CRG pregame celebrates baseball's impact
Beacon Award winners, social activists among those recognized
ATLANTA -- Forty-five years ago, Bill Bartholomay led a consortium that migrated the Braves from Milwaukee to Atlanta during one of the nation's most socially turbulent eras.
On Sunday afternoon, Bartholomay was taking part in an on-field ceremony that would kick off the Civil Rights Game in a city that was chosen mainly because of its actions during that time.
It served as the hub for several key social activists -- and basically the entire Civil Rights Movement.
It proved to be more socially advanced than its surrounding Southern cities.
And it accepted the Braves and its African-American star, Hank Aaron, in 1966.
"It's very meaningful," Bartholomay, the former Braves owner and current chairman emeritus, said about Major League Baseball bringing the Delta Civil Rights Game to Atlanta for the fifth installment.
"It's certainly and totally appropriate that the Civil Rights Game and the whole event surrounding it should be in Atlanta, because that's really where it all happened."
On Sunday afternoon, just before the Phillies and Braves would square off in retro 1974 uniforms -- depicting the year Aaron broke Babe Ruth's career home run record -- it all happened on the diamond at Turner Field.
There, on a center stage between the mound and home plate, sat Aaron, Bartholomay, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig, MLB executive vice president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon, Braves president John Schuerholz, Phillies president and CEO Dave Montgomery, former Braves Rookie of the Year Award winner Earl Williams, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and several key social activists.
On the podium were the three MLB Beacon Award winners -- Hall of Famer Ernie Banks (Beacon of Life), actor Morgan Freeman (Beacon of Hope) and guitarist Carlos Santana (Beacon of Change) -- along with their presenters, and emcee Al Roker.
The Civil Rights Game celebrates social matters that transcend baseball. And perhaps it was with that in mind that Santana chose the platform to address a key local issue.
Upon being given his Beacon Award, Santana made a brief acceptance speech that directly addressed the recently signed, widely controversial Georgia immigration law, which gives police authority to question suspects about their immigration status and is similar to a law passed in Arizona.
While looking up at the stands, Santana said, "The people of Arizona and the people of Atlanta, Ga. -- you should be ashamed of yourselves."
Afterwards, he elaborated on his comments to reporters.
"This is the United States, this is the land of the free," the Mexican-born Santana said. "If people want the immigration law to be passed in every state, then everybody should just get out and just leave the American Indians here, because they're the only ones that belong here. You can't just be slick and be high-tech with racism. It's still racism."
On Saturday night, Banks, Santana and Freeman were honored at the Omni Hotel during the MLB Beacon Awards Banquet. Several Braves and Phillies players were in attendance.
Jason Heyward was one of them, and he said it had "a little different feel" than any other awards show he had ever attended.
"To me, it was a different experience to be around that group of people," Heyward said.
The Braves' right fielder -- among the most popular current African-American players in baseball, and one Aaron is especially fond of -- is still nursing a sore right shoulder that kept him out of the starting lineup for the commemorative game.
"I hate it," said Heyward, who only checked in as a defensive replacement in the ninth inning of an eventual 3-2 Braves win. "Like everyone would tell me, like I had to remind myself -- it's not about one game. You have to get yourself right, and you shouldn't rush coming back from an injury. But, yeah, it's up there with missing the All-Star Game [last season,] and things like that, especially it being here in Atlanta. I most definitely wish I could play."
Heyward and Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard did team up to field the ceremonial first pitches.
Prior to that, there was a video montage on the stadium's video screen to commemorate Aaron, a Delta Parade with about 5,000 employees marching to the field, a performance by Marvin Sapp, and Gloria Gaynor singing the National Anthem.
"The song is important to me and this event is important to me -- the whole Civil Rights Movement, of course, is important to me, as it is to all of us," said Gaynor, famous for recording the track "I Will Survive" in the 1970s. "To do that song today just adds to it."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.