Cincy exhibits complement Civil Rights Game

Cincy exhibits complement Civil Rights Game

CINCINNATI -- When there is a national event happening mere footsteps away that celebrates baseball and the civil rights movement, two museums couldn't have asked for a more natural tie-in.

The Gillette Civil Rights Game on Saturday at Great American Ball Park, which will be broadcast live at 7:10 p.m. ET on MLB.TV and MLB Network, promises to bring tens of thousands people to downtown. With last year's event weekend setting a high standard, both the Reds Hall of Fame and Museum and the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center hope to benefit greatly once again.

"We're hoping we can match, if not exceed, last year, which had real excitement and buzz," said Paul Bernish, the chief communications officer at the Freedom Center, which is about a quarter-mile from the ballpark.

The weekend will get its start on Friday at the Freedom Center with The Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion. The free and public event, which runs from 4-5:30 p.m. ET and will be aired on MLB.com/Live, will feature moderator Charles Ogletree from Harvard Law School and panelists like Reds greats Joe Morgan and Barry Larkin, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis and former tennis star Zina Garrison. The purpose is to create open and honest dialogue about the state of race relations in the country, the lessons of the past and concerns about the future.

The panel from last year included basketball legend Oscar Robertson and baseball Hall of Famers Hank Aaron and Tony Perez. The discussion was streamed live on MLB.com.

"That was quite an event," Bernish said. "We filled our 300-seat theater and had to spill over to our grand hall. The quality of the discussion at the roundtable persuaded people that this would be a significant weekend."

The Freedom Center opened in 2004 and explains the history of the Underground Railroad, which was a clandestine network of abolitionists, free slaves and safe houses that aided slaves in escaping from the south in the 1800s.

"We had a good uptick in attendance for that weekend," Bernish said. "We're not open on Sundays, but our Saturday business on the day of the game was pretty good. The foot traffic was good -- a lot of people from Chicago came in."

That was because the Reds played the White Sox in last year's Civil Rights Game. On Saturday, the opponent is the Cardinals, and St. Louis is also within driving distance for fans to take in the museums when they're looking for something to do.

The Freedom Center's current showcase exhibit, Without Sanctuary, will be a sobering one. It contains photographs of lynching incidents that happened in the U.S. from the 1880s-1940s. The display runs through May 31.

"It's obviously not for everyone's tastes, but there's been good crowds," Bernish said. "They call it a life-changing and deeply effecting exhibit that's quite powerful. In terms of the Civil Rights Weekend, it was these kinds of lawless events that helped build momentum in the 1950s and '60s for the passage of civil rights legislation."

Over at the Reds Hall of Fame, there are exhibits planned that specifically meant to complement the theme of the weekend.

There will be a tribute to Negro League baseball in Cincinnati from the 1930s and '40s and some rare Jackie Robinson artifacts -- including one of his game-worn jerseys (only five still exist), a Robinson bat and a ticket stub from the April 15, 1947, game in which he broke the color barrier for the Dodgers.

Before the Reds and Cardinals complete their three-game series on Sunday, the Hall of Fame is hosting an autograph session from 11:30 a.m.-1 p.m., when fans can meet veterans of the Negro Leagues.

"The Civil Rights Weekend last year was packed at the Hall of Fame," said Rick Walls, executive director of the Reds Hall of Fame. "This year, we expect the same thing, especially with the Cardinals in town. We always have good crowds with them. After that, it does pump up people about the Hall of Fame and Museum. It gets people talking about what we have. It's more than about plaques, trophies and awards on display. It's really about enlightening people, inspiring people and creating that atmosphere that is fun. Baseball is supposed to be fun. The Reds have the long story and tradition and history. That's what we're all about here."

Rotating exhibits focus on different portions of the team's history and the Reds Hall of Fame is currently featuring a 20th anniversary tribute to the 1990 World Series championship team. There is a scale replica of the outside of Riverfront Stadium, the scoreboard from Game 2 of the Series against the A's and uniforms and memorabilia from members of the team.

Patrons purchasing a full-priced ticket on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays receive a free collectible gift. This month, it's a 1990 exhibit mini-bat.

"We have to connect with people of all ages, all levels of the fan base, not just the die-hards, but the casual enthusiast," Walls said. "We have challenges like other museums around the country have -- you have to be interactive, educational while being entertaining. Fans go to a game because they want to experience something new and different and be part of a winner or something special. You never know what you're going to see. It's the same thing at the museum."

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