Major League Baseball is fielding a star-filled lineup to spotlight the first regular-season Civil Rights Game.
Former President Bill Clinton, entertainer Bill Cosby, boxing’s Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, basketball’s Oscar Robertson, baseball’s Hank Aaron and at least three other Hall of Famers are taking part. The weekend’s events include Saturday night’s game between the Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox.
The tribute to the civil rights movement also aims to boost baseball’s efforts to increase interest among black youth and to highlight Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
“This is the biggest and the most magnificent one we have tried to date,” said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations.
The game returns to Cincinnati next season, and Solomon said organizers hope to keep adding to the events.
“But what we really want to do is get enough traction in the African-American community with the young people so that they can learn something from this and also be motivated to want to be part of our great game of baseball,” Solomon said.
The first two games were exhibitions played in Memphis, Tenn., home of the National Civil Rights Museum. When baseball decided to make the game a part of the regular season, Solomon said the Freedom Center, which opened nearly five years ago a short walk from the Reds’ Great American Ball Park, was a decisive factor in Cincinnati’s successful push.
“I feel honored and privileged that my team and my city were chosen to host this,” said Dusty Baker, the Reds’ first black manager. He said the event is bringing “guys that have been leaders in the civil rights movement and really, leaders in the world.”
Ali, Aaron and Cosby will be honored at a Saturday luncheon with Clinton as the keynote speaker and Leonard, Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson and Commissioner Bud Selig presenting them with baseball’s Beacon Awards.
Frank Robinson, who was the major leagues’ first black manager, will throw out the first pitch Saturday night. Another former Reds star and Hall of Famer, Tony Perez, and Robertson will participate in a round-table discussion Friday at the Freedom Center.
Current Reds Brandon Phillips and Jerry Hairston Jr. and former All-Stars Eric Davis and Harold Reynolds will take part Saturday afternoon in baseball demonstrations and activities called “Wanna Play?,” MLB’s latest initiative to revitalize black participation, which had been on the decline over the past two decades.
“I’ve seen improvement in race relations in baseball and in the world, but I’ve also seen a decline in race representation,” said Baker, who was a rookie with the Atlanta Braves in 1968. “This game will contribute to fixing that, hopefully, along with programs like RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities). Everybody’s trying, but it’s not going to happen overnight.”
Solomon noted signs of progress in the latest report by Richard Lapchick, director of the University of Central Florida‘s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. The report found that 10.2 percent of major leaguers last year were black, the most since 1995.
Solomon said baseball hopes to raise the profiles of its black players compared to NBA and NFL stars.
“If you took LeBron James into a restaurant, virtually every kid in the restaurant would know who he is,” Solomon said. “You take a Ryan Howard or Jimmy Rollins to the same restaurant and many kids would not who they were unless you were in Philadelphia.”
Solomon said baseball also wants to draw attention to its role in civil rights, pointing out that Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color line in 1947 in a major step for integration in America.
Blending educational outreach with history “dovetails precisely with our overall mission,” said Paul Bernish, spokesman for the Freedom Center, whose standing exhibits include a restored 19th century slave pen.
The center, whose attendance sagged after its first year, has a joint promotion with the Reds’ Hall of Fame. Both have Negro Leagues exhibits, while the Reds have a special exhibit on Crosley Field, their home when the team integrated, and the Freedom Center features an exhibit on the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala.
The Reds and White Sox will wear 1964-style uniforms, 45 years after passage of the Civil Rights Act.
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