Anyone going?Civil Rights game spotlights areahttp://news.cincinnati.com/article/20090612/SPT04/306120069/1055/NEWS/Civil+Rights+game+spotlights+area
As final preparations are made for next weekend’s Civil Rights Game celebration, key stakeholders are banking on benefits that will last after the excitement surrounding visits from Bill Clinton, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali and Bill Cosby fades.
For the Reds, it's another chance to reach local minority communities, a priority for the team that’s illustrated by the Reds Community Fund, which since 2006 has helped renovate more than 250 inner-city baseball fields from Cincinnati to Louisville.
For the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, it’s an opportunity to showcase its mission on the national stage as it helps educate fans about baseball’s connection with the civil rights movement.
And for the city, it’s a way to help right some wrongs that occurred around the time Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947.
These factors make Cincinnati an ideal spot to host the event, which culminates with the June 20 Reds game vs. the Chicago White Sox, said retired U.S. Court of Appeals judge Nathaniel R. Jones.
“Cincinnati was a city that was not very welcoming when it came to the integration of Major League Baseball,” said Jones, who once worked as general counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“When Jackie Robinson would come with the Brooklyn Dodgers to play, the fans were not very hospitable. The accommodations were not very open.
“What made Cincinnati a desirable location for the (Civil Rights) game is the Freedom Center being here, because the Freedom Center stands for and represents the problems that we have had in society and the distance we’ve come in overcoming those problems. And it’s what Baseball has tried to do in integration, in bringing diversity to the game.”
This is the third annual Civil Rights Game, but the first one hosted during the regular season and in a big-league city. The first two games were played as exhibitions in Memphis before the season started in 2007 and 2008. Baseball started the game to honor people who have worked toward civil rights, and also to generate more minority interest and participation in the game.
The game itself, during which both teams will wear uniforms from 1964, the year of the landmark Civil Rights Act, is almost secondary to other events this weekend.
On Friday, Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree will lead a roundtable discussion group on baseball and the civil rights movement at the Freedom Center. Jones is among the panelists, who also include Tony Perez and Oscar Robertson.
On Saturday, MLB will honor Aaron, Ali and Cosby for their work on civil rights at a Duke Energy Convention Center luncheon. The $150,000 raised by Saturday’s luncheon will be split equally three ways between the Freedom Center, the Reds Community Fund and the Major League Baseball Urban Youth Initiative.
A youth rally on Fountain Square Saturday afternoon will feature appearances by players from both teams. And President Obama has been invited to throw out the first pitch Saturday; no word yet on whether he’ll accept.
The effort to bring the event here began with Reds chief operating officer Phil Castellini, who also sits on the Freedom Center’s board. When he heard last year that MLB wanted the game in a major league city, he started his pursuit on behalf of the team and museum.
“Everything the Reds do in this community, we’ve tried to make it bigger and better,” Castellini said. “And when I heard MLB wanted to expand the Civil Rights game, I thought this is a way to promote the team and put a national spotlight on the city and the Freedom Center.”
Donald Murphy, the Freedom Center’s chief executive officer, said there is already a natural partnership between his institution and the Reds. He said Reds weekend home games typically mean a 20 percent boost in Freedom Center attendance.
Landing the game, Murphy said, gives the Freedom Center a national platform.
“This game is going to give tremendous exposure to the Freedom Center on a national scale with national recognition for the Freedom Center to tell its story about human triumph,” Murphy said. “And Major League Baseball was so involved with the civil rights movement with the integration of that sport so that for us these things are very connected.”
Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, said the proximity of the Freedom Center to Great American Ball Park helped Cincinnati’s bid which, he added, “blew our socks off.”
Other cities such as Atlanta, Washington, Kansas City and Dallas, have significant Civil Rights histories, Solomon said, but no other bid compared to the Reds and Cincinnati.
Beyond helping the Freedom Center, this weekend complements other initiatives by Baseball to increase inner-city and minority participation in the sport, Solomon said.
Inner-city African-Americans play baseball at increasingly smaller numbers than other demographics, although the proportion of black Major League Baseball players increased in 2008 for the first time since 1995.
Some 10.2 percent of players were African-American in 2008 – up from a low of 8.2 percent in 2007. And at the beginning of this season, a record 10 teams were managed by black managers, including the Reds’ Dusty Baker.
Still, just 6 percent of college baseball players are African-American, according to the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, and less than 7 percent of high school players are African-American.
Solomon said Baseball’s efforts to improve these numbers dovetail with the Reds’ increased focus on inner-city youth baseball since the current ownership group led by Bob Castellini, Reds president and chief executive officer, took over the team in 2006.
In addition to renovating fields, the Reds Community Fund has organized games between youth teams with white and African-American demographics. The Freedom Center hosts a post-season reception for those teams at the museum.
“That’s real-world, grassroots’ civil rights activity happening today,” Castellini said. “And the Civil Rights Game will help draw attention to some of those efforts that we do.
“Ultimately, those kids who get opportunities through the Reds Community Fund will become better students and people. And if there’s a future season-ticket holder among those kids, well, that’s the kind of pipeline we’re trying to build.”
The Reds don’t track how many minorities come into Great American Ball Park on a nightly basis, but the team does reach into minority communities to generate interest with groups.
Reds players Ramon Hernandez and Alex Gonzalez, for instance, are sponsoring five nights this season in which they purchase 200 tickets for Hispanic fans. The program, Los Amigos del Beisbol de Los Rojos, culminates Sept. 19 when the Reds put on their sixth annual Hispanic Heritage Day.
All of these efforts, big and small, make Cincinnati a natural host the Civil Rights Game, said Avondale community leader Ozie Davis, who is also a Reds Community Fund board member.
“We’ve noticed that with the Castellinis, it’s not just about fixing up inner city fields so more black people will come to the games,” Davis said. “It’s genuine. You can feel that the Castellini family is hard working and they care about you. They want to win on the baseball diamond, but it seems like they want to win in the community just as much.”