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12/04/06 7:22 PM ET

First Civil Rights Game set for March 31

Cardinals to play Indians in Memphis as part of celebration

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Major League Baseball will stage its inaugural "Civil Rights Game" this coming March 31, when the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals play the Cleveland Indians in an exhibition game at AutoZone Park in Memphis, the home of the National Civil Rights Museum and the city where Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

The 5:30 p.m. ET game, expected to annually precede the opening of the regular season, will be broadcast live on ESPN, and is planned to culminate a day during which baseball will celebrate the nation's civil rights movement.

"I'm nervous up here because this project is very near and dear to me," Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's vice president of baseball operations, said during a press conference on Monday to announce the event. "The idea of doing it in Memphis has always been important because it was the place where Dr. King was assassinated and everyone thought that was the figurative end to the dream. I'm very proud, about the proudest I've been during my time at MLB."

Baseball has long been considered to have foreshadowed the civil rights movement. The sport was integrated on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That act came nearly a decade before U.S. public schools were integrated and African-Americans were allowed to sit in the fronts of buses in the South or were admitted into what were then all-white universities.

"This game is designed to commemorate the civil rights movement, one of the most critical and important eras of our social history," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "I am proud of the role that Major League Baseball played in the movement, beginning with Jackie Robinson's entry into the big leagues on April 15, 1947, and very pleased that we have this opportunity to honor the Movement and those who made it happen."

Baseball didn't become fully integrated until 1959, when the Red Sox, the lone team to hold out, signed Pumpsie Green.

King was assassinated while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, which in 1991 was converted into the National Civil Rights Museum. The Museum, which memorializes the Movement, includes a replica of the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to move from her front seat, sparking riots in the South during the 1950s. The second-floor room, where King was staying that fateful night, has been restored to reflect the exact décor of 1968.

"The National Civil Rights Museum is honored to join Major League Baseball in paying tribute to the struggles, success and contributions that people of color have made to the sport," said Beverly Robertson, president of the Museum. "We hope this game will focus the attention of the nation again on this vital history, and rekindle a spirit of enthusiasm among youth to become more actively involved in making a difference in their communities and America's national pastime."

About six blocks from the museum in downtown Memphis, AutoZone Park is the home of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds, the top Minor League affiliate of the Cardinals, who won two World Series titles in the 1960s laden with talented African-Americans such as Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Lou Brock, Curt Flood and Bill White, who later became the first African-American president of the National League.

"The Cardinals are honored to be a part of the inaugural Civil Rights Game," said Mark Lamping, the club's president. "We feel a strong connection to the city of Memphis through our Triple-A affiliate, and are proud that the Redbirds' home, AutoZone Park, will host this day-long celebration of a pivotal time in our nation's history and the role that baseball played in the civil rights Movement."

The Indians were the first American League team to integrate when they signed Larry Doby, shortly after Jackie Robinson's debut in 1947. In addition, Frank Robinson became the first African-American manager in baseball history in 1975 when he took the helm of the Indians.

"This represents a set of values and beliefs that starts with our ownership and traverses every area of our organization," said Mark Shapiro, the Indians general manager. "The history of civil rights needs to be honored. The pursuit of civil rights, for compassion and for tolerance, needs to be fought for not only in our game, but also in our country and in our own organization. It's that belief system and that history that is the root of our pride and why we are participating in this game."

As part of the event, MLB will be making donations to several charities, including the National Civil Rights Museum, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the Negro Leagues Museum and other local Memphis charities.

Filmmaker Spike Lee has also been commissioned to produce a five-minute documentary to commemorate the efforts of legendary civil rights pioneers as well as MLB's role in supporting the rights of African-Americans. The film will debut during the Civil Rights Game festivities.

"The civil rights era and its pioneers are one of great importance and should not be forgotten," Lee said. "I am pleased to join Major League Baseball in celebrating and reflecting on the tremendous achievements that African-American players made as they changed the game of baseball and contributed to one of the most significant times of social change in our country."

Tickets for the game will go on sale Dec. 5, and will be available at Indians.com, stlcardinals.com and memphisredbirds.com.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.