Civil Rights Game headed for new venue
On the move after two successful years in Cincinnati
CINCINNATI -- For a second year, the Reds and the city they call home proved to be perfect hosts for the Gillette Civil Rights Game, but it's time for the event to move on to another venue.
Major League Baseball will do so with a deep sense of appreciation and respect for Cincinnati for taking the event to the next level.
"It's kind of a bittersweet time for us, because everything's been so fantastic here, and Cincinnati and the Reds have been such natural partners for us, and we hate to leave," said MLB executive vice president Jimmie Lee Solomon. "But there are many civil-rights stories to tell across the country."
Solomon said an announcement on the next city to host the weekend-long event, drawing Hall of Famers and honoring civil-rights pioneers from sports and entertainment for their contributions, will be made in the next month or so.
"We have many clubs interested and many cities interested in hosting it, and so we're going to move on and keep it fresh," Solomon said. "But we'd love to come back to Cincinnati at some point."
That said, this always was going to be the last of two years the game would be played in the Queen City, at least on this cycle of the game. It began in 2007 and '08 in Memphis, another appropriate venue as home of the Civil Rights Museum, located on the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s life was shattered by an assassin's bullet.
Cincinnati's status as a key stop on the underground railroad that helped slaves escape from the South to states in the North and to Canada was a big reason the game was played here.
But, as Solomon points out, there are other places with other stories to tell.
"The Gillette Civil Rights Game was intended to be a nomad," Solomon told the crowd at the MLB Beacon Awards luncheon on Saturday. "It was intended to move around, capturing the nuances of each city and each ballclub that we visit."
What was captured in Cincinnati was an enthusiasm for history, both of civil rights and the game of baseball, as well as venues that fit the event's needs, with the National Underground Railroad Museum providing the venue for the annual roundtable discussion on civil rights, right next door to Great American Ball Park.
This year's edition began with that roundtable on Friday, featuring former Reds heroes Joe Morgan and Barry Larkin, current Bengals coach Marvin Lewis and former linebacker Reggie Williams, groundbreaking tennis star Zina Garrison and pioneering military woman Michele Jones.
Moderated by Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree, the roundtable touched on subjects of race and responsibility to carry on the tradition of those civil-rights pioneers before them. Each of the African-Americans on the panel had experiences that shaped their lives, and each made it clear he or she is determined to shape others' lives with their actions and words.
Saturday's events were highlighted by the MLB Beacon Awards, which recognize individuals "whose lives are emblematic of the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement." The Beacon of Life Award went to Hall of Famer Willie Mays, the Beacon of Change Award went to tennis legend and equality pioneer Billie Jean King and the Beacon of Hope Award went to entertainer and civil-rights activist Harry Belafonte.
Andrew Young, the former congressman, Atlanta mayor and ambassador to the U.N., delivered the keynote address, and recognized that baseball -- from Jackie Robinson's historic debut in the Majors to the current Urban Youth Academy efforts to draw inner-city youths back to the game -- has and can continue to be a catalyst for social change.
"Baseball has had an impact on all of our lives, and we must continue to keep that impact relevant, aggressive and make it the kind of all-American sport that we have been proud of our entire lives, and that we can continue to be proud of all our lives," Young said.
Down the street from the Duke Energy Convention Center where the luncheon was held, the MLB Wanna Play? event, free and open to the public, took over Fountain Square for the afternoon, with Reds players Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto conducting a baseball skills demonstration and participating in a Q&A that also featured MLB Network analysts Harold Reynolds and Barry Larkin, as well as Cardinals infielder Felipe Lopez, teen saxophonist BK Jackson, who played a stirring rendition of "America the Beautiful during the seventh-inning stretch and Capt. Josh Holden, a West Point graduate and former Reds Minor Leaguer.
More than 2,000 children, coaches and community partners took part the Delta Youth Baseball March from Fountain Square to Great American Ball Park.
The events culminated with a pregame ceremony before the sellout crowd that honored the Beacon Award winners, as well as Negro Leaguers based in Cincinnati and the first African-American to play for the Reds, Chuck Harmon.
The current Reds and Cardinals players took to the baselines as the ceremony concluded with a parachute drop by the U.S. Army's Golden Knights parachute team and the national anthem by Jeffrey Osborne, and it's clear many were in awe of the stars with whom they were sharing the field -- from the Beacon Awards winners to Hall of Famers like Hank Aaron and Ernie Banks.
"That was just amazing," Reds closer Francisco Cordero said. "You're not going to see that all the time. Being here for the second year in a row and getting to watch and experience all of that stuff going on, there's not much you can say. It's unbelievable. It was great."
And, for the fourth year overall and a second successful visit to Cincinnati, the Civil Rights Game brought a lot of history and excitement to a city and a ballpark, something MLB intends to do for years to come.
Wherever it ends up in 2011, Solomon says the evolution of this jewel event will continue.
"This is exactly what we wanted to do," Solomon said. "We wanted to grow it each year, and grow it every year. That is our plan."
John Schlegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.