HOUSTON -- At the ballpark, you expect to hear someone sing the national anthem, just as you expect to see someone throwing out the first pitch.
But Friday night at Minute Maid Park was a night for the unexpected.
Yes, George Foreman threw out the first pitch, but the most startling moment happened a few minutes earlier, when the late Maya Angelou spoke to a stadium full of baseball fans in a video recorded shortly before her death.
Angelou was supposed to have traveled to Houston to accept an award on the day of Major League Baseball’s Civil Rights Game. Her death earlier this week turned the luncheon honoring her and two other prominent civil rights advocates into a memorial. And the remembrance carried through to the ballgame.
“What a sad thing,” Foreman said. “I was hoping, of course, to be a part of that. When I heard that she’d passed, I was hurt, too. What a strong person. To describe her as a woman is not the way to do it – a strong person.”
Still, even without her, the trio of honorees was impressive. There was Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown Records hit machine, who remembered how he was inspired as a 17 year-old boy when Jackie Robinson become the first black ballplayer to break into the majors. And there was Jim Brown, the NFL Hall of Famer and movie star who has always been a passionate advocate for equal rights.
“This is my heart,” Brown said. “This is my purpose. And someone somewhere in Major League Baseball recognized it. And to be here is a tremendous honor.”
Every year since 2007, Major League Baseball has designated one of its games the Civil Rights Game to proudly tout its pioneering role in integrating the nation. Somewhere in every MLB park in the nation there hangs the number 42, signifying that Jackie Robinson’s number has been retired in his honor. It’s something baseball likes to brag about.
“Three and a half years before Harry Truman desegregated the United States Army, seven years before Brown vs. Board of Education, and Jackie Robinson comes to the big leagues,” said Bud Selig, the MLB’s commissioner. “Amazing story. Amazing story.”
On this night, as the Astros took the field to play the Baltimore Orioles, fans couldn’t help noticing they were wearing different uniforms. The Houston Astros donned the jerseys of the Houston Eagles, the only Negro Leagues team to have been based in Texas, a fitting tribute for an event that inevitably raised questions about how far the nation has come in its civil rights struggle.
“Where are we,” Gordy asked. “There’s debate all over the place. But we have a black president. So we must’ve come somewhere.”