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Civil Rights Game gets bigger stage

Civil Rights Game gets bigger stage

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The Civil Rights Game, a preseason hit played in Memphis its first two times around, is moving to Cincinnati and into the 2009 regular season, Major League Baseball announced on Thursday.

The game will feature the Chicago White Sox against the Reds on Sunday, June 20, 2009, at Great American Ball Park and will be part of two days of festivities celebrating the civil rights movement and MLB's part in it.

"Major League Baseball is committed to the significance and impact of this very important event," Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "Now in its third year, Major League Baseball is excited to bring the Civil Rights Game to its new regular-season host city of Cincinnati. We hope that the community will embrace its importance and its message as we remember and honor the African-American pioneers of our game."

It will be the first of consecutive seasons for the game to be played in the ballpark of the Reds, who will also host in 2010. Cincinnati is home to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, located just blocks from the six-year-old ballpark. The Underground Railroad was not actually a railroad, but a series of trails and safe houses across the north through which slaves could escape from their southern bondage.

"As the final stop to freedom at the northern end of the Underground Railroad, Cincinnati played a significant role in the struggle to free our country from slavery and civil rights injustice," said Bob Castellini, Reds president and chief executive. "We are proud that our team and our city will be involved with Major League Baseball and the Civil Rights Game in helping promote awareness of how baseball played a part in one of the most significant social changes in our nation's history."

Memphis, where Rev. Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968, boasts the National Civil Rights Museum and was an apt spot for the Civil Rights Game as the final exhibition of Spring Training during its fledgling years.

There were rousing panel discussions at the museum and a dinner commemorating MLB's three annual Beacon Award winners for their contributions to the civil rights movement. Past recipients of the MLB Beacon Award include Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, Emmy and Grammy Award-winning actress Ruby Dee, the late Johnson Publishing founder John H. Johnson, the late Negro League legend Buck O'Neil, award-winning filmmaker Spike Lee, and Vera Clemente, widow of Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente.

Members of the teams that competed in the games there -- the Cardinals and Indians in 2007 and the Mets and White Sox in 2008 -- were awestruck when they toured the museum, which is an extension of the Lorraine Hotel, where King was slain.

"Every member of our travel party, from [general manager] Ken Williams to [manager] Ozzie Guillen, our coaches, players, staff and families, was touched by last year's experience in Memphis and our visit to the Civil Rights Museum," Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said. "We all benefit from understanding the sacrifices made by Americans of all races as part of the civil rights movement in this country, a movement that continues in a variety of ways to this very day."

Despite all that, though, there was the reality. Attendance in Memphis this past March 29, on a chilly late afternoon, was 7,717 -- -- 5,098 fewer than last year's showing of 12,815, which included many Redbirds fans who took the four-hour drive south from St. Louis for the game.

This year, when rain canceled much of the pregame activities -- as it did in 2007 -- the Mets defeated the White Sox, 3-2.

The event was ready to take a significant leap forward and since March, Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, had been seeking a Major League venue for the game.

He found a 42,941-seat ballpark, depositing the game at a high exposure time of the year: right in the middle of the Interleague schedule. And again, the panel discussion and the Beacon Awards banquet will highlight the weekend.

Proceeds from the banquet and the Civil Rights Game events will be donated to charity.

"Cincinnati is proud to host the first regular-season Civil Rights Game," said Cincinnati mayor Mark Mallory. "Cincinnati was the first point for freedom for many people. The Civil Rights Game is an excellent opportunity to continue our ongoing national efforts to advance civil rights."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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