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Omaha Storm Chasers part of Minor League Baseball push to cultivate Latino market

September 25, 2018 Leave a comment

Been late posting some El Perico stories I had publsihed in July and August 2018. This is one of them.

 

Omaha Storm Chasers part of Minor League Baseball push to cultivate Latino market

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico (el-perico.com)

 

 

 

Baseball has long been an international sport. Its deep roots throughout Asia, Latin America, South America,Canada, Mexico, and Puerto Rico are well reflected in minor and major league team rosters in the United States.

To see this Latin influence, look no further than the Triple A Omaha Storm Chasers. The current roster includes players with the surnames Torres, Lopez, Arteage, Villegas, San Miguel, and Hernandez. Others, including top prospect Adalberto Mondesi, have been with the club in 2018. Two key players with the parent Kansas City Royals, Salvador Perez and Paulo Orlando, served rehab assignments here earlier this summer.

The emergence of Latino players – they comprise 27 percent of MLBers today compared to 14 percent in 1988 – has happened as America’s Latino population has exploded. Professional baseball knows that to stay relevant to diverse audiences, it must market the game to growing minority segments represented on the field. Thus, in 2017 Minor League Baseball initiated the Copa de la Diversión series or Fun Cup in celebration of Hispanic culture. Four franchises test-marketed the series. This year, 33 franchises are participating, including the Storm Chasers.

Teams designate select home dates as Copa games featuring Hispanic-themed uniforms and names, special community guests, and traditional cultural food, music, and dancing. For Copa, the Storm Chasers become Cazadores de Tormentas at Werner Park. The team played as the Cazadores on June 7, June 21 and July 21 and will close out the Copa series as the Cazadores on Thursday, August 2 at 7:05 p.m., playing against Las Vegas.

Showing off Latin roots and playing before Spanish-speakers is “fun”, according to Chasers utility player Jack Lopez. The Puerto Rico native added, “It’s an honor to be able to participate. Representing our countries is something we take pride in.”

Rosendo Robles will sing the national anthem prior to the start of the August 2 game. A post-game celebration concert will feature performers Marcos & Sabor, Alexis Arai and Premo el Negociante.

Chasers General Manager Martie Cordaro said his organization is focused on cultivating the Hispanic market here moving forward.

“This is a long play for us that’s based in community as we create and make relationships. The long play is this is a growing population nationally and specifically here in the metro area. We want them to look at us just like they do the Henry Doorly Zoo or Funplex or Pizza Machine or Cinco de Mayo. We want to be right there with their entertainment decisions.

“Sales is really secondary to what we’re doing right now. It’s not just another immediate promotion to sale tickets. We hired a staff member specifically for the community outreach it entails.”

Venezuela native Jhonnathan Omaña, a former Montreal Expos prospect and longtime Omaha resident, was hired in January as the club’s first multicultural marketing lead.

After years of experience in marketing, customer service, and promotions, Omaña enjoys being back in baseball using his bilingual and community relations skills.

“I have the opportunity to see baseball behind the scenes, in the front office, to make connections with the community and to facilitate interactions between the players and coaches and the fans. We’re reaching out to community businesses, nonprofit organizations, and schools, and we’re at different events. I get the chance to see baseball from a whole different perspective. That’s what really attracted me the most about this position.”

Baseball runs deep in his heritage.

“I’m from a country where baseball is big. Baseball has been in our family a long time and is a big part of our family.”

His grandfather Lucindo Caraballo was a legendary player with Los Leones del Caracas and is a candidate for Venezuela’s national baseball hall of fame. Omaña was talented enough to get a look by the Expos. A younger brother played community college ball in Nebraska.

Omaña sees his job as building on the goodwill the franchise has established in its 50 years in Omaha.

“The relationship with the Hispanic community was already there,” he said. “I’m just contributing to making that relationship stronger.”

GM Cordaro acknowledged more needed to be done before Copa.

“I don’t think traditionally minor league baseball has done all it could to target all demographics,” he said. “Minor league baseball is a great sport. It draws 42 million fans a year – outdrawing the NFL and NBA combined – but there are additional groups and demographics we’re not directly speaking or had not been to prior to the Copa program.”

“I think this is an opportunity to say, yes, we are the community’s ballclub, not just the traditional baseball fans’ ballclub. I think what the Copa program does is to be a little more inviting, a little more welcoming. That’s really what Jjonathan [Omaña] has been tasked with,” GM Cordaro said.

Baseball and Soul Food at Omaha Rockets Kanteen

June 23, 2017 2 comments

Baseball and Soul Food at Omaha Rockets Kanteen

Story by Leo Adam Biga

Photography by Sarah Lemke

Originally published in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/articles/baseball-and-soul-food/_)

 

When baseball still ruled as the national pastime, Omaha showcased the game’s still prevalent but loosening black-white divide. In 1947, the year Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier, the barnstorming Omaha Rockets began to play. In an era when entire leagues and teams were drawn along racial lines, the all-black Rockets faced both segregated and integrated foes. A few Rockets went on to make history or gain fame. Most faded into obscurity.

Although the Rockets were not formally in the Negro National League, an association of teams made famous by Satchel Paige and Buck O’Neil, the Rockets were an independent semi-pro farm club of the league’s famous Kansas City Monarchs.

The Omaha team even trained with the Monarchs. Three former K.C. players— Horatius Saunders, Mack Massingale, and James “Cool Papa” Bell—variously managed the club.

Donald Curry pays homage to this black baseball history at his Omaha Rockets Kanteen. The soul food eatery inside the Lake Point Building (at 24th and Lake streets) is packed with memorabilia relating to black ballplayers and teams. Dedicated menu items include Octavius Cato’s Jerked Turkey Taco, the Willie Mays Soul Wrap, and Birmingham Black Baron Sweet Potato Pie.

Curry’s Southern Pitch soul food truck features the same concept.

The Omaha native operated similar-themed food businesses in Chicago, where he befriended ex-Negro Leaguers. One, Alvin Spearman, informed him of the Rockets. Curry knew Omaha was a stomping ground for the Monarchs. Learning that the city fielded a black team, which enjoyed close currency with the Monarchs, sweetened the pot and provided his current establishment’s name.

Curry says he’s created “a living memorial” to black owners, managers, and players in admiration of “their fortitude” pursuing professional baseball careers despite lacking the talent or opportunity to play higher-level organized ball. He likes the lessons imparted.

“They didn’t cry or complain about the situation,” he says. “Everyone goes through things, and everyone is denied certain things in life. But if you keep your head up and push forward, you can overcome those obstacles and succeed in what you set your mind to. They created their own leagues and styles of ball. Some of them became pretty well-off for that time.”

The vast majority of black ballplayers, just like their white counterparts, never played for a paycheck, but for love of the game. Whether competing for semi-pro, town or company baseball teams, or fast-pitch softball teams, they lived out their diamond dreams. 

Curry hopes to add Rockets’ materials to “the treasure trove” of signed photographs and other lore displayed at Kanteen. He may name some dishes after Rockets. Curry’s collection includes personal scrapbooks of Pittsburgh Crawfords legend Jimmie Crutchfield.

The team’s owner, Will Calhoun, launched the Rockets after he got the “baseball bug.” He rented out flats at 25th and Lake, which he generously called a hotel. Touring black athletes, denied by other establishments, stayed there. The Tyler, Texas, native and World War II veteran got into the game just as minor and major league strictures lifted and the Negro Leagues declined. Calhoun pressed on anyway, boasting, “I’ve got a little money. I know why so many of these teams failed. They tried to get by on a shoestring and didn’t have anything to offer the public.” He promised to “add a little more show to my Rockets.”

The Omaha World-Herald termed the Rockets his “noble experiment.”

The team made Legion Field in Council Bluffs its home park and barnstormed across Nebraska and into Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, and Colorado via its own bus. The club even went into Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Its opponents included town teams and other touring teams, such as House of David.

At least one Rocket, Kenny Morris, claimed local ties. The former standout Boys Town athlete played outfield and third base for the Rockets. Mickey Stubblefield, William McCrary, and Eugene Collins all spent time with the Rockets between moves up and down organized baseball. Stubblefield, a journeyman pitcher, became the first black in the Kitty League and among the first blacks in the Nebraska Independent League. He ended his career in McCook, Nebraska, where he raised a family of 10. He later moved to Atlanta, Georgia. In 2011 he returned as Grand Marshal of McCook’s “Heritage Days” festivities.

Dick “Night Train” Lane was a multi-sport star in his native Austin, Texas. He then moved north to live with his mother in Council Bluffs, where a baseball scout signed him to play for the Rockets. He played one year of football at Scottsbluff Junior College in Nebraska. After entering the U.S. Army and excelling on military teams, he signed with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and went on to a Hall of Fame career.

Teams like the Rockets faded as baseball popularity waned and televised sports cut into attendance. Ever the promoter, Calhoun paired his Rockets with the Minneapolis Clowns in 1950 to try and boost crowds.

The Rockets soon disbanded but Curry celebrates them within larger black athletics history. His Kanteen is now home to Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame displays.

His food, culled from family recipes, celebrates African-American cuisine—collard greens, cornbread dressing, red beans and rice, mac and cheese, candied yams—only prepared healthier. Smoked turkey, for example, replaces ham hocks. Olive oil replaces butter.

Curry takes seriously the Kanteen creed: “Enjoy the food, digest the history.”

“We might as well be a museum serving food,” he says.

Visit omaharocketskanteen.com for more information.

This article appears in the July/August issue of Omaha Magazine.

The series and the stadium: CWS and Rosenblatt are home to the Boys of Summer

June 25, 2016 1 comment

The College World Series has me all nostalgic for the way things were and by that I mean the CWS and Rosenblatt Stadium enjoying a long-lived marriage as the home to the Boys of Summer. It was a pairing that seemed destined to last decades more. My story here from 1998 appeared at the peak of CWS glory at The Blatt. It was coming on 50 years for this event and venue. But within a decade all the platitudes uttered by the NCAA and others about this match made in heaven began to erode and the business interests and metrics that control big-time college athletics erased any sentiment and moved forward with cold, calculated speed to a new CWS era. The powers that be abandoned Rosenblatt and made plans to develope the new TD Ameritrade ballpark in order to keep the series in Omaha because the Grand Old Lady, as Jack Payne refers to the vintage Blatt, was showing its age and could not accommodate fans in the manner the NCAA demanded. Of course, Omaha had already put put tens of millions of dollars into updating Rosenblatt to keep the series here. The city then spent much more than that again to build a new park to keep the series here. Those who said The Blatt had to go called it a relic and anachronism in an age of expansive stadiums with unobstructed views and wide concourses. There is no doubt that Rosenblatt’s guts were cramped, claustrophobic-inducing and offered limited or nonexistent views of the field from the concourse. Defenders cited the history, legacy, tradition and character of the old park that would be sacrificed, lost and irreplacable in a new venue. We all know what happened. But for a glorious run of more than half a century, The Blatt reigned supreme.

 

The series and the stadium: CWS and Rosenblatt are home to the Boys of Summer

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack,
I don’t care if I never get back.
Let me root, root, root for the home team,
If they don’t win, it’s a shame.
For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out,
At the old ball game.

It’s baseball season again, and The Boys of Summer are haunting diamonds across the land to play this quintessentially American game. One rooted in the past, yet forever new. As a fan put it recently, “With baseball, it’s the same thing all over again, but it isn’t. Do you know what I mean?”

Yes, there’s a timelessness about baseball’s unhurried rhythm, classic symmetry and simple charm. The game is steeped in rules and rituals almost unchanged since the turn of the century. It’s an expression of the American character, both immutable and enigmatic.

Within baseball’s rigid standards, idoosyncracy blooms. A nine-inning contest is decided when 27 outs are recorded and one team is ahead, but getting there can take anywhere from two to four hours or more. All sorts of factors, including weather delays, offensive explosions and multiple pitching changes, can extend a game. An extra inning game results when the two teams are tied after nine stanzas. The number of extra innings is limitless until one team outscores the other after both clubs have had their requisite turns at the plate. There are countless games on record that have gone 10, 11, 12 or more innings, sometimes upwards of 15 to 18 innings and some have even gone beyond these outlier limits to 20 or more innings,  when they become true marathon contests of will for players and fans alike. The hours and plays can add up to the point that you can’t remember all the action you just sat through and witnessed.

Stadiums may appear uniform but each has its own personality – with distinctive outfield, dimensions, wind patterns, sight lines, nooks and crannies. Balls play differently and carry differently in each park. The way the infield grass and dirt are maintained differs from park to park.  The way the pitcher’s mound and batter’s box are aligned differs, too.

Look in any almost American town and you’ll find a ballpark with deep ties to the sport and its barnstorming, sandlot origins. A shrine, if you will, for serious fans who savor old-time values and traditions. The real thing. Such a place is as near as Omaha’s Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium, the site the past 49 years of the annual College World Series.

The city and the stadium have become synonomous with the NCAA Division I national collegiate baseball championship. No other single location has hosted a major NCAA tournament for so long. More than 4 million fans have attended the event in Omaha since 1950.

This year’s CWS is scheduled for May 29-June 6.

 

 

Rosenblatt Stadium
Rosenblatt Stadium - 2004 College World Series
The exterior of Rosenblatt Stadium
Approaching Rosenblatt Stadium on 13th Street

 

 

The innocence and the memories

In what has been a troubled era for organized ball, Rosenblatt reaffirms what is good about the game. There, far away from the distraction of Major League free-agency squabbles, the threat of player and umpire strikes, and the posturing of superstars, baseball, in its purest form, takes center stage. Hungry players still hustle and display enthusiasm without making a show of it. Sportsmanship still abounds. Booing is almost never heard during the CWS. Fights are practically taboo.

The action unwinds with lesiurely grace. The”friendly confines” offer the down home appeal of a state fair. Where else but Omaha can the PA announcer ask fans to “scooch in a hair more” and be obliged?

Undoubtedly, the series has been the stadium’s anchor and catalyst. In recent years, thanks in part to ESPN-CBS television coverage, the CWS has become a hugely popular event, regularly setting single game and series attendance records. The undeniable appeal, besides the determination of the players, is a chance to glimpse the game’s upcoming stars. Fans at Rosenblatt have seen scores of future big league greats perform in the tourney, including Mike Schmidt, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, Paul Molitor, Jimmy Key, Roger Clemens, Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle, Barry Bonds and Barry Larkin.

The stadium on the hill turns 50 this year. As large as the CWS looms in its history, it’s just one part of an impressive baseball lineage. For example, Rosenblatt co-hosted the Japan-USA Collegiate Baseball Championship Series in the ’70s and ’80s, an event that fostered goodwill by matching all-star collegians from each country.

Countless high school and college games have been contested between its lines and still are on occasion.

Pro baseball has played a key role in the stadium’s history as well.

Negro Leagues clubs passed through in its early years. The legendary Satchel Paige pitched there for the Kansas City Monarchs. Major League teams played exhibitions at Rosenblatt in the ’50s and ’60s. St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Stan Musial “killed one” during an exhibition contest.

For all but eight of its 50 years Rosenblatt has hosted a minor league franchise. The Cardinals and Dodgers once based farm clubs there. Native son Hall of Famer Bob Gibson got his start with the Omaha Cardinals in ’57. Since ’69 Rosenblatt’s been home to the Class AAA Omaha Royals, the top farm team of the parent Kansas City Royals. More than 7 million fans have attended Omaha Royals home games. George Brett, Frank White and Willie Wilson apprenticed at the ballpark.

With its rich baseball heritage, Rosenblatt has the imprint of nostalgia all over it. Anyone who’s seen a game there has a favorite memory. The CWS has provided many. For Steve Rosenblatt, whose late father Johnny led the drive to construct the stadium that now bears his name, the early years held special meaning. “The first two years of the series another boy and I had the privilege of being the first bat boys. We did all the games. That was a great thrill because it was the beginning of the series, and to see how it’s grown today is incredible. They draw more people today in one session than they drew for the entire series in its first year or two.”

For Jack Payne, the series’ PA announcer since ’64, “the dominant event took place just a couple years ago when Warren Morris’ two-run homer in the bottom of the ninth won the championship for LSU in ’96. He hit a slider over the right field wall into the bleachers. That was dramatic. Paul Carey of Stanford unloaded a grand slam into the same bleacher area back in ’87 to spark Stanford’s run to the title.”

 

Jack Payne

 

Terry Forsberg

 

Payne, a veteran sports broadcaster who began covering the Rosenblatt beat in ’51, added, “There’s been some great coaching duels out there. Dick Siebert at Minnesota and Rod Dedeaux at USC had a great rivalry. They played chess games out there. As far as players, Dave Winfield was probably the greatest athlete I ever saw in the series. He pitched. He played outfield. He did it all.”

Terry Forsbeg, the former Omaha city events manager under whose watch Rosenblatt was revamped, said, “Part of the appeal of the series is to see a young Dave Winfield or Roger Clemens . Players like that just stick out, and you know they’re going to go somewhere.” For Forsberg, the Creighton Bluejays’ Cinderella-run in the ’91 CWS stands out. “That was a reall thrill, particularly when they won a couple games. You couldn’t ask for anything more.” The Creighton-Wichita State game that series, a breathtaking but ultimately heartbreaking 3-2 loss in 12 innings suffered by CU, is considered an all-time classic.

Creighton’s CWS appearance, the first and only by an in-state school, ignited the Omaha crowd. Scott Sorenson, a right-handed pitcher on that Bluejays squad, will never forget the electric atmosphere. “It was absolutely amazing to be on a hometown team in an event like that and to have an entire city pulling for you,” he said. “I played in a lot of ballparks across the nation, but I never saw anything like I did at Rosenblatt. I still get that tingling feeling whenever I’m back there.”

A game that’s always mentioned is the ’73 USC comeback over Minnesota. The Gophers’ Winfield was overpowering on the mound that night, striking out 15 and hurling a shutout into the ninth with his team ahead 7-0. But a spent Winfield was chased from the mound and the Trojans completed a storybook eight-run last inning rally to win 8-7.

Poignant moments aboud as well. Like the ’64 ceremony renaming the former Municpal Stadium for Johnny Rosenblatt in recognition of his efforts to get the stadium built and bring the CWS to Omaha. A popular ex-mayor. Rosenblatt was forced to resign from office after developing Parkinson’s disease and already suffered from its effects at the rededication. He died in ’79. Another emotional moment came in ’94 when cancer-ridden Arizona State coach Jim Brock died only 10 days after making his final CWS appearance. “That got to me,” Payne said.

Like many others, Payne feels the stadium and tourney are made for each other. “It’s always been a tremendous place to have a tournament, and fortunately there was room to grow. I don’t think you could have picked a finer facility at a better location, centrally located like it is, than Rosenblatt. It’s up high. The field’s big. The stadium’s spacious. It’s just gorgeous. And the people have just kept coming.”

Due to its storied link to the CWS the stadium’s become the unofficial home of collegiate baseball. So much so that CWS boosters like Steve Rosenblatt and legendary ex-USC coach Rod Dedeaux would like to see a college baseball-CWS hall of fame established there.

Baseball is, in fact, why the stadium was built. The lack of a suitable ballpark sparked the formation of a citizens committee in ’44 that pushed for the stadium’s construction. The committee was an earlier version of the recently disbanded Sokol Commission that led the drive for a new convention center-arena. With the goal of putting the issue to a citywide vote, committee members campaigned hard for the stadium at public meetings and in smoke-filled back rooms. Backers got their wish when, in ’45, voters approved by a 3 to 1 margin a $480,000 bond to finance the project.

Unlike the controversy surrounding the site for a convention center-arena today, the 40-acre tract chosen for the stadium was widely endorsed. The weed-strewn hill overlooking Riverview Park (the Henry Doorly Zoo today) was located in a relatively undeveloped area and lay unused itself except as prime rabbit hunting territory. Streetcars ran nearby just as trolleys may in the near future. The site was also dirt cheap. The property had been purchased by the city a few years earlier for $17 at a tax foreclosure sale. Back taxes on the land were soon retired.

Dogged by high bids, rising costs and material delays, the stadium was finished in ’48 only after design features were scaled back and a second bond issue passed. The final cost exceeded $1 million.

Baseball launched the stadium at its October 17, 1948 inaugural when a group of all-stars featuring native Nebraskan big leaguers beat a local Storz Brewery team 11-3 before a packed house of 10,000 fans.

Baseball has continued to be the main drawing card. The growth of the CWS prompted the stadium’s renovation and expansion, which began in earnest in the early ’90s and is ongoing today.

 

Rosenblatt Stadium main scoreboardA new look

Rosenblatt is at once a throwback to a bygone era – with its steel-girded grandstand and concrete concourse – and a testament to New Age theme park design with its Royal Blue molded facade, interlaced metal truss, fancy press box and luxury View Club. The theme park analogy is accentuated by its close proximity to the Henry Doorly Zoo.

Some have suggested the new bigness and brashness have stolen the simple charm from the place.

“Maybe some of that charm’s gone now,” Terry Forsberg said, “but we had to accommodate more people as the CWS got popular. But we still play on real grass under the stars. The setting is still absolutely beautiful. You can still look out over the fences and see what mid-America is all about.”

Jack Payne agrees. “I don’t think it’s taken away from any of the atmosphere or ambience,” he said. “If anything, I think it’s perpetuated it. The Grand Old Lady, as I call it, has weathered many a historical moment. She’s withstood the battle of time. And then in the ’90s she got a facelift, so she’s paid her dues in 50 years. Very much so.”

Perched atop a hill overlooking the Missouri River and the tree-lined zoo, Rosenblatt hearkens back to baseball’s, and by extension, America’s idealized past. It reminds us of our own youthful romps in wide open spaces. Even with the stadium expansion, anywhere you sit gives you the sense you can reach out and touch its field of dreams.

NCAA officials, who’ve practically drawn the blueprint for the new look Rosenblatt, know they have a gem here.

“I think part of the reason why the College World Series will, in 1999, celebrate its 50th year in Omaha is because of the stadium we play in, and the fact that it is a state-of-the-art facility,” said Jim Wright, NCAA director of statistics and media coordinator for the CWS the past 20 years.

Wright believes there is a casual quality that distinguishes the event.

 

The press box at Omaha's Rosenblatt StadiumA feeling

“Almost without exception writers coming to this event really do become taken with the city, with the stadium and with the laidback way the championship unfolds,” he said. “It has a little bit different feel to it, and certainly part of that is because we’re in Omaha, which has a lot of the big city advantages without having too many of the disadvantages.”

For Dedeaux, who led the Trojans to 10 national titles and still travels from his home in Southern California to attend the series, the marriage of the stadium-city-event makes for a one-of-a-kind experience.

“I love the feeling of it. The intimacy. Whenever I’m there I think of all the ball games but also the fans and the people associated with the tournament, and the real hospitable feeling they’ve always had. I think it’s touched the lives of a lot of people,” he said.

Fans have their own take on what makes baseball and Rosenblatt such a good fit. Among the tribes of fans who throw tailgate parties in the stadium’s south lot is Harold Webster, an Omaha tailored clothing salesman. While he concedes the renovation is “nice,” he notes, “The city didn’t have to make any improvements for me. I was here when it wasn’t so nice. I just love being at the ballpark. I’m here for the game.” Not the frills, he might have added.

For Webster and fans like him, baseball’s a perennial rite of summer. “To me, it’s the greatest thing in the world. I don’t buy season tickets to anything else – just baseball.”

Mark Eveloff, an associate judge in Council Bluffs, comes with his family. “We always have fun because we sit in a large group of people we all know. You get to see a lot of your friends at the game and you get to see some good baseball. I’ve been coming to games here since I was a kid in the late ’50s, when the Omaha Cardinals played. And from then to now, it’s come a long way. Every year it looks better.”

Ginny Tworek is another fan for life. “I’ve been coming out here since I was 8 years-old,” the Baby Boomer said. “My dad used to drop me and my two older brothers off at the ballpark. I just fell in love with the game. It’s a relaxing atmosphere.”

There is a Zen quality to baseball. With its sweet, meandering pace you sometimes swear things are moving in slow motion. It provides an antidote to the hectic pace outside.

Baseball isn’t the whole story at Rosenblatt. Through the ’70s it hosted high school (as Creighton Prep’s home field), college (Omaha University-University of Nebraska at Omaha) and pro football (Omaha Mustangs and NFL exhibition) games as well as pro wrestling cards, boxing matches and soccer contests. Concerts filled the bill, too, including major shows by the Beach Boys in ’64 and ’79. But that’s not all. It accommodated everything from the Ringling Brothers Circus to tractor pulls to political rallies to revival meetings. More recently, Fourth of July fireworks displays have been staged there. Except for the annual fireworks show, the city now reserves the park for none but its one true calling, baseball, as a means of protecting its multimillion dollar investment.

 

The Desert Dome looms behind Rosenblatt StadiumMaintaining excellence

“We made a commitment to the Omaha Royals and to the College World Series and the NCAA that the stadium would be maintained at a Major League level. The new field is farily sensitive. We don’t want to hurt the integrity of the field, so we made the decision to just play baseball there,” Omaha public events manager Larry Lahaie said.

A new $700,000 field was installed in 1991-92, complete with drainage and irrigation systems. Maintaining the field requires a groundskeeping crew whose size rivals that of some big league clubs.

Omaha’s desire to keep the CSW has made the stadium a priority. As the series begain consistenly drawing large crowds in the ’80s, the stadium experienced severe growing pains. Parking was at a premium. Traffic snarls drew loud complaints. To cope with overflow crowds, officials placed fans on the field’s cinder warning track. The growing media corps suffered inside a hot, cramped, outdated press box. With the arrival of national TV coverage in the ’80s, the NCAA began fielding bids from other cities wanting to host the CWS.

In the late ’80s Omaha faced a decision – improve Rosenblatt or lose the CWS. There was also the question of whether the city would retain the Royals. In the ’90s the club’s then owner, Irving “Gus” Cherry, was shopping the franchise around. There was no guarantee a buyer would be found locally, or if one was, whether the franchise would stay. To the rescue came an unlikely troika of Union Pacific Railroad, billionaire investor Warren Buffett and Peter Kiewit Son’s Inc. chairman Walter Scott Jr. , who together purchased the Royals in 1991.

Urged on by local organizers, such as Jack Diesing Sr. and Jr., and emboldened by the Royals new ownership the city anteed-up and started pouring money into Rosenblatt to rehab it according to NCAA specifications. The city has financed the improvements through private donations and from revenue derived from a $2 hotel-motel occupancy tax enacted in ’91.

 

The Beach Boys in concert at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha. RUDY SMITH/THE WORLD-HERALD:

The Beach Boys in concert at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha. RUDY SMITH/THE WORLD-HERALD

 

 

A carnival or fair atmposphere

The makeover has transformed what was a quaint but antiquated facility into a modern baseball palace. By the time the latest work (to the player clubhouses, public restrooms  and south pavilion) is completed next year, more than $20 million will have been spent on improvements.

The stadium itself is now an attraction. The retro exterior is highlighted by an Erector Set-style center truss whose interlocking, cantilevered steel beams, girders and columns jig-jag five stories high.

Then there’s the huge mock baseball mounted on one wall, the decorative blue-white skirt around the facade, the slick script lettering welcoming you there and the fancy View Club perched atop the right-field stands. The coup de grace is the spacious, thatched-roof press box spanning the truss.

Rosenblatt today is a chic symbol of stability and progress in the blue collar South Omaha neighborhood it occupies. It is also a hub of activity that energizes the area. On game days lawn picnics proceed outside homes along 13th Street and tailgate parties unwind in the RV and minivan-choked lots. The aroma of grilled sausage, bratwurst and roasted peanuts fills the air. A line invariably forms at nearby Zesto’s, an eatery famous for its quick comfort food.

There’s a carnival atmosphere inside the stadium. The scoreboard above the left-field stands is like a giant arcade game with its flashing lights, blaring horns, dizzying video displays and fireworks. Music cascades over the crowd – from prerecorded cuts of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and the Village People’s “YMCA” to organist Lambert Bartak’s live renditions of “Sioux City Sioux” and “Spanish Eyes.” Casey the Mascot dances atop the dugouts. Vendors hawk an assortment of food, drink and souvenirs. Freshly-scrubbed ushers guide you to your seat.

The addition that’s most altered the stadium is the sleek , shiny, glass-enclosed View Club. It boasts a bar, a restaurant, a south deck, a baseball memorabilia collection, cozy chairs and, naturally, a great catbird’s seat for watching the game from any of its three tiered-seating levels.

But you won’t catch serious fans there very long. The hermetically-sealed, soundproof interior sucks the life right out of the game, leaving you a remote voyeur. Removed from the din of the crowd, the ballyhoo of the scoreboard, the enticing scent of fresh air and the sound of a ball connecting with leather, wood or aluminum, you’re cut off from the visceral current running through the grandstand. You miss its goosebump thrills. “That’s the bad thing about it,” Tworek said. “You can’t hear the crack of the bat. You don’t pay as close attention to the game there.”

 

When Rosenblatt was Municipal Stadium. At the first game, from left:  Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.:

©Omaha World-Herald

When Rosenblatt was Municipal Stadium. At the first game, from left: Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.

 

Baseball’s internal rhythms bring fans back

Even with all the bells and whistles, baseball still remains the main attraction. The refurbished Rosenblatt has seen CWS crowds go through the roof, reaching an all-time single series high of 204,000 last year. The Royals, bolstered by more aggressive marketing, have drawn 400,000-plus fans every year but one since ’92. Fans have come regardless of the won-loss record. The top single season attendance 447,079 came in ’94, when the club finished eight games under .500 and in 6th place.

Why? Fans come for the game’s inherent elegance, grace and drama. To see a well-turned double play, a masterful pitching performance or a majestic home run. For the chance of snaring a foul ball. For the traditional playing of the national anthem and throwing out of the first pitch. For singing along to you-know-what during the seventh inning stretch.

They come too for the kick back convivality of the park, where getting a tan, watching the sun set or making new friends is part of the bargain. There is a communal spirit to the game and its parks. Larry Hook, a retired firefighter, counts Tworek among his “baseball family,” a group of fans he and his grandson Nick have gotten acquainted with at the Blatt. “It’s become a regular meeting place for us guys and gals,” he said. “We talk a little baseball and watch a little baseball. Once the game’s over everybody goes their separate ways and we say, ‘See ya next home stand.'”

The season’s end brings withdrawl pains. “About the first couple months, I’m lost,” Hook said. “There’s nothing to look forward to.” Except the start of next season.

As dusk fell at Rosenblatt once recent night, Charles and Stephanie Martinez , a father and daughter from Omaha, shared their baseball credo with a visitor to their sanctuary above the third-base dugout. “I can never remember not loving baseball,” said Charles, a retired cop. “I enjoy the competition, the players and the company of the people I’m surrounded by.”

Serious fans like these stay until the final out. “Because anything can happen,” Stephanie said. “I like it because it’s just so relaxed sitting out on a summer day. There’s such an ease to it. Part of it’s also the friends you make at the ballpark. It doesn’t matter where you go – if you sit down with another baseball fan, you can be friends in an instant.”

That familiar welcoming feeling may be baseball’s essential appeal.

Coming to the ballpark, any ballpark, is like a homecoming. Its sense of reunion and renewal, palpable. Rosenblatt only accentuates that feeling.

Like a family inheritance, baseball is passed from one generation to the next. It gets in your blood.

So, take me out to the ball game, take me out to the crowd…

 
 
 
 

A Kansas City Royals reflection

June 1, 2016 1 comment

 

 

A Kansas City Royals reflection

©by Leo Adam Biga


It warms my heart that my Kansas City Royals defy the cold calculations of this digitized, meta-metrics age that’s come to define the way team sports get measured these days. You see, the Royals win in spite of faring poorly in analytic forecasting, and that makes the people for whom these statistical tendencies and barometers truly serve – the gambling industry – mad. KC wins in spite of hitting relatively few home runs, scoring at a less than robust average, getting rare quality starts from its pitchers and lacking even a single superstar on its roster. The Royals win in spite of being a small market franchise with comparatively meager financial resources at its disposal. The Royals win because, well, they are winners and that is not something that can be broken down into data bytes except for wins and losses, divisional finishes, league championships and World Series titles. KC does most all of the little things right that have come to be associated with small ball – manufacturing runs by getting bunts, taking walks, advancing runners, sacrificing, hustling. They also play solid defense at every spot on the diamond and in the outfield. When the Royals are right, they play station to station team ball like no one else in today’s game, though more times than you might imagine they are also capable of keeping the line moving with hit after hit, baserunner after baserunner, enroute to big innings. They put consistent pressure on opponents until foes bend and ultimately break. If the Royals get the lead on you early or if they stay within striking distance late, they have more than enough firepower among their position players and bullpen to close the door and lock up the win or to rally and go ahead, as the situation demands. They may not be a great team in the annals of The Show and in fact these Royals may not even be as strong as the franchise’s glory years teams from 1975 through 1985, but they are consistently excellent four years running now. Should they win another division title and make a third consecutive World Series, then they are firmly in the conversation of a dynasty in our midst. What makes it all so satisfying is that the core of the club is essentially intact during this span and many of the most valuable players on this ride came up together through the KC farm system. Those that were added by trades have been part of the MLB journey to success for the full duration. The Royals may be just one more strong starting pitcher and one more run producer away from writing their ticket to another world title and assuring this bunch a measure of all-time greatness. Best of all, the Roayls are still fairly young and may be looking at another two or three or four or more years of contention. Don’t bother trying to add the numbers up to explain why the Royals are able to do what they do because you can’t quantify grit, energy, determination, desire, camaraderie and teamwork. The Royals are the epitome of guys who come through in the clutch no matter what the stats read. The numbers won’t show you a line for haivng character through advertisity or breaking the will of opponents. Of course, it’s not as if the Royals are without mega talent. The draft and farm system began stockpiling and developing elite prospects going back a decade. It took awhile for the potential to reach maturation and to show results. Each year of this four year run of results has been a different story. The Royals began to live up to their ballyhooed promise in 2013 but still had too many gaps to fill to fully emerge a top tier club. They broke through to the upper echelon and to the post-season in 2014, when they surprised everyone by reaching the World Series. Thet were arguably the better team than the Giants in that W.S. but just couldn’t overcome a certain ace. They were pretty much wire to wire leaders in 2015, when several Royals enjoyed career years, and KC fairly dominated the post season on through to a W.S. title. This season, several of those same players got off to miserable starts. Then came a rash of injuries. Manager Ned Yost and his gang of coaches and his band of brothers players have stayed the course, changed out some parts, and just like the last two years, made true on the next man up credo by plugging in guys who get the job done. So far so good. Two weeks ago or so KC struggled to do much of anything right and seemed in danger of being left out of the race before it began. Now the team has hit its stride and KC finds itself in first place. Nothing is guaranteed with so much season left to go but the team sure has the look of a contender and a champion again. The stats tell you they shouldn’t be doing this but ignore the metrics where the Royals are concerned and go with your heart. That’s what they do and it’s working out just fine.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibits on display for the College World Series; In bringing the shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum announces it’s back

May 17, 2012 13 comments

Negro League Baseball MuseumNEGRO LEAGUES BASEBALL MUSEUM

 

 

Black baseball will get its due this spring in Omaha, the home of the College World Series and the Triple AAA Omaha Storm Chasers, when three exhibitions from the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. show here.  The presenting organization bringing the exhibits to town is  Omaha’s own Great Plains Black History Museum, a long troubled institution that’s made a rebound under its new president and board and that with this coup is announcing that it’s back.  If you’re interested in reading more about the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and its late co-founder and goodwill ambassador, Buck O’Neil, you’ll find stories I wrote about each on this blog.  You’ll also find stories on the blog about the Great Plains Black History Museum, the College World Series, and the former CWS home venue, Rosenblatt Stadium.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum exhibits on display for the College World Series;

In bringing the shows to Omaha the Great Plains Black History Museum announces it’s back

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Three traveling baseball exhibitions on view in the metro this spring chart a history with local overtones and signals a comeback for a local organization. The exhibits are courtesy of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Omaha’s own Great Plains Black History Museum is presenting the photo shows at family-friendly venues.

The exhibits are happening in the heat of the baseball season, too. The last few weeks of their run coincide with the College World Series.

The history of black baseball is told in Discover Greatness and the life and times of Kansas City Monarchs player-manager Buck O’Neil, who co-founded the Negro Leagues museum and served as its goodwill ambassador, is celebrated in Baseball’s Heart and Soul. Both exhibits show May 20 through June 26 at Conestoga Magnet School, 2115 Burdette Street, in the heart of Omaha’s black community.

Conestoga’s an apt host site as Negro leagues teams barnstormed through North Omaha, sometimes playing exhibitions with the Omaha Rockets, a semi-pro black independent club. The Monarchs and other Negro leagues teams stayed at black boarding and rooming houses in North O, including one operated by Von Trimble’s parents. Trimble says he has fond memories of meeting legends Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, playing catch with them in his yard, riding with them to the ballpark on the team bus, and sometimes sitting in the dugout during games.

Trimble’s expected to share his anecdotes on some future date at Conestoga.

Then, too, the school’s only a few blocks from the black museum’s long closed home, where artifacts from Omaha native and Cooperstown member Bob Gibson, who was offered by the Monarchs, were displayed.

A third exhibit, Times, Teams and Talent, offers an overview of the Negro leagues. It can be seen during eight Omaha Storm Chaser games May 17 through May 24 on the main concourse, behind section 114, at Werner Park, 12356 Ballpark Way in Papillion. That exhibit then moves to The Bullpen at the Omaha Baseball Village, adjacent to TD Ameritrade Park, for the June 15-26 CWS.

 

 

Kansas City Monarchs

Buck O’Neil and a bust of Josh Gibson at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Pittsburgh Crawfords
Intentional about having a strong youth focus, organizers recruited 36 youth ambassadors from 11 area schools, all but one in OPS, to be paid greeters and tour guides at Conestoga. An anonymous donor funded an April 30 motorcoach trip that 22 of the youth made to the Negro Leagues museum in Kansas City, Mo.

“We wanted to give our youth ambassadors some first hand knowledge about the exhibits and the museum,” says Beatty. “We wanted them to understand our level of commitment to them and the fact this is a serious effort  They got to tour the museum, to hear directly from its president, Bob Kendrick, and to receive some training from staff there. As an added bonus they got to meet two players from the latter years of the Negro Leagues.”

As an Omaha Public Schools administrator and product himself (1966 Omaha Central graduate), Jerry Bartee is pleased the district is heavily involved in showcasing the exhibits. He says when Beatty asked him to be the organizing committee’s honorary chair he couldn’t resist because of his own deep connections to baseball: he was scouted by none other than Buck O’Neil and went on to a short career in the minors.

“Obviously I love the game of baseball. I appreciate all the pioneers but particularly the African-American players that paved the way for future generations, including my own,” Bartee says. “Negro Leagues baseball was really a rallying point for black America and brought a sense of pride to the black community.

“The historical value of it all is immeasurable. I am so pleased the Omaha Public Schools is a partner in this endeavor.  What we hope to accomplish with all this is for parents and grandparents to talk about these times with their children and grandchildren.”

Jim Beatty

 

 

Conestoga long ago expressed interest in supporting the museum, so when Beatty asked the school to be a host site, principal David Milan quickly agreed. Milan says the museum serves an “important” function sharing the history of African-Americans in Omaha and beyond. Besides, he says, “the Negro leagues served a great purpose in history and the story needs to be told.”

The exhibits are in Omaha as the result of collaborations the Great Plains Black museum has undertaken with the Negro Leagues museum, OPS  the Mayor’s Office, Douglas County and private enterprise. After a decade of well-publicized struggles the organization has a new board led by Beatty and new life that’s seeing it do programming after years of dormancy.

Beatty and Co. received grant funding and in-kind support from multiple sources to bring the exhibits here, including Werner Enterprises transporting the materials for free. It’s also a case of two black organizations helping each other, as the Kansas City museum endured its own struggles after O’Neil passed in 2006 and it’s only recently rebounded under Kendrick.

Kendrick and Beatty say they’ve struck a long-term agreement to bring Negro Leagues museum exhibits here annually around CWS time.

“This is a multi-year commitment,” Beaty says, adding, “We’re very excited about that.”

 

Werner Park

Fan Fest and Omaha Baseball Village with TD Ameritrade Park in the background

 

 

“It’s important for us to have these kinds of partnership relations and bridges with other cultural institutions,” says Kendrick. “It’s going to be great for the museum to have that exposure in Omaha. We’re excited about expanding this partnership. This is not a one-and-done thing. We’re looking forward to many years of working side- by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with this great organization.

“I think one of the most important aspects of this whole collaboration is the intimate involvement of young people, empowering them not only to learn about Negro leagues history but employing them to share this history with the general public.”

“This is a growth opportunity for the kids,” says Beatty.

At a February press conference Beatty stood alongside Kendrick, Bartee, Mayor Jim Suttle, Omaha City Councilman Ben Gray and Douglas County Commissioner Chris Rodgers in a show of solidarity Omaha’s black museum hasn’t enjoyed before.

“The museum is trying to reestablish and reassert itself and we wanted to make a statement to the community that the Great Plains Black History Museum is back and we’re serious about our mission. Being able to pull something like this off and gather the support needed is a clear signal to civic, community and business leaders that the museum board is serious about its role. This project is a significant and great example of the commitment.

“The museum has been a series of false starts and we’re trying to put that in the rear view mirror. There’s been too many words passed by the museum and not effort put forth of a substantial nature. Hopefully this will show the community one more effort we’re doing among others.”

 

Leonardo Daniels Jr. greets people at the door of the transformed gymnasium at Conestoga Magnet School. (Photo by Angel Martin)

A collection of three exhibits from Kansas City, MO are now on display through June 26th in North Omaha. (Photo by Angel Martin)

 

Those efforts include organizing a History Harvest with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and co-sponsoring an April 12 talk by author Isabel Wilkerson. The museum had its collections stored and cataloged by the Nebraska State Historical Society. Consulting historians continue working with the collections. The museum’s commissioned J. Gregg Smith Inc. to do a strategic planning process that Beatty says “will give us the definition we need to go forth from an exhibit, programming and facility standpoint.”

Kendrick’s impressed the Omaha museum is doing programming despite not having a workable site of its own.

“Even though right now they don’t have a functioning building they are demonstrating their viability by creating this meaningful opportunity to expose the citizens of Omaha and visitors to the College World Series to the rich history of Negro leagues ball. I think it speaks volumes to their mindset as an institution, to the direction they want to go, and to the inherent value of what they represent.”

For exhibit days, hours and admission, call 402-572-9292 or visit http://www.gpblackmuseum.org.

Steve Rosenblatt: A legacy of community service, political ambition and baseball adoration

April 27, 2012 8 comments

Rosenblatt is a magical name in Omaha because of the popular mayor who belonged to it, the late Johnny Rosenblatt, who in his day was quite a ballplayer, and because of the municipal stadium whose construction he speerheaded.  That stadium was named after him and became home to the College World Series.  The subject of this story is his son Steve Rosenblatt, who inherited his father’s love for the game and followed the old man into politics.  Fabled Rosenblatt Stadium is no more, replaced by TD Ameritrade Park as host of the CWS.  The stadium, the series, and his honor the mayor are more than just tangential memories to Steve, they are lifeblood and legacy.

 

 

When Rosenblatt was Municipal Stadium. At the first game, from left: Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.:

 

At the first game, from left:  Steve Rosenblatt; Rex Barney; Bob Hall, owner of the Omaha Cardinals; Duce Belford, Brooklyn Dodgers scout and Creighton athletic director; Richie Ashburn, a native of Tilden, Neb.; Johnny Rosenblatt; and Johnny Hopp of Hastings, Neb.
©photo from the Steve Rosenblatt Collection

 

 

Steve Rosenblatt, A legacy of community service, political ambition and baseball adoration

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Jewish Press

 

Legacy plays a big part in Steve Rosenblatt’s life.

The Omaha native and his wife, the former Ann Hermen, live in Scottsdale, Ariz.

His late father, Johnny Rosenblatt, became an Omaha icon: first as a top amateur baseball player; than as a sponsor of youth athletic teams through the Roberts Dairy company he managed; and finally as a popular Omaha city councilman and mayor. The elder Rosenblatt, who served as mayor from 1954 to 1961, led efforts to build the south Omaha stadium that became the city’s home to professional baseball and to the College World Series.

The city he loved paid tribute to one of its greatest boosters when Omaha Municipal Stadium was renamed Johnny Rosenblatt Stadium in 1964. The venue and the name have become synonymous with the NCAA college baseball championship played continuously at the stadium since 1950.

In a classic case of the apple not falling far from the tree, Steve Rosenblatt was a ballplayer in his own right and served on the Omaha Chamber of Commerce Sports Commission and the Omaha Royals Advisory Board. He followed his father’s footsteps into politics as well, serving two terms on the city council and three terms on the Douglas County Board of Commissioners.

The stadium that’s forever associated with his father played a key role in Steve’s early life. He was a bat boy for the inaugural Omaha Cardinals game played there, a duty he performed the first years the CWS took up residence. He regrets that the facility so closely tied to his family will be razed after the 2010 CWS in line with the planned construction of a new downtown palace slated to host the Series beginning in 2011. But the pragmatic Rosenblatt knows the decision is driven by the bottom line, which trumps nostalgia every time.

Sports and politics are inheritances for Rosenblatt, who is an only child. Just as his father used sports and charisma to forge a political career, the son used his own passion for athletics and way with people to become a player on the local political scene and to find success as an entrepreneur.

 

 

 Steve Rosenblatt

 

 

Bearing a name that has such major import in Omaha could have been an issue for Rosenblatt, but he didn’t let it be.

“You can take that and make it a burden,” Rosenblatt said, “or you can take it and have it be an asset, and I wished to take that route.”

Comparisons between he and his father were inevitable. “That’s fine, because we weren’t the same. First of all, he was a better ballplayer than me,” he said with his dry wit. “I was a better golfer than he was. Basketball might have been a toss-up, except he played college basketball — I didn’t.”

Growing up, Rosenblatt couldn’t help but notice what made his father a strong mayor and the sacrifices that job entailed.

“I was aware obviously of it and I learned as time went on how he operated and how he did things. Of course it was intriguing. He was a people-person who had an ability to communicate and to have relationships with his constituency and to make the tough decisions and still maintain a tremendous popularity. He had what I would call a broad-based support. He was well liked all over the community and one of the things that contributed to that — and it was what also helped me — was the background he had in athletics. That benefited him as I think it benefited me.

“He was well known as an athlete long before he was well known as a public official and his abilities as an athlete helped to project him into places.”

Rosenblatt said his father epitomized the “It” factor politicos possess. “All the people you see serve in the public sector as elected officials have in my opinion an attribute that goes beyond the norm,” he said, “in that they have the ability to speak and to be received in a fashion that projects themselves as leaders.”

Being an accessible mayor means never really having any down time.

“What was difficult about it was the fact you learned early on there’s a price to be paid as well,” Rosenblatt said, “because obviously with my dad doing what he did he was not going to be with you doing the things you might like to be doing all the time. He had public obligations to take care of as an elected official.”

The level of commitment required to be an effective, responsible public servant was not enough to dissuade Rosenblatt from seeking a seat on the city council and later on the county board. Even with the cachet of his name, his strong base in the business community and a groundswell of support to make a mayoral bid he never seriously considered running for that office. The same for a Congressional seat.

“I really was never interested in it. It was not aspiring to me. I’m as much a people- person as my dad was but at the same time I’m much more private. You cannot in my opinion be an elected official at that level and be as private as I would have liked to be. I want to do the job I was elected to do and when the day is over I want to go to the golf course, be with my family, watch a ballgame. You can’t do that in certain areas because you’ve given up that right and that time by your election to a particular office.”

He said it all comes with the territory.

“Make no mistake about it, when a person is elected to office, even at the city level, the county level, there’s a sacrifice to be made,” he said. “People may not realize it at the time they do get in but they will find out. I found out and I knew how much I wanted to give and how much I didn’t.

“People thought I should have run for mayor. The thing that used to scare me about that thought was I might get elected. Then I’d have to go do it and, you see, I knew too much about what a mayor had to give up and to do to be successful. I could have done it. I think I could have done a good job at it but it was not appealing to me because my (golf) handicap would have gone up.”

He never discussed with his father prospects for a public life nor went to him for political advice.

“Not really,” he said. “I first got elected in ‘73 and he was stricken with Parkinson’s disease in the latter part of the ‘50s, so he was really not able, but he didn’t have to because I learned from him when he was healthy, vigorous and in office, so I’d already got the lessons.”

Even though he never planned for it, Rosenblatt said he always assumed he would gravitate to public service.

“Well, I’d always thought that as a son of a former mayor and as somebody who had learned that life that perhaps some day I might get involved. I knew how to operate, so to speak. Actually, the way it happened is former Mayor Eugene Leahy said to me one day, ‘Steve, you need to run for the city council — we need to get some new blood in there.’ I guess he kind of triggered the desire.”

At the time he declared his candidacy in 1972 Rosenblatt was a salesman with Sterling Distributing Company, an alcoholic beverage distributor. He’d done some college work at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Only his mind was more on baseball than higher education.

“I was only interested in athletics and still am to this day as a matter of fact. I really did not have the kind of plan that I would hope my kids would have. I was not academically a good student but I think you could say I was more attuned to the practicalities of life. You might say I was street smart…”

A three-year varsity letter-winner at Omaha Central, he tried to play ball at UNL, he said, “but academically I wasn’t taking care of business and physically I was too young to have an opportunity to be successful.”

While school was hardly a home run, his experience trying to cobble together a college baseball career given him priceless insights. He also gained much from his friendship with two coaching legends — Eddie Sutton and the late Rod Dedeaux.

“I’m fortunate to have been very close to two of the greatest coaches in the history of sports.”

Rosenblatt got to know Sutton when the then-Creighton University head basketball coach and his family moved across the street from Steve and his folks. The families remain close to this day. He got to know Dedeaux when the University of Southern California head baseball coach led his powerhouse clubs at the CWS.

“If I’d have known then what I learned from Rod I would have had a chance to have been a better baseball player,” he said, “but at the time I didn’t have that coaching-mentoring.”

The ability to evaluate talent and to weigh options has made Rosenblatt a kind of scout and adviser for promising young athletes, especially Jewish athletes.

“I’m helping kids to try to get situated within athletics. I had a young Jewish kid and his father from Scottsdale, Ariz. go to Omaha to try to help him get set up collegiately. I’m making calls to some baseball people trying to help a young Jewish kid in Omaha who’s a good ballplayer. People call me. People know that I kind of understand. I try to offer guidance to both the parents and the youngsters as to what could be in their best interests. That, to me, is fun.”

Rosenblatt said it’s not an accident he’s drawn to strong, charismatic men like his father. After losing Johnny in 1979 Rosenblatt drew even closer to Dedeaux.

“He also was a people-person and a great communicator,” Rosenblatt said of Dedeaux. “He learned the baseball business from one of the smartest men in the history of the game, a fella named Casey Stengel. That was his mentor. The two games he played in the major leagues Casey Stengel was the manager.”

By the time Rosenblatt owned his own business — a sales and distribution outfit for corrugated package containers better known as boxes — Dedeaux and he were like father and son. They were also business associates.

“He was not only a good friend but one of my biggest customers. He had a trucking company with warehousing and distribution divisions. Multiple operations. It was really big. Make no mistake, he was a baseball person, but he was also a phenomenon in the world of business.”

Rosenblatt parlayed his background in athletics by serving on the Chamber’s Sports Commission, which had a similar agenda as today’s Omaha Sports Commission.

“It was a matter of trying to do the things that make Omaha an attraction for new athletic environments,” he said.

He described his work on the Omaha Royals Advisory Board as “an opportunity for the Royals management to hear from people that are looking at the franchise from perhaps a different standpoint.” He’s still tight with the Royals today. “The general manager of the Royals, Martie Cordaro, is a good friend. I meet with him literally every time I go back to Omaha to talk about what they’re doing and how we can help them be successful.”

Those enduring ties to the Royals keep Rosenblatt informed on the Triple AAA club’s uneasy status in town. Principal owner Alan Stein is in ongoing negotiations with the Omaha Sports Commission and the Metropolitan Entertainment Convention Authority that will determine if the Royals strike a deal to play in the new downtown stadium or go play ball somewhere else. La Vista and Sarpy County are among the Royals’ in-state suitors and Stein indicates out state communities are courting the team as well. Like any good businessman, he’s playing the field.

“Well, I think he has to have that attitude,” Rosenblatt said. “I’ve met with Alan and Martie. I know what they’re thinking is. I’ve offered them my opinion of the situation. It will be interesting to see what develops.”

Steve’s personal connection to Rosenblatt Stadium and to the pro and college baseball tenants that have occupied it rather uneasily in recent years have put him in a Solomon-like position. He loves the CWS and how it’s grown to become a huge event garnering national media coverage. His long association with the Series and his deep affection for the figures who made it special give him a unique perspective. He knows players, coaches, local CWS organizers and NCAA officials.

He sat in on negotiations between the city and the NCAA as a city councilman. “The city was a cooperative partner with the private sector in the production, basically, of the College World Series,” he said. He played a similar oversight role as a county board member.

On the other hand he appreciates what the Royals offer the community and the compromises they’ve made to placate the city and the NCAA and the proverbial 900-pound gorilla that is the CWS. Just as he still talks with Royals officials, he bends the ear of NCAA officials, acting as a kind of intermediary between the two.

It all came to a head when the political hot potato of the new stadium proposed by Mayor Mike Fahey, and subsequently approved by the city council, sealed the fate of Rosenblatt Stadium. The new downtown stadium is being built expressly for the NCAA and the CWS. If the Royals do play there they’d be the ugly step-child who has to accept the leftovers from the favorite son.

Rosenblatt equates a Royals move from Omaha a loss.

“Well, I would because the original concept of the stadium that has Johnny’s name on it was not initially for the College World Series, it was for professional baseball,” he said, “Because of what has transpired with the emergence of the College World Series, it’s now created what I would refer to as an unfriendly situation for professional baseball. There’s no other professional baseball team in America that has a competitor in town called the College World Series. So it’s awkward.”

Even though he now takes an indirect role in such matters, he’s keeping a wary eye on the downtown stadium project, whose estimated $140 million price tag he considers overly optimistic. He predicts it will end up costing $175-$200 million once all the dust settles.

Like many Omahans he’s concerned that if the Royals don’t play at the new stadium and no minor league franchise is secured in their place, the venue will sit empty 50 weeks a year and not be the economic catalyst or anchor for NoDo it’s intended to be. This longtime proponent of a CWS hall of fame said the stadium would be an apt home for it and an Omaha sports hall of fame.

A CWS hall would acknowledge those who’ve excelled as players or coaches or been responsible for the Series’ success. While he doesn’t feel that venue would be much of a year-round draw he sees an Omaha sports museum as a turnstyle magnet “because so many great athletes have come out of Omaha. That would be very interesting, and if you could incorporate the two, that’s a helluva an idea.”

He also has a vested interest in seeing his father’s name live on in the new stadium.

“In my opinion that would be wise and appropriate given the lengthy association that that name has had with college and professional baseball in Omaha. Hopefully the powers that be will have his name connected in some way,” he said.

The stakes are rarely as high as they are with the stadium issue but he makes a practice of using sports as an ice breaker with people.

“Almost everything I’ve done business-wise, athletics has been a tool of taking care of business. My involvement in athletics is an invitation. If I happen to be calling on new customers and if they’re knowledgeable in athletics, then I’m going to get their business, because I can talk it. If they’re interested in the opera and the theater, I’m in trouble. So athletics is a great tool in communicating.”

Athletics and business were not his only finishing schools for a political life. He gained valuable leadership experience as a Nebraska Air National Guardsman and as chairman of the Midlands Chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society.

“That was a very rewarding opportunity,” he said. “Hopefully we did some good there. I had learned, of course, with my dad being afflicted with Parkinson’s and my mother being afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis how devastating that can be. Being associated with the Multiple Sclerosis Society gave me an opportunity to contribute and to try to help people…”

Community service motivated his entry into politics.

“You try to get elected in my opinion to help people who perhaps don’t have the ability to help themselves,” he said, “because everybody needs help. Having the ability to collectively help people is the thing that gives you the most pleasure.”

His political life has taught him some lessons. One is to be “leery” of any candidate who makes promises. “The fact of the matter is there’s very little individually they can do because it takes a collective effort to get something done,” he said. Any rhetoric about reducing taxes is just that. “That’s folly,” he said. “They’ll be lucky if they don’t have to raise taxes.”

His action on some issues elicits satisfaction all these years later. One involved the Orpheum Theatre. Omaha’s then-mayor, Ed Zorinsky, wanted it razed. Rosenblatt, a fellow Jew and key ally, went against Zorinsky to side with preservationists who wanted it restored. The conflict came down to a close city council vote.

“The Orpheum Theatre would not be around today if not for Steve Rosenblatt,” he said. “I felt an obligation to the people of the city of Omaha to ensure that it remained for the use down the road. I was the swing vote on that. If that vote goes the other way it’s gone.”

A controversial decision on his council-county board watch was demolishing Jobbers Canyon to make way for the downtown ConAgra campus. “It was an emotional issue,” he said. “I don’t make decisions based on much emotion. I try to make them based on what I think is right.” He said the project “was an absolute must because we as a community could not afford for ConAgra to go to Lincoln or somewhere out in the suburbs — one of the possibilities at the time. It needed to be downtown to be the initial thrust for the redevelopment of that area.”

He encouraged then-mayor Bernie Simon to have the city match a financial commitment the county was making for the project. The city did. He said, “One of the things I had going for me was having been on the city council I retained a great deal of working relationships with people at city hall. The ability to transcend the workings of city and county government was helpful on a variety of projects.”

He credits ex-mayors P.J. Morgan and Hal Daub with driving forward Omaha’s growth by continuing city-county cooperation and public-private sector synergy. Under current Mayor Mike Fahey Omaha’s makeover has been “phenomenal.”

If Rosenblatt and his wife have their way, they’ll eventually live in Omaha half the year. The Rosenblatt name could once again be center stage in the political arena.

Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City Offer a Living History Lesson about the National Pastime from a Black Perspective

August 27, 2011 1 comment

What follows is one of two cover stories I did on the late Negro Leagues Baseball legend Buck O’Neil. I earlier posted an O’Neil article I did for The Reader (www.thereader.com), and the story I’m posting here appeared in the New Horizons. Both pieces appeared in these Omaha publications mere months before O’Neil passed and were largely based on an interview I did with him in Kansas City at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum he was instrumental in founding. I found the gregarious O’Neil every bit as charming and enthusiastic in person as I saw him on television.

 

 

 

 

Buck O’Neil and the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City Offer a Living History Lesson aboutthe National Pastime from a Black Perspective

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons



Monuments of both the human and brick-and-mortar kind abound at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City, Mo., where the story of a vital but long neglected chapter in the national pastime’s history is told. The NLBM preserves a rich heritage alongside the American Jazz Museum it shares space with in a sleek modern facility of bold colors and designs. It’s only right the NLBM calls Kansas City home, as that city gave birth to the Negro leagues and for decades hosted one of the great black ball clubs — the Kansas City Monarchs.

KC is also the adopted home of Buck O’Neil, widely considered the elder statesman of the Negro leagues. An all-star player and manager with the Monarchs of the Negro National League, the 94-year-old O’Neil co-founded the museum, which opened in a much smaller facility in 1991. The present structure opened in 1997. The NLBM is located smack dab in the middle of the historic cultural hub of KC’s black community, the 18th and Vine District, a gentrified neighborhood of brick, circa-1900s buildings, that in its day featured a 24/7 promenade of people taking in the area’s many clubs, eateries and stores.

A short jaunt off the Paseo exit finds you on John Buck O’Neil Way, which traverses a mixed commercial-residential area of brownstone walk ups — the Jazz Hill Homes — and places of worship — St. Stephen Baptist Church, Paseo Baptist, Bethel AME Church — whose names signify black culture. You arrive at 18th and Vine, to find an Old Market-style environs surrounded by the Blue Room, the Historic Lincoln Building, the Gem Theatre and the Swing Shop. Like a shrine stands the combined baseball-jazz museum and its homage to the game and the music that served to unite and thrill the black community.

The last Negro leagues team folded more than 40 years ago. The color barrier that precipitated the formation of the Negro leagues fell just after World War II ended. Yet African American pioneers in baseball are very much on people’s minds these days due to the July 30 National Baseball Hall of Fame induction of 17 Negro leagues and pre-Negro leagues figures. It’s the largest group from early black baseball to be elected to the Hall at one time.

A name conspicuous by its absence from this new crop of inductees is Buck O’Neil’s. In addition to his feats as a player-manager, he’s devoted himself to ensure the history of the Negro leagues not be lost. He’s perhaps best known for his narration in Ken Burns’ acclaimed Baseball documentary. His vivid descriptions of Negro leagues lore and the rousing place players-teams enjoyed in black communities, put a face on this story as never before. Long before the film, however, he lobbied for recognition of the Negro leagues as a singular slice of history and led the drive for its stars to be inducted in Cooperstown.

“I always thought the story should have been told and I’ve been telling it for the last 50 years,” O’Neil said. “But nobody listened to me until the Ken Burns documentary. Now everybody wants to talk to Buck about it.”

NLBM Marketing Director Bob Kendrick said O’Neil knows well his place in baseball history. “He’s a very proud man. He understands the fact he’s a trailblazer. He understands what this story represents to the core and he’s doing everything in his power to make sure others will have an opportunity to know about those who made great sacrifices and were trailblazers like himself. Education has been at the forefront of his life, and we’re talking about someone who’s the grandson of a slave, who was denied the opportunity to attend public high school in Sarasota, Fla., even though his parents were tax payers, who rose above that to become this elder statesman and icon for everything that is good in this country. He has been everything to this museum. If you had to point to a single individual for the building of this institution and keeping alive the legacy of the Negro leagues, it would be Buck O’Neil.”

“And that’s why we felt so disheartened by the fact the doors to the Hall of Fame were shut on him,” Kendrick said. “It’s difficult to assess his 70-plus-year baseball career and say he wasn’t worthy of inclusion as a contributor. You know, it leaves you to wonder what their criteria were, but certainly all of us understand the remarkable contributions this man has made to the game of baseball, across the board. Fans across the country were not just disappointed but outraged because he is the face of the Negro leagues now. Just as Satchel (Paige) was during his heyday, Buck has become the face of the Negro leagues. He is the reason people care about the Negro leagues. There’s no question about it.”

Bob Kendrick at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

 

 

Ever the diplomat, O’Neil downplays the Hall’s snub. “I had an idea I had a chance” to be elected, “but having been on the Veterans Hall of Fame Committee for 20 years I knew what could happen.” He prefers to take the high road. “We’re fixing to put 17 more in there at the end of July. Isn’t that wonderful?” Kendrick doesn’t rule out O’Neil might one day still get in, but he only hopes it’s not too late. “We hope Buck will get this coronation at some point in time, but the thing is we hope that it comes in his lifetime.”

Hall or no Hall his name’s soon to grace the planned Buck O’Neil Education and Research Center that will mark the NLBM’s largest expansion project in a decade. The center will be housed in the nearby Paseo YMCA, a National Historic Landmark regarded as the birthplace of the Negro leagues. A $15 million rehab will provide state-of-the-art facilities for the museum’s oral history and archival work.

The museum O’Neil’s dedicated the past 16 years of his life to charts, in words and images, the rise and fall of the Negro leagues. A “Field of Legends,” complete with life-sized bronze statues of Negro league greats arrayed on a mock diamond, puts you right there in the action. If there’s a recurring theme, it’s that these teams and players made it possible for future generations of blacks to enter major league baseball (MLB).  Without the Negro leagues, equal rights for blacks in baseball and other aspects of society might well have waited another generation.

“As Buck so eloquently puts it,” Kendrick said, “it’s nice sometimes we celebrate those who built the bridge as opposed to those who crossed over the bridge. That’s what we’re doing here — we’re celebrating the bridge builders.”

Kendrick said major league players who visit the museum come away awe-struck.

What most captivates people are the stories, told in interactive exhibits, that make this living history come alive. That’s especially true if you’re lucky enough to be there when O’Neil happens by to regale anyone within ear shot with tales of those halcyon times. The much-beloved O’Neil is a familiar figure there. An ebullient man, whose bright attire reflects his sunny disposition, he chats up visitors and staff, charming everyone he greets.

For a recent Legends Luncheon held at the Madrid Theatre in KC, a program that raises funds for the NLBM, O’Neil made the rounds at each table to welcome attendees — “Good to see you guys” —  to sign autographs and to pose for pics. During an auction of baseball memorabilia, he worked the crowd, imploring and cajoling them to up their bids. “We’re going to start this off at $40. Forty, who’s going to say 40 for Buck? Fifty? Who’s going to give me 55? C’mon, bro. Thank you, brother. Who’s going to give me $60? What do you say, sugar? There you go, love. Going once, going twice…I’ve got to let her have it,” and with that he saunters to the woman, embraces her and plants a kiss on her cheek.

“The man has never met a stranger in his life,” said Kendrick, who often travels with O’Neil to spread the gospel of the museum’s mission. “I’ll tell you what, he’s the most charismatic individual I’ve ever encountered. The energy he exerts at 94, it’s just amazing to me how he does it. Just his sheer love of humanity, his love of life. When you meet Buck O’Neil, you’ve just got to be on his team.”

 

 

 

 

O’Neil loved being a Negro leaguer. The way of life it afforded him. The people it allowed him to meet. The game he loved it enabled him to play.

“The only experience I would have traded it for would have been to have done it in  the major leagues,” said O’Neil, the prime of whose playing career came before the color barrier fell. “Yeah, that’s the only thing.”

Until the color barrier was broken in 1947, the Negro leagues offered black ballplayers, coaches and managers the next best thing. It was their major leagues.

The warm embrace blacks once extended to the game is in sharp contrast to their low participation in it today. Where blacks used to identify with baseball, it’s now largely seen as a white or Latino or even Asian sport. But not so long ago black-is-beautiful and baseball went hand in hand. The Negro leagues constituted a cultural institution that fostered black pride and generated black commerce.

“The painful images of blacks are pretty much out there — the images of slavery, the struggle of the civil rights movement — but very rarely are our success stories celebrated, and this is a success story” Kendrick said. “Blacks succeeded at the highest level you can succeed playing this game and went on to spark social change in this country. I think it’s an inspirational illustration of what blacks were able to accomplish in the face of tremendous adversity.

“It was an economic stimulus for black businesses. It created a sense of pride in the African American community because while this was shared by others, it still was intrinsically ours. It had been born, anchored and become successful” in the black community, He said. “Negro leagues baseball brought tremendous joy to African Americans during a time that was very difficult for blacks in this country.”

“I always share with our visitors that the story of the Negro leagues embodies the American spirit unlike any other,” Kendrick said, “because in it is everything we pride ourselves in being Americans. It’s a story of courage. It’s a story of men who flat out refused to accept the notion they were unfit to play America’s co-called national pastime. They created leagues of their own that actually rose to rival, and in many cities across this country, surpass the major leagues in popularity and attendance. They were determined, they persevered, they did whatever they had to do to prove to the world they could play this game as well as anyone. That is the prevailing American spirit.”

During an era when a “gentlemen’s agreement” among major league owners and commissioners kept blacks off the field, African Americans created their own baseball universe. In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster — “the father of black baseball” — held a meeting with other black team owners at KC’s Paseo YMCA and the result was the Negro National League, the first organized black pro league. Other leagues followed. The hope was the big leagues would eventually take-in one team from each main Negro league. It never happened.

Instead, it took another 27 years before the majors let in blacks. In the meantime, the Negro leagues continued to prosper. The first Colored World Series was held in 1924. New leagues followed. The boom was from 1933 to 1947, with teams in KC, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Birmingham, Memphis, Baltimore, New York, et cetera.

The Negro leagues featured comparable talent as the majors and, as the museum highlights, offered innovations, such as night baseball, years ahead of the bigs. A period poster on display called the attraction “the greatest drawing card outside the major leagues.” Also documented, in box scores and anecdotes, is the fact Negro league teams fared well against major league teams in exhibitions. One only imagines how the record books would be rewritten had greats “Cool Papa” Bell, Judy Johnson, Buck Leonard or Josh Gibson played in the majors. Or if pitcher Satchel Paige made it there in his prime rather than at the tail end of his career.

The museum provides a glimpse into what’s called a “parallel” baseball experience, but one relegated to the back pages of white newspapers and to the shadows of mainstream history. Yet this other world of professional baseball enjoyed every bit the cache and support among black fans the major leagues did among white fans.

Black baseball also attracted white fans, particularly when Negro league teams like the Monarchs barnstormed to play exhibitions versus local town teams or major league clubs. Fans flocked to see the Monarchs at Western League Park and Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha and American Legion Baseball Park in Council Bluffs.

The high times of being part of this unique experience is what O’Neil recalls.

 

 

 

“All you needed was a bus and I’ll tell you what, we traveled in some of the best money could buy during that period. And actually we stayed in some of the best hotels in the country — they just happened to be black owned and operated. We ate in some of the best restaurants in the country. Of course, during that time, the best cooks in the world were black,” said O’Neil his sing-song patios swelled with the solemnity of a preacher and the jive of a hipster. “In that bus you’d have 20 of the best athletes that ever lived. To be able to play, to participate, to compete with these type of athletes, oh, it was outstanding. As a young man from Florida, yeah, up north here in Kansas City playing baseball, outstanding really.”

Black athletes and musicians were THE celebrities in black communities and they socialized together. In KC, they stayed at the Streets Hotel, right down from where the museum stands today.

“At the Streets Hotel I might come down for breakfast and Duke Ellington and them might be there and say, ‘Come over and have breakfast with us this morning.” Or Sarah Vaughn. You’re talking about jazz and baseball. That was here, that was Kansas City,” said O’Neil, whose plaintive voice rises and falls like a soft riff.

When the Monarchs were in town, it was news. “Yeah, we were very well respected,” he said. “I’ll tell you how much — I courted a preacher’s daughter.”

Churches heeded their presence. “Sunday, 11 o’clock service, but when the Monarchs were in town, service started at 10 o’clock so that they (churchgoers) could get to the ball park. And then they would come looking good — dressed to kill. It was actually not only a ball game, it was a social event. The Monarchs, this was the thing. You saw everybody that was somebody there at the ball park. People would hobnob with their friends. Yeah, mmmm…hmmm.” Or as Henry “Pistol” Mason, a Monarchs pitcher O’Neil signed and managed, said, “We had a different brand of baseball. People wanted to see our brand of baseball, with its action and enthusiasm, running and bunting. It was more festive when we played. Going to the ballpark was just like going to a picnic. We had something to prove too — that we were good enough to play in the major leagues.”

Amen, said O’Neil, who feels this extra motivation explains why Negro leagues teams often beat major league teams in exhibitions. “We wanted to prove to the world they weren’t superior because they were major leaguers and we weren’t inferiors because we were Negro leaguers,” he said. Besides, he said, major leaguers “couldn’t afford to twist an ankle or break a finger in an exhibition ball game.”

Home or away, O’Neil said he and his fellow Negro leaguers felt the passion of fans.

“Oh, man, listen, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. at his Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, New York, preached a baseball sermon for the New York Cubans, the New York Black Yankees, the Kansas City Monarchs and the Memphis Red Sox before a four-team doubleheader at Yankee Stadium,” he said. “He preached that sermon, and man, the church was full. They followed us to the ball park. We had 40,000 at Yankee Stadium. We played over at Branch Rickey’s place” — Ebbets Field, home to general manager Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers — “and we had 20,000 there.”

It was Rickey who signed Jackie Robinson away from the Monarchs in 1945 and brought him to the majors in 1947. Robinson was one of five blacks called up to the majors that year. O’Neil said Rickey’s enlightened move to buck the system made sound business sense. “Branch Rickey, the astute businessman that he was, saw this as a brand new clientele” to be mined, O’Neil said.

O’Neil emphasizes the men who broke baseball’s color barrier helped to spark a social revolution. “When Branch Rickey signed Jackie (Robinson) to that contract that was the beginning of the civil rights movement,” he said. “That was before Brown versus Board of Education. That was before sister Rosa Parks said, ‘I won’t go to the back of the bus today.’ Martin Luther King, Jr. was just a sophomore at Morehouse (College). Jackie started the ball rolling right there in baseball.”

In O’Neil’s opinion, “What kept us out of the major leagues was in fact not the fans, but the owners. See, the baseball fans, all they ever asked — Could you play?”

Robinson’s success and the success of players like Larry Doby proved, once and for all, blacks belonged on the same field, paving the way for others to follow. With integration underway, MLB increasingly tapped the Negro leagues’ deep talent pool. Sadly, many greats were deemed too old to invest in and thus never played in the bigs. Even Negro leagues teams began to prefer young prospects, whose contracts they could sell, over old veterans. Devoid of their stars, Negro leagues teams folded and then entire leagues disbanded. The last survived into the early 1960s. By then, blacks were regarded as essential cogs to any successful MLB franchise with the exception of a few hold outs (most notably the Boston Red Sox),

The impact black players had on the majors is undeniable. From the inception of the Rookie of the Year Award in 1949, seven of the first 10 winners were black. From 1949 to 1959, nine of 11 National League MVPs were former Negro leaguers. Future legends and Hall of Famers Robinson, Doby, Monte Irvin, Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, among others, all came out of the Negro leagues. Besides their talent, they brought a livelier style of play — the hit-and-run, stretching a single into a double or a double into a triple, stealing home.

As a teen, Omaha’s own baseball icon, Bob Gibson, turned down a Monarchs offer to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals. By then, blacks were established in the majors while the Negro leagues were on their way out.

In a 33-year Chicago Cubs scouting career, O’Neil brought great black talent to the bigs, signing, among others, future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. He became MLB’s first black coach with the Cubs. He later scouted for the Royals.

 

Buck O’Neil Legacy seat at Kaufman Stadium

 

 

He doesn’t think much about his own place in history. He’s too busy “running all over the country raising money” for the museum. “But, you see, I’m 94 and I ain’t going to live but 20 more years,” he said, smiling. “After I’m gone I want this to be here forever. That’s why we need an endowment.” To garner that support he meets with everyone from MLB superstars to commissioner Bud Selig to billionaires Warren Buffett and Bill Gates to Hollywood celebs to ordinary fans.

What makes him a great ambassador for the Negro leagues and for the game itself is his ability to engage folks from every walk of life. He said he’d like to be remembered as “a spokesman for the Negro leagues — to keep this memory alive.”
To close the Legends Luncheon he did what he usually does at his public appearances — he invited people to join hands and sing along with him a melody from an old song that best expresses the way he feels about baseball and its fans.

“The greatest thing, in all my life, is loving you. Thank you, folks.” Thank you, Buck.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Sundays from noon to 6 p.m. For details about the museum, its permanent and traveling exhibits and its many educational programs, check out the web site www.nlbm.com or call toll-free at (888) 221-NLBM.

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