CINCINNATI -- A relatively new event that pays tribute to the efforts toward racial equality and diversity in baseball and society, the exposure of the annual Civil Rights Game is being elevated to a whole new level in 2009. Major League Baseball announced Thursday the Civil Rights Game would be played during the regular season and be hosted by the Reds at Cincinnati's Great American Ball Park in 2009 and 2010. Next year's game will be between the Reds and White Sox on Saturday, June 20. For the past two years, the Civil Rights Game was held as a preseason event in March in Memphis.
Although the Memphis events were considered successful, inclement early spring weather and lower attendance at a Minor League ballpark were drawbacks. Great American Ball Park can seat more than 42,000 fans and can bring more attention to the game by having it played during the regular season. "We always felt this game would raise a whole level of awareness for the civil rights movement as well as baseball's position in it," MLB vice president of baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon said during a press conference. "We didn't know when would be the proper time to make it a regular-season game or bring it to a Major League park. We just knew it would grow on its own. By evolution, we always figured it would. We were ecstatic when Major League teams came to us saying they were interested in the game. I thought it would take a little longer." Solomon wouldn't reveal the other teams that sought the game along with Cincinnati. The city and the Reds aggressively pursued the chance to host the weekend event by highlighting the long history Cincinnati has played in the civil rights movement and the fact the National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center is next door to Great American Ball Park. The Underground Railroad was a network of homes and hideouts abolitionists used to help African-American slaves get out of the South and find freedom in the North. "People don't know the story, and we want to make sure it's showcased and highlighted," Solomon said. "Major League Baseball is ecstatic that we have an opportunity to be here." This will mark the White Sox second consecutive year of participating in the Civil Rights Game. In March, Chicago played the Mets in Memphis. The inaugural event in 2007 was played by the Cardinals and Indians. "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," MLB Commissioner Bud Selig said in a statement. "We hope that the community will embrace its importance and its message as we remember and honor the African American pioneers of our game." Since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, baseball has made efforts to improve its diversity, especially during the past couple of decades. When Cincinnati and Chicago play, the success of those efforts will be seen on both sides. Reds manager Dusty Baker and White Sox general manager Ken Williams are African American. White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen is Venezuelan. "It was a privilege and honor for me to grow up during that time in California," Baker said of the civil rights era in the United States. "My parents were very involved in the civil rights movement. They were part of the NAACP, and I was in the junior NAACP when I was 15. This was the mid-'60s." Reds owner/CEO Bob Castellini pointed out that both cities had numerous African American teams during the era before baseball was desegregated. "The White Sox series is the perfect backdrop to play the game in 2009 based on both franchises' shared histories with the many Negro leagues," Castellini said. "When you see them take the field, they're doing so in tribute of the Cincinnati Tigers, the Chicago American Giants and the many other teams that, by their very existence, helped bring to the forefront in their respective cities important civil rights issues." There won't be just a game held during that June weekend. The event will feature roundtable discussions about human and social issues in baseball and around the country. It will also work to get more minority children involved and wanting to play baseball. A featured event will also be the presentation of the Beacon Awards that honor hope, life and change. Past winners of the Beacon Award include film director Spike Lee, actress Ruby Dee and former Reds and Hall of Fame player Frank Robinson, who attended Thursday's announcement. Solomon says that he is frequently asked why there is a Civil Rights Game in baseball, and if it's necessary. "Baseball integrated by bringing in Jackie Robinson before public schools were desegregated in our country and before the armed forces [were desegregated]," Solomon said. "Baseball had a forthright place in the civil rights movement. We want to make sure that everyone knows that. We want to recapture that feeling and spirit, and then we want to rededicate ourselves to making sure baseball is exactly what it says -- America's pastime."
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.