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Just when we want to believe that times are changing, and prejudice is waning, along comes a ferocious reminder like a Manny Pacquiao punch to the jaw.

Sheer racism, exposed in vile letters directed to Hall of Fame great Hank Aaron, have poured into the Atlanta Braves offices this past week.

Yes, it was like 1974 all over again, the year he broke Babe Ruth's all-time home run record, with letters laced with the most hateful epithet known to African Americans.

"Hank Aaron is a scumbag piece of (expletive) (racial slur)'' a man named Edward says in an e-mail to the Braves front office and obtained by USA TODAY Sports.

Edward invokes the epithet five times in four sentences, closing with, "My old man instilled in my mind from a young age, the only good (racial slur) is a dead (racial slur)."

With that, happy Jackie Robinson Day!

On a day where Major League Baseball celebrates Robinson, who broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947 in one of the most momentous achievements of the Civil Rights movement, we have these letters to remind us of the racial hatred that still exists in this society.

As for the sport itself, the evidence mounts that Robinson's game, for a myriad of complicated reasons, is not the game of choice for African-Americans.

Major League Baseball, which will honor Robinson once again today by having every player wear No. 42, has the lowest percentage of African-Americans in uniform since 1958.

The African-American population in baseball is virtually unchanged from a year ago at 7.8%, according to USA TODAY Sport's survey of opening-day rosters and disabled lists.

There are 67 black players in the major leagues, with three teams not represented by a single African-American player - the San Francisco Giants, Arizona Diamondbacks and St. Louis Cardinals. It's a dramatic change from 1972-1996, when African Americans represented at least 16% of the game's players, according to Mark Armour of the Society of Baseball Research (SABR) - with a high of 18.7% in 1981.

Commissioner Bud Selig is sickened by the diminishing numbers, and just as he promised Aaron, his dear friend, he has vowed to do something about it, commissioning an 18-member task force.

Six urban academies are operating around the country, with others set to open this year. There are 220,000 kids playing in Reviving Baseball in the Inner City programs throughout the country.

There are indications the game's urban investment - its RBI Program began in 1989 - is paying off: Thirteen African Americans have been selected in the first round of the draft the past two years. As many as 14 are among the consensus top 100 prospects in this year's draft.

"Right now, there is some momentum,'' says Jerry Manuel, the day-to-day leader of baseball's on-field diversity task force. "We have just not yet made it a movement.''

Major League Baseball did its part 67 years ago when Robinson broke the color barrier. It was a touchstone of the civil rights movement, preceding everything from Brown vs. the Board of Education to Rosa Parks.

Yet, there are times when the industry feels helpless. The Braves have been besieged by hundreds of letters, e-mails and phone calls deriding Aaron for his comments made to USA TODAY Sports.

Marion calls Aaron a "racist scumbag.'' Ronald won't attend another Braves' game until Aaron is fired. Mark calls Aaron a "classless,racist.'' David says that he will burn Aaron's I Had A Hammer autobiography.

Forty years ago, Aaron had the audacity to break Babe Ruth's home run record.

This time, he simply spoke his mind.

When asked by USA TODAY Sports last month why he still keeps those hate letters, Aaron calmly revealed his sentiments.

"To remind myself," he said, "that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. If you think that, you are fooling yourself. A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go. There's not a whole lot that has changed.

"We can talk about baseball. Talk about politics. Sure, this country has a black president, but when you look at a black president, President Obama is left with his foot stuck in the mud from all of the Republicans with the way he's treated. We have moved in the right direction, and there have been improvements, but we still have a long ways to go.

"The bigger difference is back then they had hoods. Now they have neckties and starched shirts."

Never in our 50-minute conversation did Aaron suggest anyone critical of President Obama is racist. Never did he compare the Republican Party to the Klu Klux Klan.

Simply, Aaron stated that we are fooling ourselves if we don't believe that racism exists in our country. It's simply camouflaged now. And yes, he feels sorry for his good friend, President Obama, and the frustrations he endures.

All that Aaron, 80, ever asked from baseball is what Robinson desired, a level playing field in management positions. Now, Aaron extends the request to the field itself, where baseball is trying to bring African-Americans back to the game.

"When I first started playing, you had a lot of black players in the major leagues," Aaron said last month. "Now, you don't have any (7.8%). So what progress have we made? You try to understand, but we're going backward."

Folks are listening.

Major League Baseball, hosting a Diversity Business Summit Monday and today in New York, insists it has never devoted more resources to the effort. Just as the decline took time, so will the increase, starting with underserved parts of the diamond.

If being a pitcher or catcher is the best route to the big leagues, baseball has to figure out why there are only 12 African-American pitchers, and no catchers.

No one can argue about the game's diversity. There are 223 foreign-born players in the majors representing 26.1% of opening-day rosters. Yet, it comes at some domestic cost.

"To make the game as diverse as it is,'' Manuel said, "we kind of strayed a bit (at) home. We've got to get it back home. We did not take advantage of what we did in my generation. We did not see it as a serious issue until it was too late.

"Now, we're staying with this thing, I think you'll see a turnaround. I really believe change is coming.''

Maybe, we can all hope, in society, too.​

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