for his efforts in furthering the cause of racial equality in baseball. Decades after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on major league playing fields, Ueberroth took things a step further, emphasizing minority hiring in management positions.

The Olympics, of course, have their own checkered history of social issues and bigotry – Hitler and Jesse Owens, the 1972 Munich massacre, and even last year’s protests over human rights.

Ueberroth remains unclear as to exactly why he was invited to participate in 1986, in one of the first big celebrations after MLK Day became an official holiday.”In my view, the Olympic movement has done an exemplary job in race relations,” Ueberroth said. “But you can always do better.”

Ueberroth said he wanted to share the story about his day with Parks to remember another of the country’s great crusaders.

“That was a very special day for me,” he said. “I hope somebody, somewhere, on this day, on the holiday, is also remembering her.”