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This weekend, the Atlanta Braves will face off against the LA Dodgers at Turner Field. But it isn't just another game for either team -- it is the annual Civil Rights Game, and this year, it brings together two teams with long and storied histories.
The historical ties between baseball and civil rights run long and strong. When Jackie Robinson (above, left, with Joe Black) broke the color barrier by stepping onto the field with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, it ushered in the modern era of post-segregation play, for not only African-Americans, but Hispanic, Asian and other minority players as well.
In recent years, the number of black MLB players has been dwindling, threatening to stifle a proud (if morally speckled) tradition of racial diversity in the sport (However, the number of players of other races have increased, according to a fascinating 2012 report). The MLB Civil Rights Game, which debuted in 2007, seeks to honor the sport's heritage and its relationship to the civil rights movement, and capture the attention of minority players and baseball hopefuls.
The Braves and the Dodgers are both key franchises in the intersection of civil rights and baseball. After all, Robinson represented the Dodgers (even though the franchise has since moved), and the Atlanta Braves boasted such color-barrier-breaking greats as Hank Aaron and Sam Jethroe, the franchise's first black player.
But baseball is never just about the game. This weekend's matchup is simply the centerpiece for larger awareness events that honor civil rights pioneers and aim to re-orient baseball's position as the Great America Pastime in context with the overwhelming challenges minorities have had to face in our country's history.
Every year, three awards are given out over the weekend: the Beacon of Life Award, the Beacon of Change Award and the Beacon of Hope Award. Each award recognizes a legendary figure whose work has positively affected race relations in the United States. This year, the events will honor Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, Georgia Congressman Jon Lewis and the founding members of Earth, Wind and Fire. Past honorees have included Willie Mays, Carlos Santana, Morgan Freeman, Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali, Spike Lee, Bill Cosby and Frank Robinson.
As for the players, they recognize the importance of remembering those who paved the way for the players of today, of all colors and all races. "People are going to come out and raise some awareness to the whole thing, about how African-Americans became a part of the game (and) the significance the Negro Leagues played," Braves right fielder Jason Heyward told MLB.com. "Baseball is America's pastime. People put their differences aside and the game united them."