Heritage Weekend another home run for Braves
Club has done a great job of recognizing city's contribution to civil rights movement
ATLANTA -- The Braves are prospering on and off the field these days. As for the former, despite getting swept by Miami during their previous three games, they still sit atop the National League East with their overwhelming pitching and frequent clutch hitting. As for the latter, they keep doing things to suggest they understand they play their home games about a couple of fungoes away from the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr.
Exhibit A: Heritage Weekend.
Listen closely with your ears cupped toward Georgia, and you'll hear a racially mixed chorus from the heavens singing "We Shall Overcome" in harmony with "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
That's all because those who run the Braves decided last season to give more than a cursory tribute to Atlanta's contributions to the civil rights movement with a weekend of seminars on civil and human rights, clinics for African-American youth taught by former Braves players, various awards and entertainment for the local community. Now comes the second edition of Heritage Weekend for the Braves with the same itinerary, and team officials say this event will take place every year as long as baseballs are round.
This is such splendid news. As an African-American, I've always felt cheated with Black History Month assigned to just one month.
Major League Baseball did better than that. First, Commissioner Bud Selig declared 17 years ago that every April 15 would be Jackie Robinson Day in honor of the former Dodgers icon breaking the color barrier in 1947. Then, Selig added the Civil Rights Game to highlight not only what African-Americans have brought to the game over the decades, but the contributions of prominent African-Americans throughout society.
You know about Jackie Robinson Day. Like the other 29 Major League teams, the Braves celebrate by having all uniformed personnel wear Robinson's retired No. 42, and they also feature activities at their ballpark around that day related to Robinson and other past African-American players. Then there is the Civil Rights Game, which was played in 2007 and '08 in Memphis, Tenn. During the next two years, the Reds hosted the games in Cincinnati, and then the games moved to Atlanta for the following two years.
It's just that with the Civil Rights Game slated in 2013 for Chicago and then for Houston this season, the Braves felt a void. So Braves president John Schuerholz told reporters last year: "Being hosts of the Civil Rights Weekend for the past two years provided us the perfect springboard to begin a Braves tradition of recognizing Atlanta's strong and rich history in the civil rights movement. It is only proper and fitting for us to honor that legacy."
There is Dr. King, for instance. This goes beyond the obvious: his leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, his role in the Freedom Rides, his "I Have a Dream" speech, his march from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama to spur the Voting Rights Act in Congress a year after the Civil Rights Act.
Andrew Young was one of King's top lieutenants, and among other things, Young is a former United Nations ambassador and Atlanta mayor. He once told me that Dr. King was an avid baseball fan, and he said the same was true of most civil rights leaders during the 1960s, which was the height of the civil rights movement.
"[King] was a typical wannabe sandlot athlete, and our regular activity was to play softball, and I did that," Young said at the time, before mentioning how a noted baseball personality helped Dr. King with an odd situation in December 1961 in Albany, Ga. Problem was, Dr. King and his demonstrators were met with an orderly response from local officials, and the movement needed drama to show the evils of segregation to the rest of the universe.
Even worse, this was two years before Dr. King's famous speech during The March on Washington, so he wasn't as well known.
Jackie Robinson was.
"We realized that Jackie Robinson was from Cairo, Ga., which was in the next county over from Albany, and there were some churches burned down there," Young said. "So Martin called Jackie, and [Robinson] came down to visit us, and he also came with us to St. Augustine, Fla."
Suddenly, baseball and the civil rights movement were one, and that combination became stronger in 1966, when the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta. They happened to have a star player named Hank Aaron, who grew up in segregated Mobile, Ala. Courtesy of Aaron's captivating grace under pressure (along with his ability to slam a lot of home runs), he became proficient at uniting black and white citizens throughout the Deep South for the common cause of cheering for the Braves.
Aaron is 80 years old now, and he is recovering from a February slip on the Atlanta ice that led to hip surgery. Even so, he remains vibrant as a Braves executive and a primary focal point of their Heritage Weekend. This one comes during the Braves' season-long celebration of 2014 marking the 40th anniversary of Aaron's 715th home run that broke Babe Ruth's all-time career record. In conjunction with last year's Heritage Weekend, the Braves established the Hank Aaron Champion for Justice Award, and this year's winners are former NBA player Joe Barry Carroll, Olympic track and field gold medalists Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Edwin Moses and civil rights leader C.T. Vivian.
The biggest winner this weekend?
The Braves organization.