ATLANTA -- Roberto Clemente would have turned 78 on Saturday, and Dec. 31 will mark the 40th anniversary of his death. If we're going to discuss the 2012 Civil Rights Game, played between the Braves and Dodgers on Saturday night at Turner Field, we might as well start right there. For Clemente's story illustrates that the game's ties to the broader notions of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are even deeper than we often acknowledge.
Yes, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on April 15, 1947, a feat made all the more amazing when we remember that segregation was still the norm in the U.S. Armed Forces and American public schools at that time. And Robinson's story is rightly recognized for its impact not only on this game we love but also this country we call home. When Robinson's wife, Rachel, appeared on the center-field Jumbotron between innings of the Civil Rights Game, the ovation she received from the Turner Field crowd was stirring, and rightly so. Robinson, though, was only the beginning, for his spirit and his social conscience have been carried on by the many men who recognized that their role and their ability to inspire and impact goes beyond the game they play on a field of dirt and grass. Think about Clemente, a Puerto Rican who didn't know what racism was until he set foot on American soil. His Pirates trained in Fort Myers, Fla., where racial segregation was still very much a reality in the 1950s, and he became appalled by the notion of eating on a bus with other players of color while his white teammates dined in the local restaurants. In "Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero," a 2005 biography written by David Maraniss, Clemente's disgust with segregation is apparent in the following quote: "This is something from the first day I said to myself: I am in the minority group. I am from the poor people. I represent the poor people. I represent the common people of America. So I am going to be treated like a human being. I don't want to be treated like a Puerto Rican, or a black, or nothing like that. I want to be treated like any person." The strive for social justice is what drove Clemente to greatness off the field, and it was his compassion that ultimately led to his untimely death. "Look what he did on the tragic day that he died," Commissioner Bud Selig said Saturday. "He was concerned about [earthquake victims in Nicaragua], got on a plane that many since then have said he shouldn't have gotten on. But he was so concerned about the victims that he was going to go down there and help them out... When your own players, then and now, understand that, that's very important." Much like Robinson, Clemente embodied the ideals so artfully articulated by Atlanta's most famous son, Martin Luther King, Jr. And the fact that the Civil Rights Game has been played in King's home the past two years is an appropriate pairing. "This," Chipper Jones said, "is where a lot of barriers were broken." All across the baseball map, there are other places that would serve as fine and fitting hosts for future Civil Rights games. Kansas City is where Robinson first suited up as a professional and is the home of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Cleveland is where the oft-overlooked Larry Doby broke the American League color barrier. Minor League cities like Birmingham and Montgomery hold special places in Civil Rights lore. Ultimately, though, this event only holds meaning and value if its emphasis on education plants a seed in the hearts and souls of those paying attention. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly was certainly paying attention at Saturday's luncheon, honoring Beacon Awards winners Don Newcombe, Congressman John Lewis and the band Earth, Wind and Fire. "That was maybe one of the coolest things I've ever been to," Mattingly said. "Just seeing and hearing about the history... To me, I think [this event] is a step forward, trying to keep moving in the direction of growing." Much has been made in recent years of MLB's attempts to grow the game in the African-American community, and this event naturally serves as a place to take stock of that situation. Both Selig and executive vice president Frank Robinson noted the growth of the Urban Youth Academy, which has campuses in Compton, Calif., Houston and Philadelphia, with a new school set to open in New Orleans later this month. "The goal," Robinson said, "is to have at least one in every city that there is a Major League Baseball [game] played." It's a lofty goal, and it's aimed, ultimately, at spreading the sport's influence to a segment of the population that is not always receptive to it. But the Civil Rights Game reminds us that baseball's influence extends far off the field. And if players, in even the smallest measure, can follow Robinson's resolve in the face of great adversity and Clemente's insurrection toward injustice, that influence will keep expanding to future generations. "Players have to grow the game," Mattingly said. "It's our game." Here's something to remember about Clemente. Like so many others, he was heartbroken by the news of King's assassination on April 4, 1968. But unlike so many others, he put that pain into practice. His Pirates team, which had 11 players of color, was scheduled to play its season opener against the Astros on April 8, one day before King's funeral. But because of a resistance led by Clemente, the game was moved to April 10, so that it would not overshadow the burial of one of America's great Civil Rights leaders. That's the kind of conscience that has made baseball, as Selig often likes to say, a social institution, not just a game. And on a night when the game once again celebrated its proud heritage, this was a lesson worth remembering.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.