"I was going to walk here if I had to," Mays said.
He didn't, of course, and Mays' acceptance speech was one of the highlights of the luncheon, which has become a staple of MLB's annual schedule of events, and an obvious source of pride for Commissioner Bud Selig.
"The Beacon Awards and the Civil Rights Game have become one of our game's great signature events, and rightfully so," Selig told the luncheon attendees. "Baseball is proud to honor in this way the efforts to bring total equality to all Americans, regardless of color or creed."
It was in that spirit that Mays was honored at the fourth edition of the Beacon Awards, which recognize individuals "whose lives are emblematic of the spirit of the Civil Rights Movement." It was in that spirit that King received the Beacon of Change Award, presented to individuals who impact society through both their words and actions, for her efforts in gender and race equality. And it was in that spirit that Belafonte, a tireless civil rights activist who marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was presented the Beacon of Hope Award, emblematic of a person who influences the future through the support of children.
But while honoring the past and the legacy of the sport that Jackie Robinson turned into a leader in civil rights, much of the focus of the speakers' comments was on the future, a future personified by 12-year-old Brendan Davis, who has played at the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., for the last three years.
He and Kenneth Adams, also 12, from the new Houston Urban Youth Academy presented Selig with an engraved plate, and in doing so Davis delivered his own words that told of the present -- and future -- of the efforts the honorees of the day put forth in the past.
"Commissioner Selig, in the Long Beach-Compton area, many kids turn to gangs and it doesn't seem like there's any way out," Davis said with poise beyond his years before the packed audience. "The Urban Youth Academy is a place where I can feel safe and respected. It's a place that has taught me I can compete and that I can take pride in who I am.
"I hope that the MLB Urban Youth Academy will help me reach my goal of playing in college, and hopefully in the Major Leagues. Thank you for making that happen."
As Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, pointed out, there will be many other opportunities for inner-city youths to have that same experience as MLB follows up the success of the Compton facility and the new Houston facility with academies planned for Philadelphia, Milwaukee, New Orleans, Miami and Cincinnati.
"They seek not only to create Major League ballplayers, but Major League young men," Solomon said of the academies.
So it was that the past and the future crossed paths at the luncheon, which was emceed by ESPN anchor Sage Steele and included a live performance by Grammy Award-winning singer Jeffrey Osborne. There also were video tributes to Rachel Robinson, widow of Jackie, and the late Lena Horne for their efforts in promoting civil rights.
Also, special recognition was given to the four college students who staged a sit-in at a Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth lunch counter in 1960, one of the pivotal moments in the civil rights movement. The four -- David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, Franklin McCain and Ezell Blair Jr. -- were honored for having, as their plaques presented stated, "the conviction to stand up for what was right and the poise to sit still."
Andrew Young, the civil rights pioneer who served in the U.S. Congress and was Ambassador to the United Nations as well as mayor of Atlanta, delivered the keynote speech at the event, recalling Robinson and Dr. King and all the people who fought for civil rights on the front lines in the 1960s.
"When Jackie Robinson came into the Major Leagues, it was the first official innovation in civil rights in our lifetimes," Young said. "Oh yes, Jesse Owens and Joe Louis were sports heroes, but society under the leadership of Branch Rickey decided to desegregate baseball."
Young also recognized the need for baseball to reinstitute itself as a primary sport of choice for young African-Americans like Davis and Adams.
"I'm very, very glad to see baseball being played all over the world. But I don't want to see it played all over the world but not in our inner cities," Young said.
To get to the future Young envisions where more African-Americans are playing the game again, the past must be recognized. And with Mays, King and Belafonte, it was.
Mays received his award from the Rev. Bill Greason, who was a teammate of Mays' in 1948 with the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro Leagues.
"He had talents beyond what anyone could imagine. He could hit, run, throw and catch, and he was full of fire. ... I hear he had a little bit of a career after leaving Birmingham," Greason said.
Mays, who turned 79 earlier this month, is considered by many the best all-around player in Major League history, with 660 home runs and 3,283 hits. He left his mark on the game with a unparalleled resume that included 24 All-Star appearances, 12 Gold Gloves and a remarkable over-the-shoulder catch in the 1954 World Series that still stands as one of the great highlights in the sport's history.
While Mays perhaps was not at the forefront of the civil rights movement the way Robinson was or wrapped up in it the way Aaron was in his pursuit of Babe Ruth's home run record, Mays said he definitely had his moments where he had to "keep my mouth closed for some time" and deal with the adversity of racism.
"The walls came in on me, and people had no idea what I went through," Mays said. "I played in the Interstate League [in a brief Minor League stop with Trenton], and you have no idea what names they called me. The more names they called me, the further I hit the ball."
King, the tennis legend and equality pioneer who has spent her life trying to put women's sports on the same level as men's athletics, received her award from boxer, author and dancer Laila Ali, the daughter of legendary boxing great Muhammad Ali, who has worked with King over the years on the Women's Sports Foundation.
While King said she played baseball "way before" she played tennis -- noting her younger brother Randy Moffitt was a reliever in the Majors for 12 years -- she said her "epiphany" about civil rights came when she was on the tennis court at age 12, noticing that the balls, the clothes, the shoes and the players were all white.
"It's good, but where's everybody else?" King said. "I made a promise to myself to dedicate the rest of my life to equal rights and opportunities for all, and I'm just as fired up at 66 as I was at 12 years old."
Belafonte, a popular entertainer for decades and a tireless activist for human rights, received the MLB Beacon of Hope Award from Georgia congressman John Lewis, a U.S. representative since 1987 and once a leader in the Civil Rights Movement as president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. One of the "Big Six" leaders of the civil rights movement, Lewis said Belafonte's impact on the efforts was a major one, and that was noted by Dr. King.
"Belafonte and King developed a deep and abiding friendship that lasted until King's untimely death," Lewis said. "King said that his friend's global popularity and commitment to our cause made him important in the global struggle for freedom and a powerful tactical weapon for the civil rights movement here in America."
For those honored and those doing the honoring Saturday, the past, present and future all wrap into one hope: That baseball can continue to be a leader in bringing about improvements in civil rights.
As that legacy passes from generation to generation, perhaps a couple of 12-year-olds can heed the words of a 79-year-old to figure out whether what was endured in the past has any impact on the present and the future.
"Did I go through all this? Was it worthwhile? Yes, it was worth it to me," Mays said. "It's worth it. Believe me when I tell you that."