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01/17/11 10:00 AM EST

Civil rights a hallmark of MLB's rich history

Baseball's greatest achievement came not in home runs hit or strikeouts recorded or games won. It came in the field of civil rights, at a moment when the game was ahead of the society around it.

That was Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's racial barrier in 1947. That is a topic that reoccurs naturally today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It is completely fitting that this May, baseball will mark its annual Civil Rights Game celebration by holding the event in King's hometown, Atlanta.

It is fitting, too, that baseball should continue to focus on civil rights, but not merely as a device for self-congratulation. Like any other American institution, baseball is still a work in progress when it comes to racial relations. The need for further progress is as much a focus of the Civil Rights Game as the celebration of the progress that has already been made.

Baseball's entrance pass into this entire discussion was delivered on April 15, 1947, when Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers for the first time. Even at this distance, the epic nature of this event is easily comprehended. The U.S. armed services were still segregated at that time. American public schools were still segregated. Open housing was not yet in force in this country.

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But in baseball, the on-field racial barrier was erased. The keys to the vault were not handed over at the same time. It would be some time before anyone other than card-carrying Caucasians would be managers or general managers or owners of Major League franchises. But the first step had been taken, taken at a time when baseball was the national pastime, and taken well ahead of most sectors of American society.

It is against this backdrop that baseball, as a social institution, has always thought of itself as a part of the historical sweep of the civil rights movement. It hasn't always been in the forefront as it was in April 1947. An annual concern during panel discussions before the Civil Rights Game is the marked decline in the number of black players at the Major League level. On the other hand, during the tenure of Commissioner Bud Selig, tangible, measurable progress has been made by baseball in, for instance, minority hiring at the executive level.

So for the next two years, the Civil Rights Game will be held in Atlanta, an inescapable site for the event, given Martin Luther King Jr.'s origins. This year, the Braves will play the Phillies on May 15. The accompanying event will be expanded from two days to four days, but it will still include the events that have come to best represent the Civil Rights Game.

A round-table discussion will be staged at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where three generations of Kings served as pastors. The discussion will center upon the pivotal role baseball played in the civil rights movement and the game's continued presence as a social institution in American society, along with the progress that still needs to be made. The Beacon Award luncheon, recognizing individuals whose lives are emblematic of the spirit of the civil rights movement, will be held the day before the Civil Rights Game. Winners of the previous Beacon Awards have included such luminaries as Buck O'Neill, Spike Lee, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby, Willie Mays, Billie Jean King and Harry Belafonte.

Aaron will he honored once more this year with the screening of "Chasing the Dream: A Red Carpet Tribute to Hank Aaron," which chronicles the Hall of Famer's life and career.

In its first two years, the Civil Rights Game was held in Memphis, the site of the National Civil Rights Museum and the site of King's assassination. In its third and fourth years, the game was held in Cincinnati, home of the National Underground Railroad Center. In coming to Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. was born 82 years ago, the event has come full circle in a way.

The lessons of Martin Luther King Jr., the struggle for equal rights, the underlying and undying belief in non-violence as a viable method of creating meaningful change, these are matters that should be both pondered and honored on a regular basis. Baseball, as it turned out, was at its best when it intersected with the goals of what came to be known as the civil rights movement.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.