Reds, MLB excited for Civil Rights Weekend

By Mark Sheldon
Updated: April 7, 2010

CINCINNATI — Coming off the overwhelming success of the 2009 Gillette Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati, the game will return to the city on May 15 with the Reds playing the Cardinals at Great American Ball Park, plus an entire weekend’s worth of events.

It will be an opportunity to make this year’s event even better than the previous one.

“It will be a challenge, but we will meet it with no problem,” said Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball’s executive vice president of baseball operations.

During a Wednesday morning press conference at Great American Ball Park, it was revealed that baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays, tennis legend and women’s sports pioneer Billie Jean King and entertainer Harry Belafonte would receive this year’s MLB Beacon Awards.

Former United Nations ambassador and congressman Andrew Young will deliver the keynote address at the Beacon Awards Luncheon at the Duke Energy Center.

Singer Lena Horne and Rachel Robinson — the widow of Jackie Robinson — will also be honored at the luncheon. There will also be a special tribute to the surviving members from a pivotal 1960 sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., where African-Americans were once denied service at a “whites only” establishment.

The MLB Beacon Awards, which were given last year to Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby and Hank Aaron, recognize individuals “whose lives are emblematic of the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement.”

Proceeds from the Beacon Awards Luncheon will benefit the MLB Urban Youth Foundation, the Cincinnati Reds Community Fund and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.

“We all know the struggles that have occurred over the years in our fight for Civil Rights,” said Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory, who was at the press conference.

“Major League Baseball was actually on the forefront in many cases in opening doors and giving opportunities. There were also some challenges at the time. The Civil Rights Game is really about celebrating the progress that we have made, talking about the past and making sure we have forged a path for the future.”

Last June’s Civil Rights Game between the Reds and White Sox was played before a sellout crowd with national exposure on MLB Network. It also featured a weekend’s worth of activity that had Cincinnati buzzing, including the presences of Ali, Cosby, Aaron and former president Bill Clinton, who was the keynote speaker at the luncheon.

The success impressed Mallory and had him looking forward to next month’s events.

“It was exciting. This town was on fire,” Mallory said. “People were excited about it. There was a lot of energy. Cincinnati is a baseball town. When we have the Opening Day parade, it is effectively a holiday in the city of Cincinnati.”

“[The Reds] supported us beyond any dreams we could have had,” Solomon said. “Any of you that had the opportunity to be at that game saw a packed house. You saw people moved to tears. You saw people standing up in unison learning, experiencing and being very proud of this great game of baseball.”

There will be other events leading up to the Saturday night game, which will be carried live by MLB Network. The Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement roundtable discussion will return on May 14 at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is adjacent to the ballpark.

Led by Harvard law professor and race-relations expert Charles Ogletree, the panel will include Reds great and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, Reds former star Barry Larkin, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, actor Mark Curry and tennis legend Zina Garrison.

There will be a youth summit and the MLB “Wanna Play?” interactive area on Saturday in Fountain Square. It will include an open Q&A forum with Larkin and MLB Network colleague Harold Reynolds, actor Josh Hutcherson and members of the Reds and Cardinals.

Last year, more than 2,500 children participated at the summit.

Hall of Famer Ernie Banks will throw out the ceremonial first pitch while Grammy Award winning recording artists Roberta Flack and Jeffrey Osbourne are scheduled to perform prior to the Civil Rights Game.

“The Civil Rights Game is more than just a game. It’s a weekend of events,” Solomon said.

Morgan, who was the emcee of Wednesday’s news conference, recalled being part of the first Civil Rights Game three years ago in Memphis. Back then, it was an exhibition game held before the regular season.

This year, like in 2009, the Civil Rights Game counts in the standings for both teams.

“It’s about bringing knowledge to people and letting them know where we were before and how far we’ve come,” Morgan said. “And that there is still a ways to go. I’m pretty proud of America.”

“We’ve done a lot. We’ve moved forward a long way. Look, everything could be better. Let’s face it, you have to make some slow steps sometimes. I think we’ve moved pretty quickly in most cases.”

Solomon said Cincinnati’s two-year run as host of the Civil Rights Game will end next year. The event’s success has resulted in five other teams, and their cities, requesting a chance to host the 2011 game.

“They will have big shoes to fill,” Solomon said.

Solomon recalled having a conversation with Commissioner Bud Selig during last year’s Civil Rights Game and realized the enormity of expectations that now come with holding this jewel event on the MLB calendar.

“He said [then] ‘This is going to be hard to match this event next year,'” Solomon said. “The Commissioner is a visionary and I said, ‘Do you have any suggestions?’ He said, ‘That’s your job.’ No matter where we have the Civil Rights Game again, Cincinnati will be the measuring stick that we’ll have to use to see if it’s excellent or not.”