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05/15/10 10:25 PM ET

Civil Rights Game memorable for Banks

Hall of Famer threw out ceremonial first pitch in Cincinnati

CINCINNATI -- Since his Hall of Fame career ended almost four decades ago, Ernie Banks has had many opportunities to throw out ceremonial first pitches and wave to an adoring crowd.

But the delivery he made Saturday night in the moments before the start of the Gillette Civil Rights Game at Great American Ball Park stands out for one of the game's great ambassadors, thanks to the surroundings -- and the guests of honor.

Hall of Famer Willie Mays, tennis legend Billie Jean King and entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte were honored with MLB Beacon Awards in the pregame ceremony, and among the thousands of interested observers was a certain Hall of Fame shortstop wearing a Cubs jersey.

"It's just wonderful," Banks said. "To be at the Civil Rights Game and to meet Harry Belafonte and see Willie Mays, and be around him and Hank Aaron, all the great people I played with and against, it's just been wonderful just to hear them talk about their experiences in life and with civil rights."

The on-field ceremony that preceded Banks' first pitch mirrored for the fans gathered at the ballpark much of what was on display at the MLB Beacon Awards luncheon earlier in the day. There, Mays was presented the Beacon of Life Award, King the Beacon of Change Award and Belafonte the Beacon of Hope Award.

Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman emceed the on-field ceremony, which began in earnest when each of the Beacon Award winners was driven in from center field to the home-plate area to the ceremony stage, and Brennaman spoke for many in Cincinnati when he mentioned how much the game has meant to the city and the ballclub.

"We could not be prouder than to take part in this major jewel event for Major League Baseball the last two years," Brennaman said.

As part of the introductions, four local men who played in the Negro Leagues were recognized -- Charles "Whip" Davis, Ron "Bunny" Warren, Don "Groundhog" Johnson and Tom "High Pockets" Turner. Chuck Harmon, the first African-American to play for the Reds, also was acknowledged -- and further honored as fans were given a commemorative Harmon road jersey coming through the gates.

Hall of Famers Frank Robinson -- who received a big ovation in his first Major League home -- Hank Aaron and Banks received recognition as well.

Following video tributes to Rachel Robinson, widow of pioneer Jackie Robinson, and the late Lena Horne was an acknowledgment of the four college students who staged a sit-in at a Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth lunch counter in 1960.

Roberta Flack did her own soulful rendition of John Lennon's "Imagine" before each of the Beacon Awards winners was introduced to the crowd. An honor guard that represented all five branches of the U.S. military took the field as Jeffrey Osborne sang the national anthem.

And it all culminated with Brandon Phillips receiving a softball first pitch from Banks, much to the delight of the crowd -- and Banks himself.

Aside from seeing Mays, Banks said he enjoyed spending time with Belafonte and talking about the entertainer's close association with Dr. Martin Luther King, and talking with Billie Jean King about her efforts for gender equality, including her role in helping Title IX come about.

"I've learned a lot being here at this event," Banks said. "I'm happy to have been a part of it and I'd like to come back to it."

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