"It's important to commemorate and remember the Civil Rights movement in our country," said Cardinals third baseman Scott Rolen, whose team rolled into town to play its Triple-A affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds, at AutoZone Park on Friday night. "It's a great opportunity in a historic city that the Cardinals have a tie to, and it will be great to be a part of the event."
Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations, has been working tirelessly on details of the event since it was formally announced in December at the Winter Meetings.
"I'm very nervous, of course, but I'm very confident we'll put on a fantastic show," Solomon said. "We'll make baseball proud, we'll make the world proud, and we'll teach a lot of things people need to know about baseball's place in the civil rights movement."
Baseball has long been considered to have foreshadowed that movement. The sport was re-integrated on April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson played his first game for the Brooklyn Dodgers. That act came about 60 years after African-Americans were barred from the Major Leagues and more than a decade before U.S. public schools were fully integrated and African-Americans were admitted into what were then all-white public universities in the South.
"It's something to be very proud of," Commissioner Bud Selig said. "I think, by any stretch of the imagination, what Jackie Robinson did has to be considered the greatest moment in the history of our sport. If Jackie had failed, there would've been no Larry Doby, no Willie Mays and no Frank Robinson."
Doby had followed Robinson, becoming the first African-American in the American League when he joined the Indians on July 5, 1947. With Doby in the lineup, the Indians defeated the Boston Braves in the 1948 World Series, the last time Cleveland won the championship. But the Indians remained in the forefront of integrating MLB, naming Frank Robinson the first African-American manager in 1975.
"A lot of people ask me what this game will mean," said Frank Robinson, who spent the past five years as manager of the Nationals/Expos and has now rejoined MLB in a senior advisor capacity. "It's great because it's not pointed at one person or group of persons. It's pointed toward a movement that involved a lot of people in different eras. That's what makes this special."
King was assassinated by James Earl Ray while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, which in 1991 was converted into part of the National Civil Rights Museum. King was in town to support striking sanitation workers. He had walked on freedom marches in the South many times in his life and had also been jailed for his efforts.
The museum, which memorializes the movement, includes a replica of the bus on which Rosa Parks refused to move from her front seat. The second-floor room where King was staying that fateful night has been restored to reflect the exact decor of 1968. Outside are parked automobiles from that era.
Players and officials will lead walking tours of the museum, as the game is only one facet to the memorial weekend.
"I'm honored to be a part of it," said Josh Barfield, the young Indians second baseman. "We have to do a job of carrying the torch and doing what we can to spark interest."
On Friday, there will be a panel discussion from 4-6 p.m. at the museum entitled, "Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement," moderated by Charles Ogletree, a Harvard law professor. The panel will include Branch Rickey III, whose grandfather signed Robinson for the Dodgers; Bill White, a former All-Star player and the first African-American president of the National League; Dave Winfield, the Hall of Fame outfielder and now a vice president of the Padres, and ESPN reporter Peter Gammons.
The panel discussion will also be aired live on BaseballChannel.TV.
At a noon ET luncheon prior to the game on Saturday, MLB will present its first Beacon Awards. The late Negro League star Buck O'Neil, filmmaker Spike Lee and Vera Clemente, the widow of Pirates great Roberto Clemente, are to be the recipients.
The short documentary film Lee produced for the game will also be unveiled at the luncheon.
"I'm waiting for that with great anticipation," Selig said.
About six blocks from the museum, AutoZone Park is the home of the Redbirds, the top Minor League affiliate of the Cardinals, who won two World Series titles and three NL pennants during the 1960s laden with talented African-Americans such Bob Gibson and Lou Brock -- both Hall of Famers -- plus the late Curt Flood and White, the future NL president.
"It's good to be part of an inaugural event that recognizes the National Civil Rights Museum, the importance of it," said Walt Jocketty, the Cardinals general manager, whose team defeated the Tigers last October to win its first World Series since 1982. "Hopefully we will raise awareness and help bring some revenue to help their cause."
MLB has committed to donate at least $50,000 each to the National Civil Rights Museum, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Jackie Robinson Foundation, the Negro League Museum and other local Memphis charities.
"This gives us a chance to re-commit ourselves to the idea that if one person's civil rights will be jeopardized, the whole society's human rights will also be jeopardized," Solomon said. "We're going to showcase that, and we're going to also do our best to have a good game."