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06/17/09 10:16 AM ET

Three to be honored with Beacon Awards

Aaron, Ali, Cosby celebrated by Major League Baseball

CINCINNATI -- You're not going to find many people who don't know of the icons who are being honored this weekend.

It doesn't get much bigger than Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby and Hank Aaron -- all three will be honored at the Major League Baseball Beacon Awards Luncheon on Saturday at the Duke Energy Center as part of the festivities surrounding the Civil Rights Game.

"I think it's awesome. That's a tremendous lineup," said Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, a 2008 Beacon of Life winner. "It's too bad they couldn't get somebody to hit fourth. That's a great group."

Actually, they did find someone who could serve as the cleanup hitter. Former President Bill Clinton is scheduled to deliver the keynote address. CNN anchor/reporter Soledad O'Brien is serving as host of the event, which is sold out. It will run from 11:30 a.m - 2 p.m. ET.

Grammy Award-winning gospel singer BeBe Winans will be performing at the luncheon with a local "all-star" choir comprised of 30 gospel singers from 10 Cincinnati-area churches.

"Those guys will be tough to beat," Reds manager Dusty Baker said of the awards. "I talked to Hank last week. He's excited about coming."

The third annual Civil Rights Game, which will be played by the Reds and White Sox on Saturday at Great American Ball Park, honors the efforts and struggles for equality among the races. The MLB Beacon Awards recognizes individuals "whose lives are emblematic of the spirit of the civil rights movement."

Past winners include Vera Clemente, Spike Lee, Buck O'Neil, John H. Johnson, Ruby Dee and Robinson.

Cosby, the Beacon of Hope honoree, has spent the last five decades as an influential comedian and entertainer. His television comedy, "The Cosby Show," was the first to feature the daily lives of an African-American family that was middle or upper class and has often been credited for saving the sitcom genre. The backbone of Cosby's career has been observations about families, especially parents and their children.

Cosby's appearance in Cincinnati carries extra significance because of his refusal to play a concert in February 2002 as a way of pressuring the city to improve its race relations effort. Riots in April 2001 had strongly divided Cincinnati and led to economic boycotts.

Since Cosby took his stand, the NAACP national conference and National Baptist Ministers convention were held in Cincinnati last summer. Cosby has returned to the area since but the Beacon Awards will be his highest profile appearance.

"When you've been an entertainer and in the limelight as long as Bill, you're going to have little rifts with a lot of different places," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of operations. "Bill transcends all of that because he is an icon. As an icon, you have to go and address issues, people and things that need to be addressed."

Known simply as "The Greatest," Ali was a 10-time heavyweight champion boxer with a flamboyant flair and charisma that dazzled a generation. But his name has transcended well beyond sport to become one of the most revered worldwide.

Ali, the Beacon of Change winner, relinquished his championship belt in the 1960s after he refused to go into the U.S. Army as both a civil rights protest and religious opposition to fighting the Vietnam War. He is also well known for his humanitarian efforts and has traveled the world on goodwill missions while bravely living with Parkinson's Disease.

"Muhammad Ali, in my lifetime, has probably had the most impact of any iconic athlete," Solomon said. "He did something I thought was dramatically supportive of what he stood for, which was to not go into the draft and also to give up his livelihood for three and a half years. A lot of people can say they are committed to this and that, but if you were told you and your family were not going to be able to have any income by virtue of your position, would we still stand so steadfast? I don't know."

Aaron, a Hall of Famer and former all-time home run leader, will be the Beacon of Life recipient. A Negro League player before he starred for the Braves in both Milwaukee and Atlanta, Aaron persevered through racism during his 23-year career and was known for the dignity in how he lived and played.

Like Ali and Cosby, Aaron is a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner. Aaron formed the Chasing the Dream Foundation with his wife, Billye, in 1994, and has given financial support to hundreds of youth that enable them to pursue talents in music, dances, art, science, literature and athletics.

"I think Hank was kind of getting pushed to the side because of all the home runs being hit by so many people as of late," Solomon said. "Even when Hank was playing, people would argue that Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Gil Hodges stoles all of the limelight. Hank, as history has shown, was steady, productive and talented man who didn't need all the limelight. He went about his job every day and we see what numbers bore out."

The Civil Rights Game also offers a weekend's worth of events, including a roundtable discussion and youth summit that highlights the role baseball has played in the civil rights movement. There will also be fireworks and events being held in conjunction with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, located next door to Great American Ball Park.

"It's bringing recognition to a cause that a lot of people take for granted and don't know much about," Robinson said. "We're trying to make people more aware about the past and present and the future for this country."

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