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MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Baseball celebrates history of civil rights, social change

Beacon Awards, Civil Rights Game reminds of game's historical impact

Baseball celebrates history of civil rights, social change play video for Baseball celebrates history of civil rights, social change

HOUSTON -- Her voice was strong, her words powerful. As always, Maya Angelou inspired and challenged. Only it wasn't supposed to be this way. Not on this day. Not this time. This was going to be our opportunity to thank her.

She has defined grace and eloquence and perseverance for millions. And so, she did just that again on Friday afternoon. Later, one of her friends, Motown founder Berry Gordy, said she would not want us to mourn her passing, but to celebrate her life.

"We have stood firm in the face of outrage," she said. "We have held tight to our dignity against a sea of strife."

In the end, those words probably sum up her life better than all the thousands of words written since her death. She recorded hers a few days before her death last week after she accepted that health would not allow her to attend Friday's Beacon Awards luncheon, one of the highlights of the Civil Rights Game activities.

Angelou was to receive the Beacon of Life Award for her contributions to civil rights. Her spirit hovered over the event.

"Our world today is better than it was 50 years ago and perhaps not as good as it will be 50 years from now," she said. "I pray that we will grow. We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated."

She was one of three honorees. All were American heroes, all larger-than-life figures who made the world a better place. Gordy accepted the Beacon of Change award, while football great Jim Brown got the Beacon of Hope award.

If you're wondering why Major League Baseball held an event that had absolutely nothing to do with baseball, you could not be more wrong. This was precisely and proudly a baseball event.

This was baseball's time to celebrate its finest hour. That was April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line. He changed a sport that day. He opened doors for men like Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, and both those Hall of Famers acknowledged his role in their lives.

"I got my opportunity because of Jackie," Aaron said.

Looking back on the last 67 years, though, Jackie Robinson impacted so much more than baseball. He played that first game before President Truman integrated the military and before the Supreme Court's landmark Brown vs. the Board of Education.

Martin Luther King, Jr., often said that Robinson helped clear a path for what would happen in Birmingham and Selma.

Baseball simply couldn't be more proud of its role in America's civil rights movement, and so baseball celebrated on Friday. Commissioner Bud Selig has passionately embraced his sport's role in making this country a better -- and fairer -- place to live.

And so, the eighth annual Civil Rights Game -- Orioles vs. Astros Friday night at Minute Maid Park -- is the end of two days baseball sets aside each season to discuss civil rights.

"I applaud Major League Baseball for its efforts to celebrate civil rights and keep the memories alive of all those who have fought and continue to fight against injustice," Angelou said. "I stand for those who chose not to capitulate in the face of adversity."

It was a day of emotion and appreciation. Jackie Robinson's wife, Rachel, and daughter Sharon were part of the program. Players from both the Orioles and Astros attended the banquet.

"It's important for us to look back," Sharon Robinson said. "It's also important to move forward and keep our focus on what we have to do. My dad's whole post-baseball career was focused around the civil rights movement. I think he would love this merging of civil rights and Major League Baseball. He wanted professional sports involved in change in this country."

As Astros manager Bo Porter said, "People like Jackie Robinson and Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron paved the way for people like me to have this opportunity. It's an everyday appreciation for me. It's something I think about each and every day. They went through struggles to give me this opportunity."

Gordy said Robinson had long been an inspiration for him.

"He would take whatever they threw at him and come right back and hit a home run," Gordy said. "Wow. How inspiring. He didn't do it for himself. He did it for me and others like me. That had a profound impact on many aspects of my life. When the pop white stations said I couldn't make music for all people, I thought back to Jackie, and I realized I had to fight."

Near the end of the day, Selig said that while much had been accomplished, much remained to be done. He said, too, that days like this one, days when baseball focuses its heart and soul on making the world better are the best parts of his job.

"You're proud to be a commissioner of baseball when you have a day like this," he said.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

{"event":["civil_rights_game" ] }
{"event":["civil_rights_game" ] }