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Strides realized in Civil Rights Game

Strides realized in Civil Rights Game

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- From the protection of the roof of a party suite at AutoZone Park, Joe B. Scott looked down at the inaugural Civil Rights Game presented by AutoZone, a 5-1 victory by the St. Louis Cardinals over the Cleveland Indians on Saturday.

He was watching something that, as an African-American teenager growing up in Chicago in the 1930s, he was told he would never see: non-whites playing Major League Baseball. The Indians and Cardinals started three players from the Dominican Republic, two African-Americans, and one player each from Venezuela, Puerto Rico and Japan.

When Scott was the only African-American on his high school team, he remembers then Commissioner of baseball Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis saying that baseball could not be color blind.

"He said no black can get to the big leagues or should be able to play in the big leagues," said Scott, 86. "I spoke out. 'One day, we're going to get to the Majors. I may not get there, but some people are going to get to the Majors.'"

At the home of one of the key cities of the Civil Rights Movement, and home of the National Civil Rights Museum, the teams played as though such a time never existed. Those among the 12,815 who had faith that the rain would leave by game time -- and it did -- watched and enjoyed.

Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols knocked in two runs with two hits, including a solo shot in the third inning, and Adam Wainwright held the Indians to three hits and one run in five innings in lowering his spring ERA to 1.10 as he moves from the bullpen into the starting rotation.

For the Indians, young left-hander Jeremy Sowers gave up five runs (four earned) and eight hits in four innings and third basemen Andy Marte knocked in the Tribe's sole run with a flare to right field in the fourth to plate catcher Victor Martinez.

Throughout the contest, many of the Cardinals' African-American greats were featured in vignettes on the scoreboard and were greeted with rousing cheers. Memphis is not only is home to the Cards' Triple-A affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds, but it's a city where the Cards are estimated to sell in excess of 120,000 tickets each season, and red was the color of the day in the stands.

Fan Paul Maddox felt that growing up in Memphis, where the racial makeup is even and race relations are a front-burner issue, that he grew up in a diverse atmosphere and gained respect for all. As an adult, he was in the military and was in active duty in Iraq from April 2003 to July 2004 and came back to Memphis after getting out of active duty in 2005.

Maddox also is a Cardinals fan who made several trips to St. Louis each year before joining the military and meeting his wife, who is from the Ukraine. They now have a 3 1/2-year-old and don't get to make it to many Cards games. The fact that his beloved Cards were in town, and the reason, came together nicely for him.

"It's just a spring game, but this city here is Cardinal crazy -- Memphians don't come out in the rain for anything, but they do for the Cardinals," said Maddox, who said his wife loves the Redbirds and the only team his son knows how to say is Cardinals. "They're a great team and they won the World Series.

"There's a lot of civil rights history in this city, and being from Memphis, I know the white side and the black side, which is very important. A lot of people from other cities don't get that opportunity. The city is almost 50/50 black/white. So this event is something special, and it's that way when the Cardinals come in."

It was a little more special on the field than the average exhibition game for those who played, also.

"It did feel like something bigger than a meaningless Spring Training game," Cards infielder Aaron Miles said. "Throw some hoopla around it, call it the Civil Rights Game in one of the key places of the Civil Rights Movement. It was good that we got to go to the museum and get a tour for about 90 minutes.

"We've been playing these meaningless Spring Training games every day. To actually have a big game before Opening Day kind of gets you almost ready for Opening Day. It was fun."

The higher level of caring translated to the Memphis fans, who are savvy enough to know the difference between exhibition and Major League intensity.

"It felt like a big-league atmosphere, even though it's not quite the beginning of the season," said baseball fan Julie Faulkner, who wore a red shirt bearing the name of former Cards Minor League personality Stubby Clapp. "It was very enjoyable. It seemed like the players were putting forth full effort, and it was fun to see some of the guys that we've seen come through the Redbirds back here in their Cardinals uniform."

The former executive director of the NAACP, Dr. Benjamin Hooks, threw the ceremonial first pitch, and the late Buck O'Neil, award-winning filmmaker Spike Lee and Vera Clemente, widow of baseball great Roberto Clemente, received MLB Beacon Awards for their lifetime contributions.

R&B legend Patti LaBelle delivered a lengthy rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, during which she touched the top and bottom of her impressive range, and put her ability in every note in between. And during the seventh-inning stretch, The Civil Rights Museum Choir sang a moving rendition of "America, the Beautiful."

For the younger fans, much of the pregame ceremony and between-innings reminiscence served as education. But their biggest cheers were reserved for The Cheetah Girls, who sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch and danced in their luxury box as one of their hits was played during a later break in action.

A little bit of learning, a lot of entertainment, and a chance for young men to swoon. Saturday proved to be a great day for baseball to cross all cultures and age groups.

Even a superstar can learn.

Pujols said the occasion, which included his own tour of the museum on Saturday, was more touching than he expected.

"I went with a friend of mine and he had to walk out of the room," Pujols said. "He almost started crying. It was a pretty tough situation, what those people had to go through. You don't want to go through that, but just because of them, we have the honor. We're pretty much equal now."

Scott never had the chance to reach the big leagues like Pujols, but his belief that it could happen helped make Pujols' career possible.

Scott's career ended shortly before Jackie Robinson broke the Major Leagues' color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. However, he played with and against players such as Dizzy Dean, Bob Feller, Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio on barnstorming tours, and played on some integrated semi-pro clubs.

But he so loved baseball that he played in the Negro Leagues at age 17 with the Chicago American Giants under the name Sandy Thompson -- "Satchel Paige gave me that name," he said with a smile. He understands what went into changing the conditions in America beyond baseball.

Scott played part of his career for the Memphis Red Sox and has lived in Memphis ever since. He said Andrew Porter, now living in Los Angeles, is his only living teammate. As long as he is around, he will try to feed a baseball dream to today's youth.

"I start with kids, as young as fifth and sixth grade, and I'll go all the way through college ages," Scott said. "The Civil Rights Game is, to me, is more than an exhibition game, because baseball is America's game. And that's what I teach."

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

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