06/21/09 1:22 AM EST
Civil Rights Game continues discussion
MLB plays part in carrying on lessons of movement
By Mark Newman / MLB.com
It was the final exclamation mark on a weekend that has officially arrived as the latest jewel event on the Major League Baseball calendar.
Every event surrounding and including the Civil Rights Game was greeted with capacity attendance, goosebumps galore, sincere passion, open and honest dialogue, and pride. It was Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron and Bill Cosby, riding on the warning track into Great American Ball Park and given thunderous ovations as a lifetime of respect.
It was 3,000 kids jamming Fountain Square, under the famous "Genius of Water" spraying statue, for the new "Wanna Play?" event and Youth Summit. It was Friday's Civil Rights Game Roundtable at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, on the banks of a river that divided pro-slavery to the south and anti-slavery to the north.
It was the first of back-to-back years in Cincinnati for this event, and the first year that it went to a Major League city and had the signature game played in a Major League ballpark. It was the Reds up, 5-0, then down, 8-5, then a rally and a 10-8 White Sox victory.
It was a Beacon Awards luncheon that will be talked about for many years -- the time they put Hammerin' Hank, The Greatest and a king of entertainment on a stage side-by-side, with collective tears of joy flowing right into the adjacent Ohio River, turning muddy. Did that just happen? Did Bill Cosby really stand up in a golf cart circling a ballpark, holding a hat straight up in the air, wearing a Homestead Grays Negro League uniform that had "HELLO FRIEND" on the back, in socks and stirrups, making you smile and laugh again?
It was former president Bill Clinton and a crowd's rapt attention as he told them in a keynote address: "If you want to honor Hank Aaron and Muhammad Ali and Bill Cosby, you must first recognize that this struggle is nowhere near over." That was a takeaway for everyone this weekend. It was Cosby's tear-jerking story about the last days of his old friend Joe Black, the Negro Leaguer who went to the Dodgers, and telling the crowd: "It's not a done deal." It was the passionate pleas of those people in the crowd at the Friday roundtable, where they reacted loudest whenever anyone reminded those in attendance that there is still work to do.
Barack Obama is President. MLB has been integrated for 62 years. Times have changed. But the prevailing theme was that the civil rights movement marches inexorably on. Many will remember the words of roundtable panelist James Clingman Jr., the University of Cincinnati adjunct professor, author and NAACP local activist who told them that the new civil rights struggle is about economics, the changing of the financial guard, true equality where it counts for real, in the pocketbook and in the neighborhoods.
That, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips said, is a big part of the lack of African-American players like him in the Majors. He participated in the new youth-outreach event earlier, along with former Reds star Eric Davis, and he reaffirmed what Muhammad Ali's wife, Lonnie, had said during the luncheon, and what Aaron had said Friday -- that baseball has to make this sport affordable to all families, not to attend but to play.
"I can agree with her," Phillips said at his locker moments after the Reds' 10-8 loss to the White Sox in the big game. "Baseball is an expensive sport. That's why a lot of African-Americans don't play it. You gotta have a bat, a ball, a glove, a catching glove, cleats -- so many things. The fields. If you look at all those commercials on TV, you never see a baseball commercial. You see LeBron [James]. You see Terrell Owens. You don't see that in baseball. Kids think it's boring. I thank my parents for that, that I had one of those old Flintstone Wiffle ball bats. Big, fat bat. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't have played baseball."
Get your kid a Wiffle ball bat. Get a glove. Get the word out. That is the message that many were espousing at Civil Rights Game weekend. Get in motion, and do whatever it takes to build around baseball. Do something. Say something.
"This is all you can do," Phillips said. "There are only so many things you can do. It's up to young African-Americans to make that choice themselves after that. You don't see many of them now in the game, but it starts when you are younger. You can't really go to the 'hood to get guys to play. All you can do is show them."
Like this. Like the annual Civil Rights Game weekend.
Meet Chuck Harmon, again. He was resplendent in red blazer and cane standing outside the ballroom after the luncheon, a local celebrity who should have been a bigger celebrity back in his prime. He wraps your hand in his big bear paw and makes you feel at home, and he reaches into the pouch hanging around his neck and pulls out a whole stack of baseball cards of him, reproduced cards, and this is what it says on the back of the one he signs for you:
On April 17, 1954, seven years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier, Charles Byron (Chuck) Harmon made his Major League debut as the first African-American to play for the Cincinnati Reds. ... When his playing days ended, he stayed in the Cincinnati area, where he has remained one of the most popular residents of the city.
That's Chuck Harmon. He is the face of this Civil Rights Game, just like so many other faces you will never forget after you leave town, if you leave town.
He took great pride in what just happened here.
"Super. I can't say too much for myself," he says, owing it to modesty, "but I thank the Reds for signing me as their first black. In a way, in my mind, I think personally, I think part of the reason the Reds and the City of Cincinnati got this event and a second year [for 2010] is that maybe I had a little something to do with it."
You wanted him to just come right out and say it more matter-of-factly, because you knew in your heart it was true. Sure, there were many reasons MLB chose this town over others, such as the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. But yes, Chuck Harmon, you were the reason, right there.
"To give Cincinnati this game and then back it up with a second year, that has to make me feel an integral part of this, that it was due to me."
Say it with pride.
"I hope baseball can rise up and do what Jackie Robinson and others would have been so proud of," Aaron said.
So what would Jackie think after this weekend?
"He would say, 'They are moving, but slowly,'" Aaron said. "It's a bigger picture than putting players on the field. It's finances. Black families don't have the money in most cases. It's hard to put their kids in summer camp, to do what others do."
The discussion went on. And it will go on right back here next year, when the 2010 Civil Rights Game returns to Cincinnati. That is what Clinton asked for, that is what Cosby asked for, that is what Oscar Robertson asked for, that is what they all asked for.
Don't stop talking about civil rights. Don't stop and believe the dream is achieved.
The 2009 Civil Rights Game is a done deal, yes.
But not this life.
"It was an honor, because it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing that can't ever happen to you again," Phillips said after the final event. "Talking to Bill [Cosby], to Hank, standing next to Ali, the greatest athlete in the world, hearing Bill Clinton talk, it was a great thing. It lets you know how far the word has come, and it's a blessing and an honor to have what so many others worked for.
"Having Obama as my president, it just lets you further know we're making strides. There still is a whole lot of stuff out there, but it's slowly changing. It's amazing to think that I wouldn't be playing baseball if not for the guys before me."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.