Commissioner Bud Selig was the keynote speaker at the Beacon Awards Banquet Saturday, and some of the game's greatest heroes -- Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson -- were in attendance to pay tribute to honorees Don Newcombe, Congressman John Lewis and recording group Earth, Wind & Fire.
The award winners were set to be honored again later Saturday night at the Civil Rights Game, and Selig spoke passionately about the sport's mission to be open to all members of society.
"The beauty of the Civil Rights Game is that it gives us an occasion to think about how far we've come and indeed how far we need to go," said Selig as part of his keynote address. "Today, it's my great hope that everybody at Turner Field and watching at home will reflect on the period of the Civil Rights movement and remember all of those who fought for equal rights for all Americans."
Newcombe, a former teammate of Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers, was honored with the Beacon of Hope in recognition of his pioneering work, while Lewis, one of the "Big Six" leaders of the Civil Rights movement, was given the Beacon of Life for his career spent servicing the greater good.
Verdine White, Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson -- three of the founding members of Earth, Wind & Fire -- were awarded the Beacon of Change for making music with an inspirational message. But perhaps the biggest winner was the city of Atlanta, the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King, which got to highlight its history at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement for the second straight year.
"This is very, very important, and I'm just sorry that this is the last year in Atlanta," said Aaron, second on the all-time home run chart. "This is our second year hosting it, and this is where it should be. Think about all the historic things and people who have come through Atlanta: I'm talking about the likes of Andrew Young, Julian Bond and Dr. King. This is where the Civil Rights Game is supposed to be."
Newcombe, the first African-American pitcher to win 20 games and to start a World Series game, was the life of the party on Saturday, and he gave an entertaining acceptance speech about the conditions he had to persevere through in the early days of integration for the country and the sport.
Matt Kemp presented Newcombe, but the Dodgers' All-Star didn't get to stick around for the end of Newcombe's speech. That's because Newcombe spoke for more than a half-hour, winding through his days with Robinson and Roy Campanella and relating how he had once personally integrated a hotel in St. Louis.
Newcombe, as he told it, had just returned from two years of service in the military, and Robinson had already been playing in the big leagues for seven seasons. Still, they had to stay in a segregated -- and decidedly inferior -- hotel whenever they traveled to St. Louis. Finally, enough was enough.
Robinson and Newcombe went to visit the hotel in question, the Chase Hotel, and sat down with the manager. They asked him why they couldn't stay there, and when the only reason he could list was that he didn't want them swimming in the pool, they immediately agreed not to go in it.
"Jackie said, 'Mister, I don't even know how to swim.' ...And I said, 'I don't swim during baseball season because I'm afraid I'm going to hurt my arm," said Newcombe. "Imagine that. When people came to St. Louis to see us play, they had to stand out on the street and listen to radios because they couldn't get into the ballpark. They only had 3,000 seats for black folks ... in Sportsman's Park.
"Now what did that do for our folk? When we got back to the hotel, I called a few people. ... Jackie called Willie Mays and Monte Irvin with the San Francisco Giants who were coming in to St. Louis behind us. He told them, 'Check into the Chase Hotel. We just integrated it today.' "
Earth, Wind & Fire were too young to be on the front lines of that struggle, but they consistently made music that sought to bring people together, as opposed to tearing them apart. Maurice White, another of the founding members, was unable to attend but was referenced by his peers on Saturday.
Bailey runs a charity called Music Is Unity, and the foundation's stated mission is to support agencies that seek to improve the lives of foster children as they transition to adulthood. The artists, all of whom consider themselves baseball fans, were excited to be in such rich company on Saturday.
"We're honored to be here," said Johnson. "And you would never think to take the name Earth, Wind & Fire and pair it with civil rights. All I know about civil rights I saw on black-and-white television in the '60s, people getting firehosed and attacked by police dogs. For us to be a part of this is very special. I wish my mother could be here to see this, because she was a friend of Medgar Evers."
Lewis, the final honoree, had the most intimate connection to the host city. He moved to Atlanta in 1962, and he did so to assume leadership of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. His longtime friend, fellow activist Bond, was on hand to present him his award on Saturday, and Lewis noted that the Hyatt Regency was the scene of one of Dr. King's final conventions.
Lewis, who has represented Georgia's 5th congressional district since 1987, recounted his early years of sit-ins and peaceful demonstrations. He said that his parents urged him not to get involved in the upheaval of the times, but he couldn't sit still. "I got in trouble," he said. "It was good trouble."
Indeed, it was the best kind of trouble, because it helped advance the cause of his fellow citizens and his future constituents. Lewis said he can recall following the exploits of Robinson as a young boy growing up in Alabama, which made Saturday's honor all the more emotional for him.
"I'm delighted and very pleased to be receiving this award and to be honored by Major League Baseball, a sport that did so much to advance the cause of civil and human rights," he said. "It inspired a whole generation of people to strive to do their best. It's very meaningful, and I'm more than grateful. But the only thing I did was try to help a little, try to make a contribution one day at a time."