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06/18/09 9:55 AM ET

Baseball linked with Freedom Center

Underground Railroad museum part of Civil Rights Game

CINCINNATI -- With a strong presentation and aggressive pursuit, the Reds already had a strong bid to Major League Baseball to host the first regular-season edition of the Civil Rights Game this weekend.

But Cincinnati also had an ace in the hole in the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is located right next door to Great American Ball Park.

"The Freedom Center made a great impression on Major League Baseball," said Reds chief operating officer Phil Castellini, who also serves on the Freedom Center's board of directors. "Last summer when officials from Major League Baseball visited Cincinnati to evaluate us to be the host city for the Civil Rights Game, the Freedom Center was an integral part of our showcase."

It should also be the perfect complement to a weekend during which the struggle for equality and inclusion are at the forefront of baseball.

To kick off the Civil Rights Game weekend, the Freedom Center will host the roundtable discussion "Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement" at 4 p.m. ET on Friday. Moderated by Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree, the discussion will feature Reds great and Hall of Famer Tony Perez, basketball Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson and MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds, among others, as panelists.

While many have likely heard of the Underground Railroad during studies of slavery and the Civil War, few likely know many details. Even fewer probably realized that Cincinnati had a prominent role in the system.

The Underground Railroad wasn't a train route but the term for the clandestine network of abolitionists, free slaves and safe houses that aided slaves escaping the South. Because it was directly across the river from the slave state of Kentucky, Cincinnati proved to be the center of what was a national debate during the 1800s.

"The Ohio River was a natural geographic barrier between slavery and freedom," said Paul Bernish, the Freedom Center's chief communications officer. "Slaves seeking freedom had to cross the Ohio River and many of them did in the area in and around Cincinnati. They were hidden, or hid themselves, and later moved north to Canada, where slavery was outlawed."

Since it opened in 2004, the Freedom Center has drawn close to one million visitors through its spectacular-looking building along the banks of the Ohio River.

Although traffic has waned in more recent years, in part because of the economic downturn, the museum has often benefited from its neighbor up the street.

"We noticed as soon as we opened that baseball fans will come here," Bernish said. "The Reds draw from throughout this region of the country. Those people come down here and usually are here for three or four games of a homestand. And they're looking for things to do. They're here touring the museum, as are ballplayers and managers."

On the night he became manager of the Reds in October 2007, Dusty Baker attended an event at the Freedom Center and has since become a frequent visitor.

"I learned a lot," Baker said. "My mother was a Black Studies teacher and I thought I knew quite a bit. The more I walked around, the more I realized I didn't know. "

There is much to see inside the 158,000-square-foot museum and many exhibits will certainly open some eyes. One featured exhibit is an authentic slave pen that was recovered from a Kentucky farm. It was originally built in the 1832 by a slave trader. Inside the spartan room are the heavy iron chains that bound human beings.

"It was used to literally store people, for a week to a couple of months," Bernish said. "Very few people had ever heard of a human warehouse until we put the authentic slave pen up. For a lot of people, it's not just an educational experience but a huge emotionally impacting experience. They had no idea it was part of our history.

"Our primary intent here is to explain in some depth the Underground Railroad against the broader background of our nation's struggle to overcome slavery in the first 100 years of our existence. And then what the relevance of that story is to contemporary times."

The focus isn't fully on the slavery era but also issues and moments of the modern civil rights era. A touchstone of the non-violence movement, Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her front-section seat on an Alabama bus is remembered in a new exhibition called "381 Days: The Montgomery Bus Boycott Story."

"The story that MLB tries to promote is it was instrumental in driving to integrate baseball and set an example for broader society that black citizens could be part of general society," Bernish said. "They didn't need to be segregated. Talent and ability would transcend race. We say the same thing. If you consider slavery, you have to consider human beings not labeled slaves. Then you look deeper and you find they're people with a rich cultural, ethnic history. They become personalized and that helps overcome prejudice and racism and indifference. That's the kind of message we try to extend here and that's the message of the Civil Rights Game as well."

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