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High marks for Civil Rights Game

High marks for Civil Rights Game

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- There were no marching bands or fireworks. The Civil Rights Game and its associated activities weren't about all that. They were about memorializing a movement in which Major League Baseball had an early and very significant role.

As they say, long before Brown vs. Education or Central High School in nearby Little Rock, Ark., was desegregated, Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a Brooklyn Dodgers contract, the 60th anniversary of that watershed event to be celebrated with the focal point at Dodger Stadium on April 15.

This weekend's events and the ones to honor Robinson in little more than two weeks create neat bookends.

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"I think [Robinson's coming was] clearly one of the most powerful moments in 20th century American history," Commissioner Bud Selig told a media group as the Cardinals defeated the Indians, 5-1, on Saturday night at AutoZone Park. "I don't think that's far-fetched at all and I believe that. Clearly, it was the most powerful moment in baseball history, as far as I'm concerned."

Selig echoed those comments in an eight-minute documentary produced by Spike Lee that was unveiled on Saturday afternoon at a luncheon honoring the inaugural Beacon Award winners, which included Lee, Buck O'Neil, the late Negro League icon, and Vera Clemente, the widow of Pirates Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.

The film was aired again on the ballpark video board during the festivities just prior to the first Civil Rights Game presented by AutoZone.

The events evidently had an impact on those who participated.

"It's a very significant message baseball is sending and the Cardinals were really pleased to be a part of it," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said.

"As an organization, we were proud to be here," said Mark Shapiro, the Indians' general manager. "For what the game represents historically and what it means to the people, we must remember who both put baseball and society in a better place. It's a reminder of the past and a reminder that we have to continue to work hard into the future."

Couple the emotional luncheon with a stirring roundtable discussion on Friday at the National Civil Rights Museum about the diminishing presence of African-Americans in baseball, and the game itself seemed to punctuate the experience. Even several hours of pouring rain, which miraculously curtailed just prior to the 5:30 p.m. ET start, didn't dampen the Commissioner's spirit.

"Nothing could have gone better," Selig said about the two days. "This has been remarkable. If you ask me what could have been done to improve it, I don't think anything."

The inclement weather may have been the reason a crowd of 12,815 attended the game in the 15,000-seat ballpark, but no matter.

"All of it lined up, and things could not have been any better," added Dave Chase, the president of the Memphis Redbirds, the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate, which hosted the game. "I would have liked to have gotten [Friday's] weather, but we're still doing OK."

MLB plans to make Memphis the perennial home for this particular event to be played each year the day before the season opener, said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, who tirelessly spent the last few months putting all the components together. Of course, the on-field opponents will vary.

"Maybe next year's game will be even more important," La Russa said. "The message will only increase in significance."

The reason for keeping the game in Memphis is simple: The mid-southern city was a nexus of the civil rights movement and is considered "hallowed ground" because Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated here on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel on April 4, 1968.

"This game will be played every year in Memphis in honor of Dr. King," Selig said in his prepared remarks at the luncheon.

Next year will also mark the 40th anniversary of King's death.

Selig said he remembers the day King was killed with alacrity. The Braves had just fled Milwaukee after the 1965 season and Selig, the eventual owner of the Brewers, had brought the White Sox to County Stadium for an exhibition game to try to re-generate community interest in baseball and MLB interest in the community.

"I was working all day and the White Sox were going to play the Cubs the next day," he said. "I was at a television station for a civic dinner and I had just sat down. I saw the news that Martin Luther King had just been assassinated. I can remember people just gasping. Frankly, I got up and left.

"But we're really lucky. We are a social institution. A day like this, we're just happy to do it."

Barry M. Bloom 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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