CINCINNATI -- Baseball is the backdrop, but a celebration of diversity and the recognition of the struggle for equality will be front and center this weekend when the Gillette Civil Rights Game returns to Cincinnati.
The Reds and Cardinals will play in a game at Great American Ball Park at 7:10 p.m. ET Saturday that stretches well beyond their usual National League Central rivalry. The Civil Rights Game is a jewel event for Major League Baseball in its effort to make the sport accessible to people of all races and ethnic backgrounds.
This is the second year Cincinnati has been able to serve as the event's host. Last year's game between the Reds and White Sox was considered by most to be an overwhelming success.
"That was a dynamite event last year," Reds manager Dusty Baker said.
For the Cardinals, this is also not their first experience with the event. St. Louis played in the first edition of the Civil Rights Game when it was an exhibition played in Memphis before Opening Day in 2007.
"We were honored to be part of the first one in Memphis," Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa said. "We took a tour of the museum there, and it was very informative. I think anything that reminds people of history, and especially critical history, is very healthy. A lot of guys, they grow up now, and I asked them if they knew who Maury Wills was. No, they didn't. Anything you can do to remind them ... the Civil Rights Game is a real good message to send from Major League Baseball."
The teams will be wearing throwback uniforms from the year 1947, which was when Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Fans will receive a replica jersey of Chuck Harmon, who became the first African-American Reds player on April 17, 1954.
The game itself is only a part of the larger series of events planned in Cincinnati on Friday and Saturday. There will be many programs and memorable moments outside of Great American Ball Park.
On Friday from 4-5:30 p.m., the 2010 edition of the Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion will take place at the National Underground Railroad Museum and Freedom Center, which is down the street from the stadium. A free event open to the public, panelists will include Reds greats Joe Morgan and Barry Larkin, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and former tennis star Zina Garrison. The moderator is renowned Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree.
Icons will be honored in what should be moving presentations during the MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon on Saturday at the Duke Energy Center.
The Beacon Awards recognizes individuals "whose lives are emblematic of the spirit of the civil rights movement." The MLB Beacon of Life Award will be presented to Hall of Famer Willie Mays. The MLB Beacon of Change Award will go to tennis legend and equality pioneer Billie Jean King, and entertainer Harry Belafonte will receive the MLB Beacon of Hope Award.
The noon luncheon will be hosted by ESPN anchor Sage Steele with Andrew Young, the former Atlanta mayor, congressman and United States ambassador to the United Nations, scheduled to deliver the keynote address. Grammy Award-winning singer Roberta Flack will perform, and there will be honors for Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson. Lena Horne, the iconic singer and actress who died Sunday at the age of 92, had also been scheduled to be recognized, and there will be a special introduction and video presentation at the Saturday luncheon and at the ballpark prior to the game in her honor.
There will also be a special tribute to the participants of the sit-in at the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth lunch counter in 1960.
Proceeds from the MLB Beacon Awards Luncheon will benefit the Reds Community Fund, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and Major League Baseball Urban Youth Foundation.
At Fountain Square from noon-7 p.m., several thousand young people will participate at Youth Summit and the MLB Wanna Play event. It is free and open to the public.
A 2:30 p.m. question-and-answer session will feature MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds, Larkin, teen saxophonist B.K. Jackson, Reds players Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips, Cardinals infielder Felipe Lopez and Capt. Josh Holden, a West Point graduate and former Reds Minor Leaguer.
At 5 p.m., more than 2,000 children, coaches and community partners will take part in the Delta Youth Baseball March from Fountain Square to Great American Ball Park.
"One of the great things about Cincinnati is the close proximity of the facilities we can use," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations. "Having Fountain Square right there and the kids marching down was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. To have the Freedom Center right across from the ballpark makes the ease to get from event to event so simple."
Before the start of the Reds-Cardinals game, the three Beacon Award winners be recognized. Hall of Famer Ernie Banks will throw the ceremonial first pitch. There were be pregame performances by Flack and Grammy winner Jeffrey Osborne, and the U.S. Army Golden Knights will perform an aerial demonstration.
From 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., before Sunday afternoon's series finale, fans who go to the Reds Hall of Fame can meet with veterans of the Negro Leagues and get autographs.
It will be a fitting conclusion for a weekend that attempts to remember the struggles of the past while recognizing the achievements in the present and looking forward to the future.
Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com.