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Until this past weekend I had never spent any significant time in Cincinnati, the Queen City on the Ohio River located virtually in Kentucky. Though the forecast called for a lot of rain and the humidity was midsummer-like in its oppressiveness, the whims of the weather did not disturb Major League Baseball’s first Civil Rights Weekend. There were no rain delays during the exciting three-game series between the Reds and the visiting Chicago White Sox (who brought many of their fans with them).

Early in Saturday evening contest designated as the Civil Rights Game, Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips did a marvelous imitation of Jackie Robinson when he scored from first base on a double steal when White Sox catcher A. J. Pierzynski’s throw to third base went into left field. Unfortunately for the Reds, their 5-0 lead evaporated quickly when the White Sox rookie third baseman Gordon Beckham hit his first major league home run, a three-run blast, that got the Chisox back into the game. In another one of baseball’s regular redeeming moments, Pierzynski tied the game with a solo homer and a three-run blast by the Cuban defector Alexei Ramirez gave the White Sox a lead they never lost in a 10-8 victory.

As a shortstop Gordon Beckham was last year’s number one draft choice and only recently shifted to third base has been in the majors for less than a month. It is another bold move by White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, baseball’s second African-American general manager.

I dream of a time in my lifetime when the description of someone by race will vanish from America. That was Bill Clinton’s theme in his rousing speech at the Saturday afternoon luncheon that also was highlighted by Bill Cosby’s powerful and humorous remarks. We need “happy angry men” (happy angry people, I might add) was one common theme of their remarks. More on these talks and their lingering important meaning later this week.

My direct participation occurred on Friday afternoon where after autographing some copies of my Branch Rickey biography, I participated in the Civil Rights Roundtable moderated by Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree. The panel had some memorable moments, none more moving than Hall of Fame basketball star Oscar Robertson talking with frankness and humor about his days as a college basketball player at the University of Cincinnati. On a road trip to play North Texas State in Denton just north of Dallas, Robertson remembered seeing a black cat in the visitors’ locker room. His white teammates rallied behind him but because he was raised in Indianapolis in a rough and tough neighborhood Robertson initially thought that the cat was there to keep away rats.

Both of the Friday events took place at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, a magnificent modern structure opened earlier this decade and located strategically between Cincinnati’s new sports facilities, the Reds’ Great American Ballpark (named for the Great American insurance company) and the Bengals football facility Paul Brown Stadium, named after the first coach of the Cincinnati NFL franchise and the man who as Cleveland Browns coach integrated pro football a year before Jackie Robinson’s epochal Brooklyn debut in 1947 .

The Reds Great American Ballpark is warmer than the flying saucer-like football facility that I saw only from the outside. Seats in the baseball park are bathed in red, the sightlines are generally good, and more than half the seats cost less than $30. There is also a Reds Hall of Fame that has some marvelous exhibits including a rare tape of Goose Tatum’s antics in 1946 before and during a Negro League game of the Indianapolis Clowns against the Kansas City Monarchs.

Readers of this blog will know how much I love baseball and history and my visit made me viscerally aware of how much Cincinnati played a part in both. In 1869 the Reds became the first prominent baseball team in the country, hailed far and wide as the finest embodiment of the new national pastime.

Located a stone’s throw from the ballparks and the Freedom Center is the Roebling Bridge, designed by John Roebling Sr. Construction started just before the Civil War and it opened just after, America’s first suspension bridge and looking very much like an earlier version of the Brooklyn Bridge opened in 1883. I took a walk to the bottom where there are murals designed by Robert Dafford and his associates. Dafford is the same artist who created the Portsmouth Flood Wall Murals in Branch Rickey’s home area of Scioto County, Ohio. Rickey and two of his granddaughters and Frank Wanzer Rickey, Branch’s younger brother and ace baseball scout, are featured on two of the Portsmouth murals.

More on my trip and the ongoing thrilling if chaotic baseball season of 2009 later this week. Ciao for now!
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