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04/07/09 3:00 PM ET

Civil Rights Game to honor heavy hitters

Icons Ali, Cosby, Aaron will receive Beacon Awards

CINCINNATI -- For this year's Civil Rights Game, Major League Baseball identified three of the heaviest hitters around that deserve special recognition.

Icons Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby, and Hank Aaron will be the recipients of Beacon Awards, it was announced on Tuesday during a press conference at the Reds Hall of Fame.

"I think it's awesome. That's a tremendous lineup," said Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, a 2008 Beacon of Life winner. "It's too bad they couldn't get somebody to hit fourth. That's a great group."

The third annual Civil Rights Game, which will be played by the Reds and White Sox on June 20 at Great American Ball Park, pays tribute to efforts toward racial equality and diversity in baseball and society. The MLB Beacon Awards recognize individuals "whose lives are emblematic of the spirit of the civil rights movement."

Past winners include Vera Clemente, Spike Lee, Buck O'Neil, John H. Johnson, Ruby Dee and Robinson. Ali, Cosby and Aaron will all be in Cincinnati for the awards luncheon, also on June 20, at the Duke Energy Center.

Cosby, the Beacon of Hope honoree, has spent the last five decades as an influential comedian and entertainer. His television comedy, "The Cosby Show," was the first to feature the daily lives of an African-American family that was middle or upper class and has often been credited for saving the sitcom genre. The backbone of Cosby's career has been observations about families, especially parents and their children.

For Cincinnati, Cosby's appearance carries extra significance because of his refusal to play a concert in Feb. 2002 as a way of pressuring the city to increase its effort to improve race relations. A race riot in the spring of '01 had strongly divided the city.

Since Cosby's boycott, the NAACP national conference and Southern Baptist convention has been held in Cincinnati. Cosby has returned to the area since, but the Beacon Awards will his highest profile appearance.

"When you've been an entertainer and in the limelight as long as Bill, you're going to have little riffs with a lot of different places," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of operations. "Bill transcends all of that, because he is an icon. As an icon, you have to go and address issues, people and things that need to be addressed."

Known simply as "The Greatest," Ali was a 10-time heavyweight champion boxer with a flamboyant flair and charisma that dazzled a generation. But his name transcended well beyond sport to become one of the most revered worldwide.

Ali, the Beacon of Change winner, relinquished his championship belt in the 1960s after he refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army as both a civil rights protest and religious opposition to fighting the Vietnam War. He is also well known for his humanitarian efforts and has traveled the world on goodwill missions while bravely living with Parkinson's Disease.

"Muhammad Ali, in my lifetime, has probably had the most impact of any iconic athlete," Solomon said. "He did something I thought was dramatically supportive of what he stood for, which was to not go into the draft and also to give up his livelihood for 3 1/2 years. A lot of people can say they are committed to this and that, but if you were told you and your family were not going to be able to have any income by virtue of your position, would we still stand so steadfast? I don't know."

Aaron, a Hall of Famer who was once the all-time home run leader with 755, will be the Beacon of Life recipient. A Negro League player before he starred for the Braves in both Milwaukee and Atlanta, Aaron persevered through racism during his 23-year career and was known for the dignity with which he lived and played.

Like Ali and Cosby, Aaron is a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner. Aaron formed the Chasing the Dream Foundation with his wife, Billye, in 1994 and has given financial support to hundreds of youths that enable them to pursue talents in music, dance, art, science, literature and athletics.

"I think Hank was kind of getting pushed to the side because of all the home runs being hit by so many people as of late," Solomon said. "Even when Hank was playing, people would argue that Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Gil Hodges stole all of the limelight. Hank, as history has shown, was a steady, productive and talented man who didn't need all the limelight. He went about his job every day, and we see what numbers bore out."

The cleanup hitter Robinson was asking about is still a possibility. Last month, it was learned that President Barack Obama was invited by Commissioner Bud Selig and the Reds to throw the ceremonial first pitch. That offer is still pending.

"We're still working on it. He makes no decisions quickly," Solomon said.

The Civil Rights Game also offers a weekend's worth of events, including a roundtable discussion and youth summit that highlight the role baseball has played in the civil rights movement. There will also be fireworks and events being held in conjunction with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, located near Great American Ball Park.

"It's bringing recognition to a cause that a lot of people take for granted and don't know much about," Robinson said. "We're trying to make people more aware about the past and present and the future for this country."

For Robinson, who began his great career with the Reds from 1956-65, the weekend serves as a way to change perceptions about Cincinnati as it hosts the Civil Rights Game for the first time after two years in Memphis.

"I think it shows that maybe Cincinnati had a bad rap when people looked at it in a different light than it should," he said. "I think this has given an opportunity they might not have been correct. It's gotten better over the years. The city has really come a long way."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.