CHICAGO | A middle of the lineup of Hall of Famers, a host of journeyman ballplayers in between and just average fans all reveled Saturday night in the last glamorous event of the forgettable 2013 White Sox season.
Unless, of course, Paul Konerko has a surprise retirement day near the end of September.
Combining entertainment and public service, Major League Baseball’s annual Civil Rights Game came to U.S. Cellular Field. With pre-game honors for two-sport legend Bo Jackson and recording star Charise emoting a stirring National Anthem, the 25,000-strong crowd on a perfect late-summer evening was reminded of how far baseball and society has come – and how far it has yet to go.
Jackson knew many awards in his stellar football/baseball career that ended as a White Sox 20 years ago. But as an all-time sports great who has chosen the Chicago area as his permanent home, he believed the MLB Beacon Award he got earlier at the Beacon Awards luncheon was first among equals.
“This honor ranks up in the top two, three from the standpoint my peers recognized my work off the playing field,” Jackson said. “To recognize that is very important to me. Not only do I do it from the heart, but I do it because I hope the public will look at me as a role model. I try to do what I can to give back.
“I say that because the country supported me in what I was doing 20, 25 years ago. It’s only right to give in some capacity.”
As the host team for the Civil Rights Game, the entire Sox roster gave back, dressing in their best suits to attend part of the luncheon. They had to sacrifice – the lunch was served after they had to leave to get back to The Cell just after 1 p.m. for pre-game preparations.
But they knew their midday attendance and host duties five hours later was for a good cause.
“It’s important for our guys to be able to go (to the luncheon),” said Sox manager Robin Ventura. “It’s important for an organization that we get the game. It’s great that Bo’s honored, someone who played for the White Sox.”
And they knew they’d play before some all-time talented eyes. Watching from a suite, Cooperstown enshrines Frank Robinson, Billy Williams and Hank Aaron were introduced soon after the first pitch. The Sox could have used that trio batting three, four and five in any combination.
The world has changed since that threesome’s hey day in the mid-20th century. Reliever Donnie Veal is the Sox’s only African-American player amid a distressing trend of plummeting African-American participation in baseball.
“You definitely notice it,” Veal said. “I think I’m the only one out here. MLB is putting every effort into programs. That’s all you can do -- get out there in the community and try to get the game out there as much as possible.”