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Memphis sees a slice of Cooperstown

Memphis sees a slice of Cooperstown

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Mets and White Sox were playing out on the field at AutoZone Park, while off in a side room behind home plate, a few fans were observing history in silence. Michael Reinsdorf, 41, of Chicago, ushered his two sons over first to Jackie Robinson's Hall of Fame plaque, then across the room to Larry Doby's plaque.

Reinsdorf, the son of White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, was born into baseball culture, and spent Saturday evening passing on the favor. He told his sons about Robinson and Doby's accomplishments. They both looked on, saying little, just staring upward.

"It's pretty special to see Jackie Robinson's plaque since my dad lived in Brooklyn," Reinsdorf said. "To be able to take my sons to see it is pretty cool."

"Yeah," piped up his elder son, 11-year-old Joey. "It's really cool."

Normally, it wouldn't have happened, if not for one historical exception. The Hall of Fame on Saturday transported two of its most popular plaques to AutoZone Park for Major League Baseball's Civil Rights Game, giving fans an opportunity to see them far away from the confines of Cooperstown. Fans filed in throughout the game to take a look, snap a few pictures and run their fingers along the faces and the words.

"Our hope is that a fan will come and realize that Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson weren't just fictitious historical creations," Hall of Fame spokesman Brad Horn said. "That they are indeed men who, in spite of the challenges they faced, excelled. Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson are not in the Hall of Fame because they were pioneers. They're in the Hall of Fame because they were exceptional baseball talents, and that baseball talent was only brought to life because they were given the chance."

That was the spirit of the weekend in Memphis, where baseball held its second annual Civil Rights Game. The plaques gave fans a little piece of history -- miles away from Cooperstown. And that was the point. For all the museum's grandeur, the National Baseball Hall of Fame for many remains too remote, and too impractical to reach.

"I've always wanted to go to the Hall of Fame, but I've never had the chance to," said Derek Hinson, 35, of Nashville, Tenn. "For me, this makes sense."

That's why the Hall brought along the plaque of Robinson, who broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, and that of Doby, who did the same for the American League later that summer. Those two fit into the weekend's civil rights agenda, and therefore gave the Hall an uncommon opportunity to showcase two of its jewels.

Only in rare instances does the museum ever allow its plaques to hit the road. Roberto Clemente's plaque has traveled to his native Puerto Rico, and Juan Marichal's has seen the Dominican Republic. When Ted Williams died in 2002, the Red Sox requested his plaque for a ceremony at Fenway Park, and the Hall obliged. That's about it.

"It's very rare in general to have a plaque leave Cooperstown," Horn said, "primarily because when a visitor comes to the museum, we want them to feel that they've seen the entire experience. But this is such a historic opportunity for us to educate fans here in Memphis, fans of the game, about their contributions on the baseball field."

That was a primary goal of these Memphis events -- education. Friday evening's baseball roundtable discussion helped educate observers at the National Civil Rights Museum, while Robinson and Doby's plaques hung on display just outside the doors. From there, they traveled a few blocks north to AutoZone Park, where fans could file into a side room and see them throughout most of Saturday's Civil Rights Game.

Quite a few ticket holders ventured inside during the game's middle innings, taking a break from the action to check out a makeshift museum hall.

"It's something I've always wanted to do was go to Cooperstown," said Jeff Lanfair, 29, of Memphis. "I left the game just to come see [the plaques]. You don't normally see something like that. Only in pictures, but here, you can walk up and touch it."

What's remarkable about Robinson's plaque is that it mentions nothing about his role as a civil rights figure -- only his accomplishments on the field. That was by design, trumpeting Robinson for his baseball skills alone. Those skills have immortalized him in Cooperstown, while their social contexts have immortalized him in history.

And for one day, the Hall of Fame gave Memphis an opportunity to experience it.

"We understand the remote location of Cooperstown and the reality that few baseball fans ever have the chance to visit," Horn said. "If we can bring our Cooperstown to Memphis and other locations across the country, we are truly educating America about the past and about our heroes. Those memories must live on. And that's our charge."

Anthony DiComo 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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