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Black History Month

Atlanta Braves to honor a black man — not Hank Aaron — who also helped lead the team to greatness

Bill Lucas and the legacy he leaves behind will be honored Thursday at a celebration at SunTrust Park

Bill Lucas, one of the first African-American vice presidents in Major League Baseball history, is hardly remembered. He was vice president and director of player personnel of the Atlanta Braves from 1976 to 1979 and established a foundation that would propel the franchise for many years to come, including an unprecedented run of 14 consecutive divisional titles.

A phone rings in an upstairs suite of the Atlanta Braves team hotel in Los Angeles. Bob Hope, who works for the Braves in public relations, answers and hears the voice of the frantic hotel concierge. “Could you come to the lobby, your team owner is on his hands and knees barking at people.”

Hope makes a dash for the lobby, the team’s vice president and director of player personnel in tow. All part of the job of the Braves front office, which sometimes struggled to keep pace with the club’s tempestuous owner. One voice, however, resonated with Ted Turner. On this night, he would hear it. “Look,” the vice president stated, “you’ve gotten out of hand here. If you don’t stop it, we are going to put you on a flight and send you home.”

Maybe this Braves vice president knew how to read Turner better than others. Maybe it was the glare of his gray-green eyes or the toothpick clenched in his teeth or maybe the afro. That’s right – this top Braves official was a black man, and even though Bill Lucas never officially held the title of general manager (Turner kept that for himself), he did everything the role entailed. When he was named vice president and director of player personnel in 1976, he held the distinction of being the highest-ranking African-American in Major League Baseball. But Lucas’ career – and achievement – aren’t widely known in sports circles, which is why the Braves are honoring him with a celebration on Thursday at SunTrust Park in Atlanta.

Who was this brother who grew up in the Jim Crow South, and why is he not more celebrated?

To many black Southerners, Jacksonville, Florida, is just an extension of South Georgia. In the days when Lucas grew up there, he could easily find signs that told him where he could go – and, more significantly, not go. “He grew up in a housing project called Burkeville,” recalled his widow, Rubye Lucas. “The stadium where the Milwaukee Braves Sally [South Atlantic] League team played was nearby and he worked out there selling peanuts and shagging baseballs that flew over the fences, returning them to the team.” Young Lucas blossomed as a baseball player in high school. Costa Kittles, the baseball coach at Florida A&M, badly wanted Lucas to be a Rattler. Ted Sparks, who would later work as a scout for the Braves, remembers a tenacious competitor in orange and green. “He was a helluva shortstop,” said Sparks of Lucas, who played for Florida A&M from 1953 to 1957. “I remember because I played shortstop, too, for Morehouse. We played some great games.” Lucas would sign with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957, after growing up working for their minor league club in Jacksonville.

After his marriage to Rubye, Lucas looked to one day join his brother-in-law, Hank Aaron, in Milwaukee. But that dream was derailed in 1960 while Lucas was playing for the Braves’ Austin farm club in the Texas League. “They were playing in San Antonio. Luke laid down a bunt and was sprinting to first base when he collided with [future Hall of Famer] Joe Morgan, injured his knee and the knee never healed properly. The knee injury forced Lucas to give up on his dream of making it to the big leagues after the 1961 season.”

Ivan Allen Jr., the city’s mayor at that time, wanted to see Atlanta recognized nationally as a major city, not just a major city in the South. With an $18 million, 52,000-seat stadium having been built, Braves general manager Dick Cecil needed someone, not just anyone, to bring the community into the fold. “I called Luke because you don’t come into a community like this one, in the South, all white.” Lucas was hired, not as a baseball person but as a community/public relations person. “Luke would be the team’s link to the community. Luke was the bridge.”

Lucas immediately got to work – first introducing the Braves Good Neighbor Program, which provided playing fields for area children and playground equipment. He connected the team to the Atlanta school system, hiring high school coaches as ushers, ticket takers and supervisors at the ballpark. When the Braves played their first season in Atlanta in 1966, fans saw more diversity in the workforce than was seen at most big-league ballparks across the country. “He wanted everybody, especially minorities, to be involved in all of the things that this city and ball club [were] doing and grow with the franchise,” Hank Aaron remembered.

As the MLB settled into the fabric of the Southeast, some were watching to see how baseball played out in a region known for its resistance to integration and equality. “I prayed the night before the draft that I not get drafted by the Braves,” recalled Dusty Baker, referring to the racial unrest and governors named Lester Maddox in Georgia and George Wallace in Alabama. The next day, Baker got the call that he was drafted by Atlanta.

To calm his concerns, the Braves brought Baker to Atlanta for a special reception, Andrew Young remembered. “Dusty and his mom came to Atlanta and I was among the people that Hank invited to his house to meet Dusty. Hank and Bill let us know that Dusty was a fine young man and that if he ever needed help, we should be there for him.”

Recalled Baker: “He was smooth,” said Baker, who was in the on-deck circle in 1974 when Aaron hit his record-breaking 715th career home run. “You couldn’t tell if he was mad at you or not.” But as his brother-in-law chased the ghost of Babe Ruth, Lucas was positioning himself to make history. Lucas was now making decisions on selecting players who would be difference-makers on the field, but the question loomed: Who would have the courage to give Lucas the chance to take on a role that many believed was impossible for a black man in major league baseball?

By the mid-1970s, Aaron and Baker were gone and the Braves were enduring some tough times. Turner sought to attract attention and get people to show up as the team grinded toward a last-place finish. On Sept. 17, 1976 – 29 years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier on the field – Turner elevated Lucas from director of the farm system to general manager, naming him vice president of player personnel. “When I promoted him, I didn’t realize he would be baseball’s first-ever black general manager,” Turner said. “I was simply putting the best guy I knew in the position.”

Lucas’ moves mold the Braves into a great team

Besides running daily operations of a major league ball club, there was also the task of keeping pace with Turner, the temperamental owner.

One of Lucas’ most impactful moves came when he brought in Bobby Cox, then an upstart in the Yankees system. Lucas had the manager he wanted, and in the spring of 1979, Lucas was locked in what became very public negotiations with Bob Horner, a young slugger who was to be Dale Murphy‘s tag team partner in the Braves’ lineup of the future. “I know he wrestled with some problems with the ball club,” Cecil remembered. “While Ted had a great deal of faith in Luke, his wanting to manage the team … ” As he was just hitting his stride in his job, Lucas died after suffering a heart attack and an aneurysm on May 1, 1979, at his Atlanta home while the team played in Pittsburgh. He was 43 years old.

With Lucas gone, an impatient Turner fired Cox after the strike-shortened 1981 season, opening the door for Joe Torre, who would lead the Braves to the Western Division crown in 1982, and fulfill Lucas’ dream. Turner would fire Torre after the 1984 season and in 1986, brought back Lucas’ choice, Cox, for a second stint. In only two full seasons and two months into a third, Lucas had climbed the baseball ladder to make history. Cox, his most important hire, would eventually link him to the Braves’ string of 14 consecutive divisional championships. It would be 16 years before Bob Watson would become the second black major league general manager. With the number of African-American major league baseball players down, the outlook is not good for inclusion in the future, either on the field or in the front office. Baker, now the manager of the Washington Nationals, said Lucas would be very disappointed. “He would not be proud of the situation now with the lack of black players and front-office people. It’s about the worst that I have seen in almost 50 years in the game.”

“In some ways, things have gone backwards since we lost Bill,” said Aaron.

The Braves inducted Lucas into their hall of fame in 2006 — along with Ralph Garr, a Grambling State product remembered as “The Road Runner” – for his 23 years of service to the franchise. Said Turner: “In the short time Bill was general manager, he did a great job overseeing the team and made improvements that laid the foundation for the Braves eventually becoming known as America’s Team. While it took more than 15 years after Bill’s passing to win the World Series, it was well worth the wait. Bill’s contributions to the Braves organization will never be forgotten.”

Sam Crenshaw is a veteran sportscaster and journalist based in Atlanta and host of Weekend Morning on 92.9 The Game FM. He is also a broadcaster for Georgia State athletics and for the Air Force Reserve Celebration Bowl Radio Network.