500HRC Members Are Among Civil Rights Royalty
Written by Jim Rednour   
Thursday, 30 July 2009

In addition to being considered baseball royalty by fans worldwide, members of The 500 Home Run Club® are among the most famous and widely recognized people the world has ever seen. As such, their actions (athletic and civic alike) have been studied and modeled by generations of Americans. 

So it is no surprise that Hammerin’ Henry Aaron, known for being one of the greatest gentlemen the game has ever seen and a living ambassador for baseball, was one of three honorees at MLB’s unforgettable 2009 Beacon Awards Luncheon before the evening's Civil Rights Game in Cincinnati.

MLB commissioner Bud Selig presented Hank with the “Beacon of Life” Award, honoring the man who hit 755 home runs and had to endure at least two major racial obstacles in baseball. The first was making it into the Majors after playing in the Negro Leagues, and the second was withstanding the death threats and hatred in the process of breaking Babe Ruth's hallowed record of 714 home runs.

"The Civil Rights Game pays tribute to all those who stood up to inequality and to everyone who fights for freedom today," Selig told the capacity crowd. "Baseball is a social institution with very important social responsibilities, and on behalf of baseball I am proud to honor those who fight for civil rights and improve our society. I'm proud of the role baseball has played in giving people of all creeds, races and colors the chance to enjoy the life that freedom brings."

"Driving here this morning, I was thinking about the connection the city of Cincinnati and myself have in common," Aaron said in his acceptance speech. "About 50 years ago, I played my first game in Cincinnati.  I hit 755 home runs, but I rode the shoulders of a lot of civil rights people, and I want to thank you for all you've done. Thank you all for making life easier."

Joining Hank on the stage were Muhammad Ali “Beacon of Change” and Bill Cosby “Beacon of Hope” winners, and former President Bill Clinton who told the crowd "If you want to honor Hank Aaron and Muhammad Ali and Bill Cosby, you must first recognize that this struggle is nowhere near over."

Also on hand were former Negro Leaguers, including first African American to play in Chicago “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks (512 career long balls) and Chuck Harmon, the first African-American player signed by the hometown (Cincinnati) Reds.

500 HR Club favorite Frank Robinson (586 career homers), who was   the 2008 Beacon of Life award winner, threw out the first pitch at this year’s game.  "I think it's awesome…That's a tremendous lineup,” he said.  “Too bad they couldn't get somebody to hit fourth. That's a great group."

The first thing Bill Cosby did after taking the stage was to offer a mini-roast of Hammerin' Hank.  "Henry hit all those home runs because of his behind," Cosby said. "When he would come to bat, his behind was shaped like that (gesturing in a round shape). People tried to make their behinds shaped like that when they came to bat. And more people came to bat striking out trying to make their butt stick out like Henry. I didn't do that."

The event also held tremendous meaning for Reds manager Dusty Baker, who isn't just a student of the game's African-American pioneers, he's a bridge to them. Baker came to the Major Leagues in 1968 with the Atlanta Braves, and was a teammate of the legendary Hank Aaron (and was actually standing in the on deck circle when Hank hit several landmark homers). In 1984 with the Giants, he played for Frank Robinson, a Hall of Famer as a player and baseball's first African-American manager.

"I think it's pretty exciting to have those games here," said Baker, who played from 1968-'86 with the Braves, Dodgers, Giants and A's. "I think it's much needed. [Having the Civil Rights Game here] is going to bring the city together and educate a lot of us on a lot of the things that we thought we knew. That's what's going to make us all better.”