CINCINNATI -- The Major League Baseball Beacon Awards aim to honor not only titans of sports, entertainment or politics, but those who have also fought for change, equality and civil rights. As part of the weekend leading up to the May 15 Gillette Civil Rights Game between the Reds and Cardinals, the MLB Beacon Award Luncheon at the Duke Energy Center will honor Baseball Hall of Famer Willie Mays, tennis legend and women's sports pioneer Billie Jean King and entertainer Harry Belafonte. The announcement was made during a press conference on Wednesday at Great American Ball Park. Former United Nations ambassador and congressman Andrew Young will deliver the keynote address during the luncheon.
Young, who befriended Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement and became one of his top aides, helped encourage African Americans to vote in Alabama and Georgia during the 1960s and organized peaceful protests. Young was with King when he was assassinated in 1968 in Memphis. ESPN anchor Sage Steele will serve as master of ceremonies during the Beacon Awards luncheon. The MLB Beacon Awards recognizes individuals "whose lives are emblematic of the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement." Past winners include Vera Clemente, Spike Lee, Buck O'Neil, John H. Johnson, Ruby Dee and Rachel Robinson. Last year, which was the first time the event was held in Cincinnati, Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby and Hank Aaron were the Beacon Award honorees while former President Bill Clinton gave the keynote address. "The bar had been raised. The Commissioner [Bud Selig] wanted to keep it and maintain it," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations. "He gave us that leadership and vision but also support. He said 'I support you to get the top-level people that we can get.' Cincinnati has gone all out to support this event. The Castellini family has gone beyond the call of duty for support. The Commissioner directed us to do the same thing at the same level of diligence." Mays, who was named the MLB Beacon of Life recipient, compiled 3,283 hits, 660 home runs and was a 24-time All-Star in 22 seasons while being considered by many as the greatest all-around player of all time. After he began his career in the Negro Leagues, Mays became a superstar for the New York and San Francisco Giants. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1951 and the NL Most Valuable Player in 1954 and 1965. During the '51 season, Mays was part of the first all African American outfield in Major League history with Monte Irvin and Hank Thompson. Mays became the Giants' first African American captain in 1964. Reds great and Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who emceed Wednesday's press conference, shared a personal memory of getting to know Mays, who like him, lived in Northern California. At the time, Morgan was completing his rookie season with Houston. "He gave me a telephone number and I couldn't wait," Morgan said. "When I got home, right away after I packed all my stuff and got back to California, I called. He said 'Come on over.' It was unbelievable. I spent the whole day at Willie Mays' house. Not only that, he gave me my first set of golf clubs. He took me out to his garage and said 'Pick a set.' We have been very close since that time. I spent as much time with him as I could. He is truly my hero." King was named the MLB Beacon of Change recipient not just for being one of the first stars of women's tennis but for her efforts at gender equality. In 1971, King became the first female athlete in sports to earn $100,000, and two years later she successfully lobbied to get equal prize money for both men and women at the U.S. Open. In a watershed moment for equality between the genders, an estimated 50 million people watched on television when King defeated former men's tennis champion Bobby Riggs in three straight sets during a 1973 match at the Astrodome in Houston. Since retiring from competitive tennis, King became the commissioner of World Team Tennis, the first woman to ever hold such a post. In 2009, she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor available in the United States. The MLB Beacon of Hope Award will go to Belafonte for being an individual who influences the future through his support of children. Belafonte's album, "Calypso," made him the first artist in history to sell more than one million albums. He won a Tony award for his Broadway debut in "John Murray Anderson Almanac" and an Emmy for "An Evening with Belafonte," in which he was also the first black producer in television. Entertainment wasn't the only area of excellence for Belafonte, who became well known for his work in social justice and has been honored with numerous awards. He has worked with King, the late President John F. Kennedy and South African president Nelson Mandela. Belafonte was a force behind the 1985 "We Are the World" project to help those affected by famine and war in Africa. Belafonte also has been a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador and is a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors for excellence in the performing arts. Proceeds from the Beacon Awards Luncheon will benefit the MLB Urban Youth Foundation, the Cincinnati Reds Community Fund and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.