Cincy Prepares For Civil Rights Game

By Mark Sheldon
Updated: June 15, 2009

Great American Ballpark

Great American Ballpark

CINCINNATI — When Cincinnati puts out the welcome mat Saturday for the first regular-season edition of the Civil Rights Game, it will be another sign that any city’s troubled history can be overcome.

The game, which will celebrate the painstaking efforts for equality among all races, is a showcase for Major League Baseball, the Reds and the White Sox. But it’s also a significant moment for the City of Cincinnati, which has had its share of strained race relations the past 20 years.

“It’s huge for our city, considering some of the issues we’ve had in the past,” Cincinnati city councilman Cecil Thomas told “We continue to progressively move forward while keeping in mind how important it is to recognize and appreciate all gifts from all folks in our culture.”

In recent years, when the issue of race and Cincinnati were in the same sentence, the conversation often hasn’t been a positive one for the city.

Throughout the early 1990s, MLB and the city squirmed uncomfortably when former Reds owner Marge Schott repeatedly made racially insensitive comments. Schott was fined and suspended for one year in 1993 by Commissioner Bud Selig, after she repeatedly offended minorities in subsequent years, Schott was forced to give up day-to-day control of the Reds by ’96. She sold the club in ’98.

Flashpoint incident

Just three years later, in April 2001, racial discord struck Cincinnati again when a series of riots engulfed the city in the wake of the police shooting of Timothy Thomas, an unarmed African-American who was not a violent criminal or felon and was wanted only for numerous traffic citations.

Thomas was the 15th African-American male to be killed by the city’s police since 1995, The Cincinnati Enquirer reported, and the string of deaths fueled the perception that officers engaged in racial profiling and used excessive force, especially in largely African-American and disadvantaged neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine.

Protests, initially peaceful, declared the frustration with the city’s police force but intensity of the emotion quickly begat violence. Rioting lasted three days and nights in multiple neighborhoods across town, forcing mayor Charlie Luken to order a city-wide evening curfew.

At the time, Cecil Thomas was a member of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission and had recently retired from 27 years as an officer with Cincinnati’s police force.

“The question that popped into my mind was: What were we doing wrong to allow us to have civil unrest in the 21st century?” Thomas said. “That needed to be answered. There was a lot of tension before the unrest. There was an “us against them” attitude with the people that the police shared, too. That needed to change.”

Change wouldn’t come overnight and without more tension. In the wake of the riots, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People successfully called for a boycott of Cincinnati and urged other organizations not to hold conventions or spend money there. Comic and television icon Bill Cosby addressed the issue by not performing in the city and encouraged minority entertainers to do likewise. There was a boycott of local businesses.

“We suffered tremendously economically as did the image of the city,” Thomas said.

Tragedy sparks action

In the eight years since the riots, the needed changes did finally improve Cincinnati — especially with how it polices. Violent crime task forces were formed, and more downtown and Over-the-Rhine foot patrols were started, among other new policies. Just this week, the local chapter of the NAACP endorsed the local Crimestoppers, a volunteer program where citizens report crime tips to the police.

“The city is better from what happened eight years ago. There is no question,” said Christopher Smitherman, the Cincinnati NAACP president.

In 2004, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center opened adjacent to Great American Ball Park. The center focuses on Cincinnati’s pivotal role in the Underground Railroad, a network of hidden escape routes that enabled 30,000 slaves to escape to freedom in the north, but it also details the history of the Civil Rights Movement and continues the dialogue about race. It’s existence was a key reason MLB awarded the 2009 Civil Rights Game to Cincinnati.

The Reds also have made significant strides to engage the inner city through the Reds Community Fund. The RCF, through player and sponsor donations and fundraising events, invests over $1 million annually to fund programs like Restoring Baseball in the Inner City (RBI).

There is also an ambitious field renovation program that has helped remodel, refurbish or rebuild more 250 youth baseball fields in the region. Those inclusive programs, and many others, aim to draw young African-Americans to baseball and the larger community. Another RCF initiative is the Match Program, which pairs inner-city and suburban youth baseball teams to play a series of friendly baseball games together.

“Things have improved tremendously, but there still is tremendous work yet to be done,” Thomas said. “We recognized that there were things that needed additional attention. The city’s eyes were open. Thanks to the collaborative agreement between the city, police, businesses, local clergy and citizens, we were able to see more clearly the needs of our citizens. We’ve worked hard.”

“The Civil Rights Game is a great third event to add to the NAACP and Baptist Minister’s conventions that came here,” Reds chief operating officer Phil Castellini said. “We look at Cincinnati being picked to host the Civil Rights Game as an illustration that we are moving in the right direction.”

“We continue to have some rubs with the Cincinnati Police Department, but the communication between the police and the NAACP has been remarkable — much better than eight years ago,” Smitherman told “They interfaced with the NAACP during last year’s convention. Their leadership did an excellent job and helped make it the best convention the NAACP ever had.”

Promise of a new day

The start of this summer has brought the Civil Rights Game, which emphasizes that discussions about race and equality must continue — in baseball, in society and especially in Cincinnati.

“I think it shows that maybe Cincinnati had a bad rap when people looked at it in a different light than it should,” said Hall of Famer and former Reds star Frank Robinson. “I think this has given an opportunity [to see] they might not have been correct. Our society was a little rough back in the ’50s and ’40s, all over. I found it very pleasant to be here in Cincinnati to play. There were boundaries and regulations. You knew of neighborhoods where you couldn’t go or live in. But that was life at the time.

“But I found people here in Cincinnati treated you fairly and honestly, and I was glad to be associated with it and it made it very pleasant for me. It’s gotten better over the years. The city has really come a long way.”

During the two-day Civil Rights Game event, even Cosby will be part of the celebration as the MLB Beacon of Hope Award recipient.

“His return is evidence we’re striving real hard to recognize where we fell short and are moving forward to turn things around and be a model for other cities,” Thomas said.

Cincinnati will host the Civil Rights Game again in 2010 as part of the two-year commitment it received from Major League Baseball. The team’s plan is to make the game part of the year-round dialogue by working with minority and community leaders and holding school programs and possibly town hall meetings.

“You don’t just bring these games here for three days and walk away,” said Karen Forgus, the Reds’ senior vice president of business operations. “We really decided this was a relevant topic and conversation that we want to keep going, and have the Reds be one of the leading voices or at least a place where all the voices can come.

“Eighty-one times a year, we’re a place where people gather, and every one of those should be a celebration not only of what’s happening on the field, but a celebration of what’s happening in the community.”