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
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.
“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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
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.
©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.
- Forgotten Negro league players finally get recognition (thegrio.com)
- FOX Sports show to feature Buck O’Neil this Sunday after the Royals-Cardinals game (royals.mlblogs.com)
- Video: Paying tribute to the Negro Leagues (msnbc.msn.com)
- Good-guy Hemond worthy of O’Neil Award (mlb.mlb.com)
Long Live Roberto Clemente, A New Exhibit Looks at this Late King of the Latin Ball Players and Human Rights Hero
I am a moderate baseball fan at best, but I am drawn to the stories behind the game and to the figures who animate it. One of the all-time great players, Roberto Clemente, made millions take notice of his baseball skills, which earned him a well-deserved spot in Cooperstown, but what he did off the field may be what he’s ultimately best remembered for. This little story for El Perico newspaper in Omaha takes a cursory look at the impact the late Roberto Clemente still has on people nearly 40 years after he tragically died at age 38 while attempting to carry out a humanitarian mission. The occasion for the story was a touring exhibition of his life that landed at El Museo Latino, and I simply asked a few folks in the local Latin community what Clemente’s legacy means to them. The exhibition continues through July 17.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in El Perico
Beyond Baseball: The Life of Roberto Clemente continues through July 17 as part of a 20-city tour.
It’s curated by Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico with the Carimar Design and Research studio and organized for touring by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The Smithsonian Latino Center is a sponsor.
When Pittsburgh Pirates great and Latin symbol Roberto Clemente died December 31, 1972, his native Puerto Rico wept. He was only 38. The grief extended throughout the Americas.
The first great Latino star in the big leagues, Clemente was a trailblazer who opened pathways for other Latin players to follow. He’s remembered as more than a magnificent athlete, but as a man of the people, devoted to his countrymen and Spanish-speakers worldwide.
He died when a plane he was aboard delivering relief supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims went down in the ocean. His body was never recovered. It was not the first time he acted as a humanitarian — he helped needy people in the United States and Central America and held free baseball clinics for children in Puerto Rico. After his death his wife and children have continued his work.
In recognition of his brilliant play in the outfield, at the plate and on the base paths, the usual five year waiting period for Hall of Fame consideration was waived and he was elected by an overwhelming majority into Cooperstown. The Roberto Clemente Award was established to salute Major League Baseball players who combine outstanding play and community service. The award, given annually since 1973, made Clemente the inaugural honoree.
His homeland is replete with stadiums and streets named after him. As a national hero, his image adorns homes of Puerto Ricans there and everywhere.
With Clemente’s legacy so strong, El Perico asked members of Omaha’s Puerto Rican community and others for lasting impressions.
Antonia Correa vividly recalls the news of his tragic death on the island, where Clemente’s aid mission to stricken Nicaraguans was well known. His sudden loss cast a pale over holiday celebrations.
“It was a major emotional thing,” she says. “It was sad twice because we lost him, someone everybody was passionate about, and because of his trip to help victims.”
Correa’s memory of Clemente is forever fixed in context of what he died doing. ”I remember him as this face of humanity. I keep in my mind the face of this humble man eager to help others.”
Maria Valentin remembers “days of mourning Roberto” after his death. In life he was beloved because he never forgot his roots. ”He was very proud of being a Puerto Rican,” says Valentin.
Beyond baseball success, his charitable work endeared him even more.
“He was young and he wanted to help, and he did it and we loved him in the process,” says Valentin. She notes that he’s revered as “a champion for human rights” and “a role model for kids, adding “He was ours. He created a legacy not only for him but for all of us Puerto Ricans, carrying the country along. His talent, his energy, his commitment to help people still remains within us.”
She says his example of overcoming discrimination to excel when he and other Latin and black players were treated as “second class” citizens is inspiring. “He broke barriers for the younger generation. The language, the color, the strange territory should not stop you once you have a dream, once you have a talent.”
Hector Santiago says Clemente is a rare figure who transcends eras to still inspire.
Acclaimed jazz artist Miguel Zenon, who played Omaha May 21, says Clemente’s place in history “really surpasses anything that has to do with sports or fame. He just took it to another level in terms of what he achieved as a human being.”
University of Nebraska at Omaha professor Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado says Clemente “presented for us the archetype of what we wish all humans do when given the immense gifts and skills he possessed…His dignified presence was equivalent to that of the icons of his age and his too-soon passing only served to remind us of what had been taken from us. He would have been the penultimate ambassador for sport and humanity to the Latin world.”
Special programs in conjunction with the exhibition include a lecture series, a baseball clinic and a celebration of Puerto Rican culture.
El Museo Latino is located at 4701 South 25th St. For details, call 402-731-1137 or visit http://www.elmuseolatino.org.
- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Review: “21″: The Story of Roberto Clemente (repeatingislands.com)
- Graphic biography of Puerto Rican Baseball great Roberto Clemente (repeatingislands.com)
Bob Gibson, the Master of the Mound Remains His Own Man Years Removed from the Diamond (for similar stories, click on the Omaha Black Sports Legends and/or Out to Win categories)
Omaha’s bevy of black sports legends has only recently begun to get their due here. With the inception of the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame a few years ago, more deserving recognition has been accorded these many standouts from the past, some of whom are legends with a small “l” and some of whom are full-blown legends with a capital “L.” As a journalist I’ve done my part bringing to light the stories of some of these individuals. The following story is about someone who is a Legend by any standard, Bob Gibson. This is the third Gibson story I’ve posted to this blog site, and in some ways it’s my favorite. When you’re reading it, keep in mind it was written and published 13 years ago. The piece appeared in the New Horizons and I’m republishing it here to coincide with the newest crop of inductees in the Nebraska Black Sports Hall of Fame. Gibson was fittingly inducted in that Hall’s inaugural class, as he is arguably the greatest sports legend, bar none, ever to come out of Nebraska.
Bob Gibson, the Master of the Mound Remains His Own Man Years Removed from the Diamond (NOTE: for similar stories, click on the Omaha Black Sports Legends and/or Out to Win categories)
©by Leo Adam Biga
Orignally published in the New Horizons
Bob Gibson. Merely mentioning the Hall of Fame pitcher’s name makes veteran big league baseball fans nostalgic for the gritty style of play that characterized his era. An era before arbitration, Astro-Turf, indoor stadiums and the Designated Hitter. Before the brushback was taboo and going the distance a rarity.
No one personified that brand of ball better than Gibson, whose gladiator approach to the game was hewn on the playing fields of Omaha and became the stuff of legend in a spectacular career (1959-1975) with the St. Louis Cardinals. A baseball purist, Gibson disdains changes made to the game that promote more offense. He favors raising the mound and expanding the strike zone. Then again, he’s an ex-pitcher.
Gibson was an iron man among iron men – completing more than half his career starts. The superb all-around athlete, who starred in baseball and basketball at Tech High and Creighton University, fielded his position with great skill, ran the bases well and hit better than many middle infielders. He had a gruff efficiency and gutsy intensity that, combined with his tremendous fastball, wicked slider and expert control, made him a winner.
Even the best hitters never got comfortable facing him. He rarely spoke or showed emotion on the mound and aggressively backed batters off the plate by throwing inside. As a result, a mystique built-up around him that gave him an extra added edge. A mystique that’s stuck ever since.
Now 61, and decades removed from reigning as baseball’s ultimate competitor, premier power pitcher and most intimidating presence, he still possesses a strong, stoic, stubborn bearing that commands respect. One can only imagine what it felt like up to bat with him bearing down on you.
As hard as he was on the field, he could be hell to deal with off it too, particularly with reporters after a loss. This rather shy man has closely, sometimes brusquely, guarded his privacy. The last few years, though, have seen him soften some and open up more. In his 1994 autobiography “Stranger to the Game” he candidly reviewed his life and career.
More recently, he’s promoted the Bob Gibson All-Star Classic – a charitable golf tournament teeing off June 14 at the Quarry Oaks course near Mahoney State Park. Golfers have shelled out big bucks to play a round with Gibson and fellow sports idols Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Whitey Ford, Lou Brock and Oscar Robertson as well as Nebraska’s own Bob Boozer, Ron Boone and Gale Sayers and many others. Proceeds will benefit two causes dear to Gibson – the American Lung Association of Nebraska and BAT – the Baseball Assistance Team.
When Gibson announced the event many were surprised to learn he still resides here. He and his wife Wendy and their son Christopher, 12, live in a spacious home in Bellevue’s Fontenelle Hills.
His return to the public arena comes, appropriately enough, in the 50th anniversary season of the late Jackie Robinson’s breaking of Major League Baseball’s color barrier. Growing up in Omaha’s Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects, Gibson idolized Robinson. “Oh, man, he was a hero,” he told the New Horizons. “When Jackie broke in, I was just a kid. He means even more now than he did then, because I understand more about what he did” and endured. When Gibson was at the peak of his career, he met Robinson at a Washington, D.C. fundraiser, and recalls feeling a deep sense of “respect” for the man who paved the way for him and other African-Americans in professional athletics.
In a recent interview at an Omaha eatery Gibson displayed the same pointedness as his book. On a visit to his home he revealed a charming Midwestern modesty around the recreation room’s museum-quality display of plaques and trophies celebrating his storied baseball feats.
His most cherished prize is the 1968 National League Most Valuable Player Award. “That’s special,” he said. “Winning it was quite an honor because pitchers don’t usually win the MVP. Some pitchers have won it since I did, but I don’t know that a pitcher will ever win it again. There’s been some controversy whether pitchers should be eligible for the MVP or should be limited to the Cy Young.” For his unparalleled dominance in ‘68 – the Year of the Pitcher – he added the Cy Young to the MVP in a season in which he posted 22 wins, 13 shutouts and the lowest ERA (1.12) in modern baseball history. He won the ‘70 Cy Young too.
Despite his accolades, his clutch World Series performances (twice leading the Cardinals to the title) and his gaudy career marks of 251 wins, 56 shutouts and 3,117 strikeouts, he’s been able to leave the game and the glory behind. He said looking back at his playing days is almost like watching movie images of someone else. Of someone he used to be.
“That was another life,” he said. “I am proud of what I’ve done, but I spend very little time thinking about yesteryear. I don’t live in the past that much. That’s just not me. I pretty much live in the present, and, you know, I have a long way to go, hopefully, from this point on.”
Since ending his playing days in ‘75, Gibson’s been a baseball nomad, serving as pitching coach for the New York Mets in ‘81 and for the Atlanta Braves from ‘82 to ‘84, each time under Joe Torre, the current Yankee manager who is a close friend and former Cardinals teammate. He’s also worked as a baseball commentator for ABC and ESPN. After being away from the game awhile, he was brought back by the Cardinals in ‘95 as bullpen coach. Since ‘96 he’s served as a special instructor for the club during spring training, working four to six weeks with its talented young pitching corps, including former Creighton star Alan Benes, who’s credited Gibson with speeding his development.
Who does he like among today’s crop of pitchers? “There’s a lot of guys I like. Randy Johnson. Roger Clemens. The Cardinals have a few good young guys. And of course, Atlanta’s got three of the best.”
Could he have succeeded in today’s game? “I’d like to think so,” he said confidently.
He also performs PR functions for the club. “I go back several times to St. Louis when they have special events. You go up to the owners’ box and you have a couple cocktails and shake hands and be very pleasant…and grit your teeth,” he said. “Not really. Years ago it would have been very tough for me, but now that I’ve been so removed from the game and I’ve got more mellow as I’ve gotten older, the easier the schmoozing becomes.”
His notorious frankness helps explain why he’s not been interested in managing. He admits he would have trouble keeping his cool with reporters second-guessing his every move. “Why should I have to find excuses for something that probably doesn’t need an excuse? I don’t think I could handle that very well I’m afraid. No, I don’t want to be a manager. I think the door would be closed to me anyway because of the way I am – blunt, yes, definitely. I don’t know any other way.”
Still, he added, “You never say never. I said I wasn’t going to coach before too, and I did.” He doesn’t rule out a return to the broadcast booth or to a full-time coaching position, adding: “These are all hypothetical things. Until you’re really offered a job and sit down and discuss it with somebody, you can surmise anything you want. But you never know.”
He feels his outspokenness off the field and fierceness on it cost him opportunities in and out of baseball: “I guess there’s probably some negative things that have happened as a result of that, but that really doesn’t concern me that much.”
He believes he’s been misunderstood by the press, which has often portrayed him as a surly, angry man. “
When I performed, anger had nothing to do with it. I went out there to win. It was strictly business with me. If you’re going to have all these ideas about me being this ogre, then that’s your problem. I don’t think I need to go up and explain everything to you. Now, if you want to bother to sit down and talk with me and find out for yourself, then fine…”
Those close to him do care to set the record straight, though. Rodney Wead, a close friend of 52 years, feels Gibson’s occasional wariness and curtness stem, in part, from an innate reserve.
“He’s shy. And therefore he protects himself by being sometimes abrupt, but it’s only that he’s always so focused,” said Wead, a former Omaha social services director who’s now president and CEO of Grace Hill Neighborhood Services in St. Louis.
Indeed, Gibson attributes much of his pitching success to his fabled powers of concentration, which allowed him “to focus and block out everything else going on around me.” It’s a quality others have noted in him outside sports.
“Mentally, he’s so disciplined,” said Countryside Village owner Larry Myers, a former business partner. “He has this ability to focus on the task at hand and devote his complete energy to that task.”
If Gibson is sometimes standoffish, Wead said, it’s understandable: “He’s been hurt so many times, man. We’ve had some real, almost teary moments together when he’s reflected on some of the stuff he wished could of happened in Omaha and St. Louis.” Wead refers to Gibson’s frustration upon retiring as a player and finding few employment-investment opportunities open to him. Gibson is sure race was a factor. And while he went on to various career-business ventures, he saw former teammates find permanent niches within the game when he didn’t. He also waited in vain for a long-promised Anheuser-Busch beer distributorship from former Cardinals owner, the late August Busch. He doesn’t dwell on the disappointments in interviews, but devotes pages to them in his book.
Gibson’s long been outspoken about racial injustice. When he first joined the Cardinals at its spring training facility in St. Petersburg, Fla., black and white teammates slept and ate separately. A three-week stay with the Cardinals’ Columbus, Ga. farm team felt like “a lifetime,” he said, adding, “I’ve tried to erase that, but I remember it like it was yesterday.” He, along with black teammates Bill White and the late Curt Flood, staged a mini-Civil Rights movement within the organization – and conditions improved.
He’s dismayed the media now singles out baseball for a lack of blacks in managerial posts when the game merely mirrors society as a whole. “Baseball has made a lot more strides than most facets of our lives,” he said. “Have things changed in baseball? Yes. Have things changed everywhere else? Yes. Does there need to be a lot more improvement? Yes. Some of the problems we faced when Jackie Robinson broke in and when I broke in 10 years later don’t exist, but then a lot of them still do.”
He’s somewhat heartened by acting baseball commissioner Bud Selig’s recent pledge to hire more minorities in administrative roles. “I’m always encouraged by some statements like that, yeah. I’d like to wait and see what happens. Saying it and doing it is two different things.”
He’s also encouraged by golfer Tiger Woods’ recent Masters’ victory.“What’s really great about him being black is that it seems to me white America is always looking for something that black Americans can’t do, and that’s just one other thing they can scratch off their list.” Gibson’s All-Star Classic will be breaking down barriers too by bringing a racially mixed field into the exclusive circle of power and influence golf represents.
Some have questioned why he’s chosen now to return to the limelight. “It’s not to get back in the public eye,” Gibson said of the golf classic. “The reason I’m doing this is to raise money for the American Lung Association and BAT.”
Efforts to battle lung disease have personal meaning for Gibson, who’s a lifelong asthma sufferer. A past Lung Association board member, he often speaks before groups of young asthma patients “to convince them that you can participate in sports even though you have asthma…I think it’s helpful to have somebody there that went through the same thing and, being an ex-baseball player, you get their attention.”
He serves on the board of directors of BAT – the tourney’s other beneficiary. The organization assists former big league and minor league players, managers, front office professionals and umpires who are in financial distress. “Unfortunately, most people think all ex-players are multimillionaires,” he said. “Most are not. Through BAT we try to do what we can to help people of the baseball family.”
He hopes the All-Star Classic raises half-a-million dollars and gives the state “something it’s never seen before” – a showcase of major sports figures equal to any Hall of Fame gathering. Gibson said he came up with the idea over drinks one night with his brother Fred and a friend. From there, it was just a matter of calling “the guys” – as he refers to legends like Mays. Gibson downplays his own legendary status, but is flattered to be included among the game’s immortals.
What’s amazing is that baseball wasn’t his best sport through high school and college – basketball was. His coach at Tech, Neal Mosser, recalls Gibson with awe: “He was unbelievable,” said Mosser. “He would have played pro ball today very easily. He could shoot, fake, run, jump and do everything the pros do today. He was way ahead of his time.”
Gibson was a sports phenom, excelling in baseball, basketball, football and track for area youth recreation teams. He enjoyed his greatest success with the Y Monarchs, coached by his late brother Josh, whom Mosser said “was a father-figure” to Gibson. Josh drilled his younger brother relentlessly and made him the supreme competitor he is. After a stellar career playing hardball and hoops at Creighton, Gibson joined the Harlem Globetrotters for one season, but an NBA tryout never materialized.
No overnight success on the pro diamond, Gibson’s early seasons, including stints with the Omaha Cardinals, were learning years. His breakthrough came in ‘63, when he went 18-9. He only got better with time.
Gibson acknowledges it’s been difficult adjusting to life without the competitive outlet sports provided. “I’ll never find anything to test that again,” he said, “but as you get older you’re not nearly as competitive. I guess you find some other ways to do it, but I haven’t found that yet.”
What he has found is a variety of hobbies that he applies the same concentrated effort and perfectionist’s zeal to that he did pitching. One large room in his home is dominated by an elaborate, fully-operational model train layout he designed himself. He built the layout’s intricately detailed houses, buildings, et all, in his own well-outfitted workshop, whose power saw and lathe he makes use of completing frequent home improvement projects. He’s made several additions to his home, including a sun room, sky lights, spa and wine cellar.
“I’m probably more proud of that,” he said, referring to his handiwork, “than my career in baseball. If I hadn’t been in baseball, I think I would of probably ended up in the construction business.”
The emotional-physical-financial investment Gibson’s made in his home is evidence of his deep attachment to Nebraska. Even at the height of his pro career he remained here. His in-state business interests have included radio station KOWH, the Community Bank of Nebraska and Bob Gibson’s Spirits and Sustenance, a restaurant he was a partner in from
1979 to 1989. Nebraska, simply, is home. “I don’t know that you can find any nicer people,” he said, “and besides my family’s been here. Usually when you move there’s some type of occupation that takes you away. I almost moved to St. Louis, but there were so many (racial) problems back when I was playing…that I never did.”
His loyalty hasn’t gone unnoticed. “He didn’t get big-headed and go away and hide somewhere,” said Jerry Parks, a Tech teammate who today is Omaha’s Parks, Recreation and Public Property Director. “What I admire most about him is that he’s very loyal to people he likes, and that’s priceless for me,” said Rodney Wead. “He’s helped a lot of charitable causes very quietly…He’s certainly given back to Omaha over the years,” said Larry Myers.
Jerry Mosser may have summed it up best: “He’s just a true-blue guy.”
Because Gibson’s such a private man, his holding a celebrity golf tournament caught many who know him off-guard. “I was as surprised as anyone,” said Wead, “but so pleased – he has so much to offer.” Gibson himself said: “I have never done anything like this before. If I don’t embarrass myself too badly, I’ll be fine.”
If anything, Gibson will rise to the occasion and show grace under fire. Just like he used to on the mound – when he’d rear back and uncork a high hard one. Like he still does in his dreams. “Oh, I dream about it (baseball) all the time,” he said. “It drives me crazy. I guess I’m going to do that the rest of my life.”
Thanks for the memories, Bob. And the sweet dreams.
- Gibson (joeposnanski.si.com)
- It’s finally the Year of the Pitcher again (denverpost.com)
- National League Treasures: The Best Players in Each Franchise’s History (bleacherreport.com)
- Book Review: Sixty Feet, Six Inches by Bob Gibson & Reggie Jackson (othemts.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
The College World Series underway in Omaha is a major NCAA athletic championship that attracts legions of fans from all over America and grabs gobs of national media attention. With this being the last series played at the event’s home these past 60 years, Rosenblatt Stadium, there’s been more fan and media interest than ever before, although a spate of rain storms actually hurt attendance at the start of this year’s series. Inclement weather or not, the series is a great big love-in with its own Fan Fest. But it didn’t used to be this way. Indeed, for the first three decades of the event, it was a rather small, obscure championship that garnered little notice outside the schools participating. Omaha cultivated the event when few others wanted or cared about it, and all that nurturing has resulted in practically a permanent hold on the event, which has strong support from the corporate community, from the City of Omaha, from service clubs, and from the local hospitality industry. Two key players in securing and growing the series have been a father and son, the late Jack Diesing Sr. and Jack Diesing Jr., and they are the focus of this short story that recently appeared in a special CWS edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com) called The Daily Dugout. I have another story on this site from the Dugout — it features Greg Pivovar, one of the colorful characters who can be found at the series.
The Two Jacks of the College World Series
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In 1967 the late Jack Diesing Sr. founded College World Series Inc. as the local nonprofit organizing committee for the NCAA Division I men’s national collegiate baseball championship. He led efforts that turned a small, struggling event into a major national brand for Omaha.
When son Jack Diesing Jr. succeeded him as president, the young namesake continued building the brand as Jack Sr. stayed on as chairman.
While the CSW is not a business, it’s a growing enterprise annually generating an estimated $40-plus million for the local economy. More than 300,000 fans attend and millions more watch courtesy ESPN.
Papa Diesing was around to see all that growth, only passing away this past March at age 92. Jack Jr. said his father, who saw the event’s potential when few others did, never ceased being amazed “by how it kept getting bigger and better. The phrase he always said is, ‘This just flabbergasts me.’”
His father inherited a dog back in 1963. Jack Sr. was a J. L. Brandeis & Sons Department Store executive. His boss, Ed Pettis, chaired the CWS. The event lost money nine of its first 14 years here. When Pettis died, Jack Sr. was asked to take over. He refused at first. No wonder. The CWS was rinky-dink. Nothing about it promised great things ahead. The crowds were miniscule. The interest weak. But under his aegis an economically sustainable framework was put in place.
What’s become a gold standard event had an unlikely person guiding it.
“When my father got involved with the College World Series he had never attended a baseball game in his life. He didn’t really want to do it but basically he agreed to do it because it was the right thing to do for the city of Omaha,” said Jack Jr. “Over a period of time he developed a love affair with not only what it meant for the fans but what it meant for the city and what it meant for the kids playing in it. He always was looking to do whatever we could do here to make the event better for the kids playing the games and the fans attending the games and for the community. And the rest is history.”
Omaha Press Club caricatures of the Diesings by artist Jim Horan, Faces copyright @2011 Omaha Press Club
The son’s affinity for the series started early and by the time the patriarch was ready to pass the torch, Jack Jr. was ready.
“I certainly grew up behind the scenes. I can’t say he was purposely grooming me into anything. It’s just that I was exposed to the College World Series ever since I moved back into town in 1975. I’d go to the games, I was involved in sports in school and still was an avid sports follower after I got back.”
Diesing said the same sense of civic duty and love of community that motivated his father motivates him.
He still marvels at his father’s foresight.
“One of the things people credited him for was having tremendous vision about how to set up the infrastructure and make sure we had an organization moving forward that would stand the test of time. And he thought it would make sense to carry on a tradition with his son following him, and that was another thing he was right about.”
His father not only stabilized the CWS but set the stage for its prominence by partnering with the city and the local business community to placate the NCAA by investing millions in Rosenblatt Stadium improvements to create a showcase event for TV.
College baseball coaching legend Bobo Brayton admired how Jack Sr. nurtured the CWS. “I think he was the single person that really kept the world series there in Omaha. I went to a lot of meetings with Jack, I know how he worked. First, he’d feed everybody good, give them a few belts, and then start working on ‘em. He was fantastic, just outstanding. It’s too bad we lost him…but, of course, Jack Jr. is doing a good job too.”
As intrinsic as Rosenbatt’s been to the CWS, Jack Jr. said his father knew it was time for a change: “He could see and did see the needs and the benefits to move into the future. Certainly, I’m the first person to understand the nostalgia, the history, the ambience surrounding Rosenblatt. It’s going to be different down at the new stadium, and it’s just a matter of everybody figuring out a way to embrace the different.”
Diesing has no doubt the public-private partnership his father fostered will continue over the next 25 years that Omaha’s secured the series for and well beyond. He’s glad to carry the legacy of a man, a city and an event made for each other.
- Rosenblatt Stadium memories will live on (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- College World Series: The 10 Greatest CWS Legends Omaha Has Ever Seen (bleacherreport.com)
- College World Series is Omaha’s party central (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- 1st game at new Omaha ballpark sells out in hours (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- The One That Got Away Is Still a Yankees Fan (nytimes.com)
UPDATE: Greg Pivovar’s Stadium View Sports Cards store was left high and dry when Rosenblatt Stadium was closed and the College World Series moved downtown to TD Ameritrade Park, but he does have a presence near the new site courtesy a tent set-up. My story below appeared on the eve of the 201o CWS, as Pivovar, whose shop stood directly across the street from Rosenblatt, prepped for his last dance with the old stadium.
As the College World Series enters the stretch run of the 2010 championship, I offer this story as a slice-of-life capsule of the local color that can be found in and around the event and its festival-like atmosphere. The subject is Greg Pivovar, who runs a sports memorabilia shop called Stadium View Sports Cards, across from Omaha‘s Rosenblatt Stadium, the venue where the CWS has been played for 60 years. This is the stadium’s last at-bat, so to speak, as it’s scheduled to be torn down next year, when the event moves to the new downtown TD Ameritrade Park. The ‘Blatt’s last hurrah is inspiring all manner of nostalgic farewells. Pivovar will be sad to see it go too, but he’s not the sentimental sort. In fact, he’s the cynical antidote to the otherwise perpetually cheery facade the city, the NCAA, and College World Series Inc. like to spin about the series, an event that Omaha has catered to to such an extent that there’s a fair amount of skepticism and animosity out there. Pivovar loves the series and the business it brings him, and he loves serving in the unofficial role of CWS ambassador for visitors from out of state, but he’s not Pollyannish about the event or the powers-that-be who run it. He just kind of says it like it is. His blog, stadiumview.wordpress.com, is a hoot for the way he skewers sacred cows.
I have posted another CWS story about a father and son legacy tied to the event.
The Little People‘s Ambassador at the College World Series
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Stadium View Sports Cards proprietor Greg Pivovar makes a colorful ambassador for the College World Series with his Hawaiian shirt, khaki shorts and blue-streak S’oud Omaha patter. This bona fide character champions “the little people who built” the CWS.
Enter his sports memorabilia shop across from Rosenblatt and his course, cranky, world-weary sarcasm greets you, his barbs delivered with a stiff drink in one hand and a cell phone in the other. He talks like he writes on his stadiumview.wordpress.com blog.
“A lot of it is funny and cynical, but a lot of it is from my heart,” he said..
His shop’s a popular way stop for CWS fans craving authentic Omaha. He’s dispensed free beer since opening the joint 19 years ago. “It’s meant as a gesture of friendship and welcome, not as, Hey, you want to stand around and get drunk here? Part of the ritual,” he said. In 2006 he “took a cheap ass plea” on a ticket scalping charge he claims was bogus. He said the company he keeps is what got him in trouble.
“I have a bunch of scalpers who hang around here,” he said. “They’re friends of mine. I like them, they’re an interesting breed of human being.”
The arrest made headlines. A recent AP story that went viral called him a one-man CWS welcoming committee. Ryan McGee profiled him in the book The Road to Omaha.
“Famous…infamous, I’ve been both,” said Pivovar.
His uncensored ways hardly conform to the Norman Rockwell image the NCAA prefers.
Pivovar, who also serves homemade barbecue and enchiladas during the CWS, and cooks up a mean jambalaya whenever LSU makes it, feels he contributes to a “festival atmosphere.” Vendor and hospitality tents dot the blue collar neighborhood, where enterprising residents make a sweet profit charging for parking spots and refreshments.
The NCAA’s tried distancing the CWS from the commercial, party vibe. A clean zone will be easier to enforce with the move to TD Ameritrade Park next year.
“Piv” likes a good time but acknowledges all “the temporary bars” can be “a negative,” adding, “There’s a few too many people coming down here just to get drunk, and that’s not the idea. That sounds hypocritical coming from a guy who’s given 40,000 beers away, but it really isn’t. Most of my beers are given away one, maybe two at a time.”
The Creighton University Law School grad and former Sarpy County public defender has a private practice he puts on hold for the series. This being Rosenblatt’s last year, he’s stocked extra beer for the record hordes expected to say adieu to the stadium.
His own ties to Rosenblatt go back to childhood. His collecting began with baseball cards, sports magazines, game programs, signed balls. He got serious after college, traveling to buy and sell wares. Eventually, he said, “my collection was pretty much overrunning my home. I’m a hoarder. I needed a place to store my hobby.” Thus, the store was born, although he insists: “It’s not a business, it’s never been a business. I don’t make any money at this, I never have. It’s kind of like a museum.”
Most of his million or so cards, he said, “are just firewood.”
What business he does do largely happens during the CWS. Even then he said I “barely pay the bills.” He doesn’t know what he’ll do after the ‘Blatt’s gone and the series moves downtown. “I’d love to carry my hobby down there but…If somebody comes and shits a couple hundred thousand dollars on my face it might happen, but other than that…”
If he closes shop, he’s unsure what will become of his stuff.
“I don’t even want to think about it. I suppose I could throw it all on e-bay and get a mere pittance for it. That’s the way that works. So much of it has zero to such a narrow market, and I knew that going in. It’s not like I was having any allusions of getting rich from this.”
He’s pissed about the “Blatt’s demise and suspects the new site will usher in a sterile, elitist era.
“I’m a conspiracy theorist. What this is all about is developing that north area (NoDo) and wanting to give the zoo what they need. The bastards are taking my ballpark. Like I end a lot of my blogs, I’ve got so many days until my world’s over. It’s kind of like writing your own obituary.”
At least he has his health. He’s cancer-free after a bout with cancer.
The “Save Rosenblatt” t-shirts he carried have been replaced with ones reading: “To Hell with Rosenblatt, Save Stadium View.”
Stadium View is at 3702 So. 13th St.
- College World Series Is Moving On (nytimes.com)
- College World Series is Omaha’s party central (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Rosenblatt Stadium memories will live on (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Vermont couple ties knot during CWS rain delay (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- 1st game at new Omaha ballpark sells out in hours (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
UPDATE: The summer of 2011 finds Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Neb. now an empty shell and ghost of a ballpark, its parts being cannibalized and sold off, while the new home of the College World Series, TD Ameritrade Park, is a resounding hit with fans and media.
Eleven years ago or so I wrote this story about Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, the home of the College World Series. As I write this intro, the CWS is a day away from starting play in 2010, the last year the event will be played at the stadium that’s hosted NCCA Division I men’s baseball championship for 60 years. Rosenblatt is being razed in early 2011, when the series will move into a new downtown stadium now under construction. Rosenblatt has become the symbol for the series because of all the history bound up in it and the special relationship residents and fans have with it and with the blue collar neighborhood surrounding it. My story appeared in The Reader (www.thereader,com).
A Rosenblatt Tribute
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
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, idiosyncrasy blooms. A contest is decided when 27 outs are recorded, but getting there can involve limitless innings, hours, plays. Stadiums may appear uniform, but each has its own personality — with distinctive wind patterns, sight lines, nooks and crannies.
Look in any 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 synonymous 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.
The 1998 CWS is scheduled May 29-June 6.
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/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 leisurely 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 the 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 is 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 League clubs passed through in the 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 Cardinal 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 hold special meaning. “The first two years of the series another boy and I had the privilege of being the 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.”
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 Forsberg, 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 real 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, 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 Bluejay club, 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 Stadium. 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 abound as well. Like the ‘64 ceremony renaming the former Municipal 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 the tourney are made for each other, “It’s always been a tremendous place to have a tournament like this, 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 with 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 a latter-day version of the recently disbanded Sokol Commission that led the drive for a new convention center-arena.
With a 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 issue 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 is at once a throwback to a bygone era — with its steel-girdered 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 popular 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,” 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 green trees and see what mid-America is all about.”
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.
“Almost without exception writers coming to this event really do become taken with the city, with the stadium and with the laidback way this 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 his Trojans to 10 national titles and still travels each year 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 executive with an Omaha temporary employment firm. 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. He said, “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 eight-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), collegiate (UNO) and pro football (Omaha Mustang 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 accomodated 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, however, the city now reserves the park for none but its one true calling, baseball, as a means of protecting its multimillion dollar investment.
“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 fairly 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 major league clubs.
Omaha’s desire to keep the CWS has made the stadium a priority.
As the series began drawing consistently 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, the city 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.
By 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 ‘90 the club’s then owner, the late Chicago business magnate 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 CWS 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 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 the 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 Sue” 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, sound-proof 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.”
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 203,000 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 of 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 conviviality 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 withdrawal 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 one 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 l 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…