08/18/12 8:57 PM ET
Civil rights heroes honored in pregame ceremony
By Spencer Fordin / MLB.com
Jackie Robinson, the pioneer who broke baseball's color line in 1947, was never far from the conversation Saturday, and one of his teammates was one of the game's guests of honor.
Don Newcombe, who referred to Robinson as "my idol" earlier in the week, was on hand at Turner Field as one of the Beacon Award winners on Saturday, and he was joined by fellow award recipients Congressman John Lewis and the founding members of recording group Earth, Wind & Fire.
Newcombe and his compatriots were each driven onto the field in a convertible and took a victory lap, beginning in the right-field corner and stopping out by center field. Earlier in the day, the three had received their Beacon Awards as part of a banquet at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.
Lewis, who has represented Georgia's 5th Congressional District since 1987, was touched by receiving his award, and he said that the Civil Rights Game is an important addition to the calendar because it draws attention to the progress that's been made and the work that still needs to be done.
"These men and the whole sport just made an unbelievable contribution," he said. "To see blacks and whites on the field playing together, it inspired people all over the world. They thought, 'If they can play sports together, then we can do some other things together.' Some people think it's always been this way, but when Jackie Robinson became a player in 1947, I was just seven years old. And growing up in rural Alabama, we kept up with what was happening. And later to meet him and guys like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Don Newcombe, these are guys that inspired us."
Newcombe, the first African-American pitcher to reach 20 wins and to start a World Series game, entertained the audience at the Beacon Awards banquet with his indelible impressions of what it meant to come of age at such a volatile time, and he related a couple anecdotes about Robinson.
The members of Earth, Wind & Fire -- Ralph Johnson, Verdine White and Philip Bailey -- were also touched to be honored, and they referenced Maurice White, the founding member of the group who could not be there with them. This award, they said, was something they'd always treasure.
"It's made us the multi-cultural society that we have today, for all people and in all of the different professions," said White of civil rights. "It brings everybody together. And as Philip said earlier in another interview, we're standing on their shoulders. We're the beneficiaries of the movement."
The Braves had several special guests lined up to be part of the ceremony. Young saxophonist BK Jackson played a stirring rendition of America the Beautiful, and Chrisette Michele, who won a Grammy Award in 2009 for Best Urban/Alternative Performance, belted out the national anthem.
Lewis, who came to Atlanta as a 23-year-old, has called this city home for nearly five decades, during which he's seen the cultural complexion of America change. This man, a veteran of sit-ins, Freedom Rides and other peaceful demonstrations, can truly claim a hand in changing his environment.
And when asked to do the impossible -- to speak for a man who's been gone for nearly four decades -- Lewis does his best. If Robinson were here, said Lewis, he'd have conflicting emotions.
"Jackie would be very grateful and thankful for all the progress made since 1947," said Lewis, "But he would be saying, 'We still have a distance to go.' He would still be pushing."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.