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03/29/08 2:16 AM EST

Robinson, Reinsdorf honored on Friday

Hall of Famer, owner presented with Beacon Awards

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- At an emotional and heart-wrenching dinner on Friday night, where Major League Baseball presented its annual Beacon Awards and Chicago White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf was given a special citation, Rev. Billy Kyles was called to the podium at the Peabody Hotel to once again offer the invocation.

Like last year, what Kyles provided was a brief recollection that was most apropos for an audience -- including all-time greats Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Minnie Minoso and Joe Morgan -- which had gathered on the eve of the second Civil Rights Game. This year's exhibition tilt is between the New York Mets and White Sox on Saturday at nearby AutoZone Park.

Kyles was near Rev. Martin Luther King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel when the civil rights leader was struck dead by an assassin's bullet in 1968. Kyles, who was preparing to host King for dinner at his home, wondered openly why he had been present that day. He has since come to the conclusion that he was there to be a witness to the way King died. The 40th anniversary of that slaying will be commemorated on April 4.

"You can kill the dreamer," Kyles said as the story and his voice reached its crescendo, "but you can't kill the dream."

With that as a backdrop, MLB presented its Beacon of Life award to Robinson, a Hall-of-Fame player; its Beacon of Change award to actress and activist Ruby Dee; and its Beacon of Hope award to John H. Johnson, the late publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines.

The special award was given to Reinsdorf for his enduring contributions to equality both on the field and in the front office.

Reinsdorf was completely surprised by the honor, which was bestowed upon him with much grace by Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's vice president of baseball operations and the guiding force behind this particular two-day event.

"I could have had a great speech written if I had known," Reinsdorf said.

Reinsdorf did a great impromptu speech anyway, recalling that he was at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947, as an 11-year-old to watch Jackie Robinson's first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

"I didn't understand the significance of it back then," said Reinsdorf, a child of New York's largest borough. "All I cared about was whether he could play."

Last year's inaugural Beacon Awards were presented to filmmaker Spike Lee, Vera Clemente, the widow of the late Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente, and posthumously to Buck O'Neil, the Negro League icon who passed away on Oct. 6, 2006.

Robinson, 72, was the perfect choice for the lifetime award, considering he was one of baseball's most outspoken African-American players during the 1960s and its first black manager when he signed to both play for and manage the Cleveland Indians beginning in 1975.

Robinson recalled that he had a player's contract in hand worth $180,000 for the 1975 season and the Indians offered only $20,000 more to manage the team. When he questioned the combined figure of $200,000, Robinson was told to take it or leave it.

"There are times you have to make decisions in life," Robinson said. "I took it to further the cause of African-Americans."

Robinson managed Cleveland for three years and then moved on to San Francisco, where he became the National League's first African-American manager in 1981. Ultimately, he would also manage the Orioles and the Expos/Nationals, a job he left after the 2006 season.

Robinson, who is now a consultant for MLB, said he continues to give young black players advice if they care to listen. If not, "I don't waste my time."

"I am open to help, and I will continue to do so," he said. "Lifetime, to me, means the end. You're gone. But I have a lot more to do."

Video tributes, showing the skills of Aaron and Minoso, were also highlights. Aaron, who held the all-time home run record of 755 until Barry Bonds passed him last year, was afforded a rousing standing ovation, perhaps the loudest of many during the affair.

Aaron is in town at the behest of Commissioner Bud Selig, who couldn't make it because of the tightness of his schedule.

"The Commissioner and I have known each other for a long time," Aaron said earlier in the day. "I'm honored to be here for such a cause and plan to make the most of this weekend."

Reinsdorf was brimming after receiving his special award at the end of the evening.

"I believe in equity, that's all," Reinsdorf said. "That's the way I was brought up.

An owner, as well, of the NBA's Chicago Bulls, Reinsdorf mused that he was privileged to witness a pair of the greatest athletes in history: Jackie Robinson, who also starred at UCLA in football, basketball and track, and Michael Jordan, who led his Bulls to six titles.

"It's been a wonderful life," Reinsdorf concluded.

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.