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03/28/08 10:54 AM ET

Memphis important to baseball's history

City offered ballplayers support during era of social change

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The city was never the marquee name in the civil rights movement, but it saw its place in the struggle for equal rights grow in significance on April 4, 1968.

For on this date 40 years ago, an assassin's bullet silenced the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the charismatic spokesman for civil rights, and thrust Memphis into top billing in the movement, if only for a while.

Today, the city and its Lorraine Motel, the site of King's assassination, serve as brick-and-mortar symbols for the work of men like King, the Rev. Joseph Lowry, Medgar Evers, Benjamin Hooks, Larry Doby, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson and Jackie Robinson in changing people's perceptions about race in America.

They clasped hands with institutions like the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Urban League and the NAACP to foster better relations between blacks and whites.

Baseball was an institution that helped.

"I think, historically, we've done a very bad job of appreciating that," said Dave Chase, president of the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds and an authority on the Negro Leagues. "It was incredibly vital to the African-American community in Memphis."

From the 1940s on, no other sport played a bigger part in making the high-minded ideals of equal rights represent more than the legalistic words in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. No other sport and its stars joined the historic figures of the civil rights era the way Major League Baseball did.

The sport had long ago entrenched itself into Southern life. Negro League teams barnstormed the region; the ballplayers found a warm reception in Memphis, Atlanta, Nashville and Birmingham, cities with substantial black populations.

Those cities worshiped these teams and their black ballplayers. Places similar to the Lorraine became their way stations with cozy rooms and soul food.

In such cities, the game prospered.

"It was still the South," said Raymond Doswell, curator and educational director of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. "But within that realm, those people were able to create that world of pleasure, of family and of sportsmanship that really impacted the Negro Leagues when those teams went through Memphis.

"They had a good time."

The city of Memphis offered the ballplayers the neon lights of Beale Street, a good-time strip of bars, restaurants and nightclubs where blues fused with baseball to turn the area into a place for stars to be.

Oh, if Beale Street could talk ... the stories it would tell about this Southern city that found itself in the epicenter of social change in the spring of '68.

It would whisper melancholy tales about hatred and bigotry and Jim Crow, tales that ensure the Lorraine Motel, home since 1992 to the National Civil Rights Museum, will remain a sad slice of Americana. It would sing upbeat ballads of the institutions and the people who chipped away at that hatred and those laws behind the hate.

Beale Street would brag about the baseball players whose brilliance allowed black Memphis to forget about its racial struggles on Sundays and enjoy greatness on the diamond.

But Beale Street can't talk. Neither can the Lorraine Motel. Nor can men nicknamed Satchel, Cool Papa, Biz and Double Duty.

Yet they have all combined to make Memphis a city that has built atop its past as it constructs a future that is stronger because of baseball, stronger because of what happened 40 years ago on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel and stronger because of its people.

Those people will welcome the Civil Rights Game, sponsored by AutoZone, back to the city this weekend, said Barbara Andrews, director of educational and curatorial services at the museum.

The ballgame, the educational programs tied to it and the Beacon Awards banquet will serve as showcase events for Memphis. The banquet will honor Lowry, Frank Robinson and actor/social activist Ruby Dee.

The city will hold remembrances of what happened April 4, 1968, at the Civil Rights Museum and elsewhere in the days leading up to and the days after the exhibition ballgame Saturday, which features the Chicago White Sox and the New York Mets.

Stars from politics, baseball and Tinseltown will come here Friday and Saturday to commemorate the movement and its importance, and to talk about baseball's role in it.

"I think that, in a city where such a tragedy happened, it is good for the world to see that Memphis is a place where people have come back together," Andrews said. "People are recalling the tragedy; people are using it again to galvanize others in much the same way that the assassination and the movement itself galvanized people."

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.