CINCINNATI (AP) — Willie Mays says it was all worth it.
The Hall of Fame outfielder was honored with one of Major League Baseball's Beacon awards on Saturday as part of its annual Civil Rights weekend. Mays recalled at a luncheon that he experienced prejudice when he broke into the big leagues, and he had a standard response.
"You have no idea what I had to go through," said Mays, now 79. "You have no idea what they would call me. But the more they called me, the farther the ball went.
"They knocked me down, I got up, I hit it farther. Every time they knocked me down, I hit it farther. I was very positive."
Tennis player Billie Jean King and entertainer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte also received Beacon awards for their lifetime work toward equality. Baseball officials also emphasized their efforts to try to get black youths interested in baseball again.
Mays was the last of the three to get his award and told stories about the discrimination he faced at the start of his 22-year career with the Giants and the Mets. He went into the Hall of Fame in 1979.
"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."
King remembered the climate in the 1950s when she started playing tennis as a 12-year-old.
"I knew something was wrong with our sport — white shoes, white socks, white balls, white people," she said. "It's good, but where is everybody else?"
King spent much of her record-setting career — 20 Wimbledon titles, 39 Grand Slam championships, a three-set win over Bobby Riggs in a 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" exhibition — working for equality. She pressed to have women's tournament prize money brought up to par with the men's payouts.
"I'm just as fired up at 66 today as I was at 12 years old to change things," she said. "Social change is really about doing the right thing, even if it isn't popular because sometimes it can be lonely for people."
Belafonte, a close friend of Martin Luther King Jr., spoke briefly and thanked baseball for honoring his civil rights work. He said baseball was one of his childhood passions.
"I grew up on the sport," he said. "Jackie Robinson was a very close friend."
Far fewer black youths are playing baseball lately, a trend Major League Baseball has been trying to address for years. The lack of interest was apparent in the lineups for the Civil Rights Game on Saturday night between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. Only one black player — Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips — was in the starting lineups.
An annual report last month found that 9 percent of major league players were black last season. The number was at an all-time low of 8.2 percent in 2007. Twenty-seven percent of the players were Latino last year and 2.3 percent were Asian.
The Reds are trying to address the problem along with Major League Baseball. Hall of Famer Joe Morgan, who was part of a panel discussion Saturday, signed on last month to promote the sport among black youths. Morgan noted that at one point in recent years, three major league teams had no black players and 17 teams had two or fewer.
Andrew Young, who was one of Martin Luther King's top aides and a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said it's important to figure out how to "restore the pre-eminence of baseball" among youths who are now more interested in basketball and football.
"I worry about baseball," Young said at the awards luncheon.
Commissioner Bud Selig noted that Major League Baseball has opened urban youth academies in California and Texas and has several more planned, including one in Cincinnati, to try to heighten interest.
"As we strive to bring baseball back into the inner cities, we have a long way to go," Selig said. "But we've made a lot of progress."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.