Trailblazer Lucas hardly a forgotten man

First African-American GM honored by Braves

February 18th, 2017

Here's a trivia question for Black History Month: Who is the most significant African-American in Major League Baseball history?

OK, give up? Try Bill Lucas.

I'm talking about the late William DeVaughn Lucas, the former Minor League player and Major League vice president of baseball operations for the Braves, who was as impactful to our national pastime off the field as Jackie Robinson was on it.

As a result, while you're remembering other African-Americans during the next few days, ranging from Martin Luther King Jr. to Booker T. Washington, you shouldn't forget Lucas, and the Braves haven't.

Boy, haven't they.

In a ceremony earlier this month at SunTrust Park, which will serve as the new home for the Braves this season, a group of prominent folks did a bunch of classy things to honor Lucas.

Bill's widow, Rubye, the couple's two daughters along with franchise icons Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy, and several team executives attend the ceremony. They christened the meeting room in the ballpark for official team business the "Bill Lucas Conference Room."

They named the street outside the ballpark leading to the parking lot for players, coaches and other Braves officials "Bill Lucas Way." The even announced a "Bill Lucas Apprenticeship" for minorities wishing to spend a year with the team learning various aspects of baseball operations and the business of baseball.

You may give the Braves a standing ovation, because they deserve it. The accomplishments of Lucas deserve it more.

"The Atlanta Braves have been our lives," Rubye Lucas said with emotion while reflecting on the 22 years that her husband spent in the organization until his death from a heart attack at 43 in 1979.

As an African-American playing in the Minor Leagues during the time of the segregated South, Lucas battled racism, but teammate and friend Paul Snyder (you should also remember that name) often recalls how Lucas did so with grace.

Lucas became a rarity as a person of color when he was hired in 1965 to work in the front office of a professional sports team. His role was to help pave the way in Atlanta for the Braves' move from Milwaukee with the hiring of minorities and others. Soon after, the Braves made Lucas the director of their Minor League operations, and among other things, he had the foresight to draft the likes of Murphy and Bob Horner.

Here's the biggest thing, though. When Lucas received the title of vice president of baseball operations from Braves owner Ted Turner in September 1976, it essentially meant Lucas was the team's general manager. Which meant he was the first African-American general manager in Major League history.

Remember, too, that this happened nearly 30 years after Robinson broke the game's color barrier as a player with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Frank Robinson made huge news the previous year as the first African-American manager in the Major Leagues, but while Robinson's job was to handle a locker room full of players, Lucas was in charge of an entire franchise.

Few noticed, and you can blame it on the mellow Lucas inheriting a traditionally shaky team that was overshadowed by the spotlight-grabbing Turner. Even so, despite less than two years on the job for Lucas as the Braves' unofficial GM, his accomplishments were staggering. They just took a while to develop. Let's start with Murphy, a struggling catcher with an inconsistent bat after he reached the Major Leagues two years after Lucas made him the fifth overall pick out of the 1974 Draft.

While others suggested Murphy was a bust, Lucas praised him and paid him (giving Murphy a bonus at one point that the player said he didn't deserve). Unfortunately, the GM didn't live along enough to see Murphy blossom into one of the smoothest outfielders of his time and grab consecutive NL Most Valuable Player Awards in 1982 and 1983.

Then there was Snyder, now considered one of the best talent evaluators in baseball history. Lucas hired his old pal in 1977 to run the Minor League system of the Braves with Aaron. They developed Hall of Famers Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, perennial All-Star David Justice and others who built the foundation for the franchise's Major League-record run to 14 division titles beginning in the 1990s.

Perhaps you've heard of Bobby Cox, another Cooperstown guy. Yep, Lucas gave Cox his first break when he brought the Yankees' coach to Atlanta in 1978 to manage the Braves. After a pitstop with the Blue Jays during the 1980s and a return to the Braves as GM, Cox became the manager that took the Braves along that record streak, which included a 1995 World Series crown.

The Braves can't salute Lucas enough. Neither can baseball, and the same goes for the sports world in general. For instance: The Milwaukee Bucks made Wayne Embry the first African-American GM in the history of the NBA and of professional sports in 1972, and Ozzie Newsome became the first GM for an NFL team in 2002 when he took over the Baltimore Ravens.

Lucas was right between both of them as GM. You often can take people for granted in the middle, but the Braves haven't.