HOUSTON -- The guests of honor during the Civil Rights Game festivities in Houston the last two days did not become famous through baseball, but as they spoke of the paths they took in their chosen professions, the same name -- a baseball one -- kept popping up.
Jackie Robinson's legacy is celebrated every day throughout the season, by baseball players and fans, but Friday's events served as a good reminder that his legacy extends far beyond one sport, or any sport for that matter. Just ask Berry Gordy, the founder of the Motown record label and the man who uncovered the talents of, well, just about everybody who emerged from an explosive musical era more than a half-century ago.
As much as he accomplished, and as many barriers as he broke down as he touted the talents of the Jackson 5, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye and the Temptations (among many, many others), much of the adversity he came across as he worked to infuse his star performers into mainstream America paled in comparison, Gordy estimated, to what Robinson was going through on a baseball field.
In fact, Gordy remembers exactly how old he was when Robinson played his first Major League game as baseball's first black player.
"What he went through was just inhuman," Gordy said. "And as I watched that at 17, how this man could go through that and still come out and knock home runs, and win, it started me thinking."
Gordy, a true slice of living American history, was honored earlier on Friday, receiving the Beacon of Change Award from Major League Baseball. He and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Brown, who received the Beacon of Hope Award, were saluted on the field at Minute Maid Park during an elaborate and moving pregame ceremony that involved Hall of Famers and dignitaries from all over.
Before the pomp and circumstance began, both legends were reflective while speaking about their lives and careers.
"When I was coming up, it was tough, because nobody thought a black man could do a Motown [label] without being in the mafia, or a gangster, or something like that," Gordy recalled. "So I had to pass through that, and I just kept realizing that if I put out music that everybody wanted to hear, everything would work itself out."
That took some work. White stations were not on board initially with a lot of music that Gordy knew would eventually be "mainstream" -- if he could just get it on the airwaves.
"They called it black music," Gordy said. "I said, 'No, it's music, with black stars. And it's good. And you're a pop station, and it's popular, so play it if you can.'"
Gordy said he didn't set out to become a civil rights leader. He just wanted to shape young lives and make sure they were good people as they emerged into being huge stars.
"It was about having ideas and developing people through classes and training, and trying to find how to bring up young people that were talented to be wonderful human beings, to make themselves happy in the future," he said.
Brown, who in his post-career life has worked with gang members to stop violence and teach responsibility, was grateful for the honor bestowed on him by Major League Baseball, and for the forum to talk about social justice and moving the cause forward. But he made it clear that his motivation for doing his life's work comes from within himself, and nowhere else.
"I never seek validation," he said. "I don't need approval by anyone. My activity doesn't have to be approved by anyone."
With that said, he followed with this:
"This has been one of the best days of my life. The diversity that's here, the conscientiousness that's here ... the involvement that's here. It's almost unparalleled."
In the minutes leading up to the Astros-Orioles game, fans were treated to an eyeful as the field was teeming with celebrities from dugout to dugout. Hall of Famer Frank Robinson was on hand to help present a check for $50,000 to the Houston Area Urban League, while recording superstar Aloe Blacc performed two of his hit songs: "Wake Me Up" and "The Man."
The scoreboard then ran a tribute to the late Maya Angelou, who was honored with the Beacon of Life Award. That was followed by Brown and Gordy emerging from the right-field tunnel for a tour around the warning track near both dugouts. Brown rode on a slick, white convertible; Gordy, on a black one.
The ceremonial first pitch was thrown by another legend in the sporting world -- boxing legend, and Houston native, George Foreman.
At first hesitant to make such a public appearance, Foreman changed his mind when he heard who else was being honored at this game.
"When I heard Jim Brown, Berry Gordy, Maya Angelou ... I couldn't resist," Foreman said.
Referring to Brown as the "standard bearer" for strength, Foreman remembered the first time he saw Brown in person.
"I saw his face -- the most handsome human being I'd ever seen," Foreman said. "I decided, 'Boy, that's who I want to be.' I even grew a mustache. I tried to be just like Jim Brown."
When it came time to throw the first pitch, however, Foreman took the safe route. Advised by Astros exec Enos Cabell to throw from in front of the mound and not on it, Foreman threw a perfect lob to "catcher" Scott Feldman.
"I didn't want to be a YouTube highlight," Foreman laughed.
The national anthem was performed by rising young singer Jadagrace, and legendary recording artist Jeffrey Osborne performed "God Bless America" during the seventh-inning stretch.