Atlanta Braves

A Look Back On Bill Lucas Making Baseball History

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Almost 3 decades had passed since Branch Rickey controversially signed Jackie Robinson to integrate Major League Baseball, a little over 2 decades had passed since backstop Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers became the first African American to win 3 MVP awards and only a year had passed since the Indians future Hall of Fame outfielder Frank Robinson started filling in the lineup card as a player-manager, the first black skipper in baseball history. Yet, the year is 1976 and baseball still did not have its first major African American executive. Enter, as Scott Hall would say, “Billionaire Ted.”

It’s September 19th, 1976 and Ted Turner is ready to make history in Atlanta. The team had become synonymous with celebrating color in the harsh environment of the South just 10 years removed from the abolition of the Jim Crow laws. The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966 from Milwaukee, and in the first 8 years, Hammerin’ Henry Aaron electrified the Georgia faithful, even breaking Babe Ruth’s vaunted homerun record. In 1976, they had players such as Jimmy Wynn, Max Leon and Jerry Royster but were a subpar 72-90, in the heart of the rotten years. Turner decided it was time to make an impact and did something unprecedented: he hired Bill Lucas.

Bill Lucas assumed the role of team general manager, despite that not being his official title. Ted Turner kept the title of GM, a role he stepped into after firing Eddie Robinson in March, but the job was pretty much Lucas’. A former farmhand, Lucas made his way through the front office like every baseball executive does. The difference? Lucas was black. No African American had assumed such a high role in an MLB front office before him.

It has been over 4 decades since Bill Lucas took the role, and since we have seen only 5 black general managers. There currently is not one in baseball in 2020, however Kenny Williams of the White Sox and Michael Hill of the Marlins have surpassed that level of the totem pole. Lucas, however, was the right man for the job and left an indelible mark for those who followed in his footsteps. Lucas, born in Jacksonville, Florida, grew up a common man in a household that was working class. He graduated from Florida A&M and signed with the Milwaukee Braves. He never made the majors, however, as he spent two prime years serving in the US Military as an officer in the Army. He topped out at AAA before hanging up the cleats in 1964. He was hired in PR, but the team deemed player development to be a better fit in 1972. He mentored players such as Dusty Baker, who is now one of the winningest managers in the history of baseball and the current manager of the Houston Astros. No black manager has won more MLB games than Baker.

He then became the Braves farm director in a time where MLB front offices were still pale, and no man that wasn’t would ever get promoted. In 1976, however, John Alevizos resigned from his role as Braves VP of Player Personnel, and Lucas was promoted to the role. Lucas joked that “it doesn’t hurt my sister is married to Henry,” which is in reference to Hank Aaron, the player who broke many African American barriers, Braves icon and who many baseball historians consider the greatest ballplayer to ever live. However, a lot of it had to do with open mindedness of Ted Turner. A natural, smooth, charismatic people person that knew how to lead, Lucas was a baseball lifer who fit the mold Turner was looking for, even if he wasn’t what was considered “socially acceptable” in the late-1970s. By September, he was the teams General Manager.

Unfortunately, tragedy struck in May of 1979 when Lucas passed away at age 43. Just hours after Braves Hall of Fame knuckleballer Phil Neikro won his 200th Major League Game and got a phone call from Lucas, Lucas entered cardiac arrest for a cerebral hemorrhage. He passed away 3 days later. His impact, however, was profound in that it was more than just a broken barrier. Lucas was the GM who drafted Bob Horner. He was the person who scouted and helped mold a young catcher by the name of Dale Murphy who would win 2 MVPs in the 1980s. He hired future Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox to manage the team in 1978, and while Bobby Cox left after his death to go to Toronto, Cox later on managed the Braves dynasty of the 1990s that was dominated by the likes of Chipper Jones and Tom Glavine.

Lucas with MLB Hall of Famer Bobby Cox (credit: The Atlantic)

Lucas spent half of his life as a Brave. Murphy spoke at his funeral and the takeaway quote was “Bill’s dream was for this organization to become a success. It is our sacred honor to be chosen to fulfill this dream.” The team that Lucas designed ended up winning a division title in 1982. That same year Dale Murphy won his first NL MVP award when he hit 36 homeruns with an .885 OPS. Lucas widow later on served on the board of directors for TBS and runs the William D. Lucas Fund, whose primary goal is to send aspiring baseball players to college.

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