There was practically a standing-room-only crowd of iconic American figures on hand for Major League Baseball's Beacon Awards luncheon Saturday. Leading lights in baseball, boxing, entertainment, politics; it was a cross-cultural treasure trove of leading men. If you weren't suitably impressed or pleasantly amazed or both, there was an excellent chance that your pulse had departed.
In three years, this event has become a centerpiece of baseball's Civil Rights Game weekend. The Civil Rights Game is being held for the first time this year as a regular-season game, and it is being held for the first time in a Major League city. In keeping with the Major League theme, the luncheon participants were truly big league in more ways than one.
The winner of the Beacon of Life Award was Henry Aaron. He was introduced by Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig. So here you had the biggest of both labor and management in baseball. But Aaron is larger than even his 755 home runs. Selig noted that Aaron's life outside baseball was characterized by "the dignity and poise with which he carries himself," and his "impeccable character."
Aaron was in the generation of African-American players that had to withstand the indignities of Jim Crow. In Aaron's case, the racial abuse never stopped over his long career. He was subjected to mountains of racist hate mail and numerous death threats during his successful pursuit of Babe Ruth's career home record.
The Life Award goes to a person who embodies the soul of the Civil Rights Movement. The dignity of which Selig spoke was clearly apparent in Aaron's brief acceptance remarks.
"Although I hit 755 home runs, I rode the shoulders of a lot of civil rights people," the Hammer said.
The Beacon of Change Award went to a man who may have been the most transcendent single figure in American sports since Jackie Robinson. That would be Muhammad Ali, "The Greatest." He was confined to a wheelchair and his acceptance speech was made on his behalf by his wife, Lonnie.
But the very fact that Ali was in the room lifted the nature of the event, through what he has meant to American society. He was introduced by another champion of the ring, Sugar Ray Leonard. Leonard caught the spirit of Ali's contributions, saying: "He spoke for those who had no voice."
The winner of the third award, the Beacon of Hope, was comedian Bill Cosby, who won the award on the basis of his work on behalf of children and families. Cosby, who was at his comic best for this event, got significant mileage from Ali's boxing career.
Ali, Cosby recalled, first won the heavyweight boxing title from one of the most terrifying boxers of his era, Sonny Liston. Ali, Cosby contended, was himself frightened by the powerful, glowering Liston. But, Cosby said, Ali made that fright work for him.
"The only way you could frighten Sonny Liston was to convince him that you had absolutely no sense," Cosby said. "[Ali] found himself acting crazy. But it wasn't acting. He was crazy."
In a much more serious vein, Cosby persistently urged the luncheon audience to hold onto the memory of the pioneering generation of African-American players. Those players realized a dream by reaching the Major Leagues and breaking down baseball's racial barrier. But they had to undergo many more struggles after that barrier was broken. "You need to let your children know that was not a done deal," Cosby said.
Cosby was introduced by Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson and again, you couldn't find two men more highly regarded in their vocations. "Bob Gibson introduced me," Cosby said. "Bob Gibson, who would hit you in the head with the baseball and then hit you in the back, too."
The keynote speaker for an event of this magnitude has to be a fairly significant personage himself, and in this case it was no less than a former president of the United State of America, William Jefferson Clinton.
Clinton may still be a polarizing figure for many Americans for a variety of reasons, but here in his 32-minute address on baseball and its role in the struggle for civil rights, his remarks were suitably contemplative and suitably evocative.
Clinton stressed that in the broader struggle for civil rights in America "we've come a long, long way, but we've got a long way to go." And he did what he always did well as a speechmaker, taking a core point and personalizing it, thus making it more human. Here, he did that in the context of Jackie Robinson's story.
"I will go to my grave thanking Branch Rickey and Pee Wee Reese," Clinton said, "not only for giving Jackie Robinson a chance to play, but a chance to belong."
Selig had said here, as he often does, that Robinson's arrival in the Major Leagues was "baseball's proudest moment and its most important moment."
For that reason, and for the ongoing struggle for a society built upon true equality, the Civil Rights Game and the attendant events have become on an annual basis some of contemporary baseball's proudest and most important moments.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.