Atlanta awarded next Civil Rights Game

By Mark Bowman
Updated: June 30, 2010

ATLANTA — A long-time friend of Negro League great Buck O’Neil, Braves president John Schuerholz has heard many first-hand accounts of the many injustices experienced by African-American ballplayers before and after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.

Hank Aaron experienced many of these injustices before and after he broke Babe Ruth’s “insurmountable” record and became baseball’s home run king.

Schuerholz and Aaron now find themselves looking forward to the opportunity to spend a portion of the next two years gladly welcoming baseball fans to Martin Luther King Jr.’s backyard to gain a better understanding about Major League Baseball’s mission to continue serving as a vehicle for civil rights.

During a Wednesday morning press conference held at the King Center, MLB vice-president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon announced that the Braves and the city of Atlanta will host the 2011 and 2012 Civil Rights Game Weekends, which pay tribute to all of those who fought on and off the field for equal rights for all Americans.

“No city in my view is more appropriate to host this Game than Atlanta, where the civil rights movement was fostered and embraced,” Schuerholz said. “The Atlanta Braves pledge that we will present these significant and meaningful games and these events in the finest Braves gold-standard fashion.

“We realize we are now caretakers of this very prestigious and meaningful event. We accept that that responsibility willingly and with great confidence.”

Commissioner Bud Selig has long been appreciative of the professionalism displayed by Schuerholz and the Braves organization that he has fostered since arriving in Atlanta at the end of the 1990 season.

“The Civil Rights Game Weekend has become one of the premier celebrations on the Major League Baseball calendar,” said Selig in an MLB release. “We are pleased to have the Atlanta Braves and the city of Atlanta as hosts for this important event remembering a significant era in America’s history.”

Solomon said a date for next year’s event, which will include a regular season game at Turner Field, will be set later this year. He indicated that MLB liked the timing of this year’s event, which was held in mid-May in Cincinnati.

This provided separation from Opening Day festivities, the Interleague portion of the schedule and the All-Star break.

“This is something I think the city of Atlanta and the entire state of Georgia will enjoy tremendously,” Aaron said. “It is a chance for baseball to remind all of us that if given the opportunity to be on a level playing field, we can do the same thing as anybody else.”

When MLB initiated the Civil Rights Game Weekend in 2007, they chose to center the event around exhibition games that were held at the end of March in Memphis, where Dr. King was assassinated.

The past two years the weekend has been centered around regular season games held in Cincinnati, where many African-American slaves found freedom at the end of the Underground Railroad.

During these next two years, the event will center around some of the same streets where Dr. King established himself as one of the great civil rights advocates, and in the process made life a little easier for today’s African-American ballplayers like Jason Heyward, the Braves rookie outfielder, who is traveling a path paved by the likes of Aaron and Robinson.

“We should educate America as to where we stood at the beginning of the civil rights movement,” Solomon said. “We’re dedicating ourselves to diversity and working toward a future that baseball will include everybody in America’s pastime.

“Civil rights is really a part of each and every one of us, black or white, male or female, because we are a product of inclusion. The only way we will succeed is through that inclusion.”

As MLB prepares for its fifth Civil Rights Weekend, Solomon said there will be an attempt to broaden the number of activities available to fans. Many of the cultural events will be staged at the King Center and the Carter Center, which honors former President Jimmy Carter’s commitment to advancing human rights and alleviating human suffering.

The Civil Rights Weekend has annually featured a roundtable featuring former players and others who have committed their lives to providing equality. Attempting to promote the game to the inner-city youth, MLB will also stage clinics and give children a chance to better understand the game of baseball.

During his previous experiences with the Civil Rights Weekend, Aaron said he has been impressed by the fact that the Major League game serves as simply a part of the event.

“I saw people and kids get involved not only in the baseball game itself, but also in what civil rights meant. Sometimes we lose our history. I don’t think we should ever forget that whatever success we’ve had in life is because of these guys.”

“When I talk about these guys, I’m talking about Dr. King, Andrew Young and some of these civil rights icons who paved the way for us to be where we are today.

“Sometimes we lose identification with our history. That needs to be brought back. This is what the Civil Rights Game is all about. It’s not about the game itself. It’s about bringing back what this game is about. Who paved the way? Why are you being successful at what you’re doing?”

This event has also annually featured the presentation of MLB’s Beacon Awards, which recognize individuals “whose lives are emblematic of the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement.”

This year’s honorees included Willie Mays, Billie Jean King and Harry Belafonte.