Claire Smith | Baseball aims for mountaintop

Posted: April 01, 2007

MEMPHIS - It is not often that a sport can transcend mere statistics and games won or lost.

Major League Baseball can, and did yesterday as it celebrated its unique role in the U.S. civil rights movement by way of its first-ever Civil Rights Game.

So it was that a game and a movement came together in one of the most storied outposts of the civil rights revolution.

Baseball reminded us that on April 15, the game will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breaking of baseball's color barrier. And commissioner Bud Selig proudly reminded us that the achievement predated by 17 years the Civil Rights Act ending segregation in the United States.

The game, between the Cleveland Indians and St. Louis Cardinals in the home park of the Cards' triple-A affiliate, the Memphis Redbirds, concluded a weekend in which this shared history was lauded.

Vera Clemente, Spike Lee and the late Buck O'Neil were honored. Dave Chase, the Redbirds' president and general manager, and Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, were applauded for their inspiration in bringing about the celebration. Selig's and Solomon's oft-stated commitment is to ensure that the diversity Robinson brought to the field remains as fewer African Americans play in the major leagues.

How appropriate that these messages emanated from this neatly kept Mississippi River city.

All sides of the American saga sing out to you here, at this confluence of blues and country, historical heartache, pain and gain.

Memphis is where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought his last fight, at the side of striking sanitation workers. It is where the civil rights champion spoke of the mountaintop he longed to see the nation reach as one.

That was back in the horrific, convulsive days of the 1960s, when the last shots of America's extended Civil War were still being fired.

One of the most significant shots claimed King, right here in then-segregated Memphis.

The town's first-class hotel - the Peabody - was, of course, for whites only. King, like visiting black ball players, stayed at the Lorraine, a motel-like structure generously called a hotel.

The Lorraine is where King was felled by an assassin's bullet in 1968.

This weekend, a Memphis that King could only dare dream of welcomed both the Indians and the Cardinals. Both teams stayed at the Peabody.

The Lorraine? Parts of the building that blacks shunned into bankruptcy after the assassination are now incorporated into the National Civil Rights Museum.

There, visitors need only turn a corner to be yanked back in history.

Hall of Famer Dave Winfield paused often while following the museum's poignant, often searing time line and its relentless tale of sacrifice, fear, upheaval and courage. "It was a war," Winfield said. "It really was a war."

Like all wars, it had too, too many victims, many not much older than the young, privileged athletes of today.

"It," said Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia, "humbles you."

Especially when you turn the last corner. There you see the hotel room last occupied by King, and the balcony where he was shot down. It more than takes your breath away. It takes you back.

There, the Rev. Billy Kyles, along with the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, sat, talked, joked and laughed with King for the hour before he died.

Kyles brought many at a pregame luncheon to tears as he recounted that horrible day in vivid detail. He brought them to their feet as he reminded in a thunderous voice: "You can kill the dreamer, but you cannot kill the dream."

Kenneth Shropshire, a professor at Penn's Wharton School, like many struggled with emotions thought buried in 1968.

A prolific author of The Business of Sports and In Black and White: Race and Sports in America, Shropshire, a participant in events here this weekend, said: "I was thinking, my father was exactly the same age as Dr. King. When I think of what that generation accomplished. My father passed away 15 years ago.

"Dr. King was just 39 years old. His life was cut so short. What if it had not happened? What else might he have accomplished?"

"This is something that everybody in this country needs to see," Sabathia said. "And the thing that got me was the dates. It really wasn't that long ago."

Sabathia spoke while sitting in a modern-day ballpark where Robinson certainly would have enjoyed playing, a mere mile from that relic of a balcony. It was yet another reminder that two eras that seem light-years apart are forever linked.


Contact staff writer Claire Smith at 215-854-4577 or smithc@phillynews.com. Read her blog at diamondinq.blogspot.com.

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