Braves, dignitaries honor trailblazing Lucas

Braves, dignitaries honor trailblazing Lucas

ATLANTA -- As an emotional Rubye Lucas participated in a ceremony honoring her late husband at SunTrust Park on Thursday afternoon, she expressed her gratitude to the Braves by repeatedly referencing the lyrics to "I Thank You", a song released by Sam & Dave in 1968 and covered by ZZ Top a decade later.

"You didn't have to do what you did, but you did, and I thank you" essentially served as the heart of the message Lucas conveyed while speaking to Hank Aaron, Dale Murphy and other Braves dignitaries who gathered on this February day to celebrate the legacy created by Bill Lucas, a baseball pioneer whose memory will be honored at SunTrust Park just as it had been at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and Turner Field.

Four full decades have passed since Lucas became Braves vice president of baseball operations (essentially becoming the first African-American general manager in MLB history, although he would never officially hold that title), and nearly 38 full years have passed since a brain hemorrhage ended his life at 43 years old. Still, his legacy will live on at SunTrust Park within the Bill Lucas Conference Room, which will serve as the area the baseball operations staff will use for many important events, including the annual MLB Draft.

The Braves also announced the street off of Circle 75 Parkway, where team executives and players will enter SunTrust Park, will be named Bill Lucas Way. The organization also brought tears to the eyes of Rubye when it announced the start of the Bill Lucas Apprenticeship, which will provide an aspiring person of diverse background an opportunity to spend a year being introduced to various aspects of the baseball business.

"I just wanted to thank the Braves," Lucas' daughter Wonya said. "My father taught me a lot about leadership through the good times and the bad. My father taught me a lot about passion and doing things in your life that you believe in and doing them every morning, noon and night. He had that passion."

Bill Lucas' passion and witty, sarcastic personality is still vividly remembered and treasured by Braves chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk, who recalls their relationship they began fostering in 1976, shortly after Ted Turner bought the Braves.

During a seven-year Minor League playing career (1957-64) with the Braves, Lucas was regularly introduced to the cruel realities of segregation. During many of those days when he was told he had to eat in an area reserved for the black players, he steadfastly remained on the team bus. Fortunately, his good friend and teammate Paul Snyder brought food back to the bus for Bill.

After the Braves moved from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966 and lured Lucas to come south to join their front office, Lucas hired Snyder, who then proceeded to embark on a legendary scouting career that earned him a spot in the Braves' Hall of Fame.

When Snyder asked Lucas why he wanted to hire him, he heard, "because you don't see color."

"A lot of nights, he'd sleep in a boarded-up hotel," Snyder said. "Never once could anybody on that team say they saw him angry, irate -- never. He just buttoned his lip, went out and played his heart out. He was a special, special person. Bill Lucas was quite a guy."

Lucas was also instrumental in the selection and development of Murphy, who blossomed from being a wide-eyed kid from Oregon into a two-time National League Most Valuable Player. Murphy still credits some of his success to the parental-like guidance and love he received from Bill and Rubye Lucas.

Murphy struggled at the plate during the early portion of his career, and the defensive troubles he had before ending his days as a catcher have been well-chronicled. His ability to persevere through those tough times was aided by the unwavering confidence Lucas continued to provide, with acts like going to the Dominican Republic after the 1976 season to give Murphy a bonus he knew he hadn't earned via his performance.

"He encouraged me and he walked that tough line while being a boss in the very tough field of professional baseball," Murphy said. "But I always felt he was my friend. It was very motivating when you have somebody you feel cares about you and allows you to do your best, while being with you during your ups and downs."

When Lucas came to Atlanta in 1965, a full year before the Braves moved from Milwaukee, he began implementing integration plans by making a conscious attempt to make equally diverse hires of those chosen to work within the front office and as part of the staff at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.

Lucas worked his way up the corporate ladder and was elevated to vice president of baseball operations in September 1976. His responsibilities were the same as other GMs, and he would have had the title had the eccentric Turner not chosen to essentially want to be both owner and GM.

Still, history remembers this as the moment when baseball gained its first African-American GM. A little more than a year after gaining this role, Lucas lured Bobby Cox from the Yankees to begin his first managerial stint with Atlanta. Without this choice, Cox would have likely not gained the link that drew him back to Atlanta in 1985, to serve as a GM and eventually return to the bench to construct his Hall of Fame managerial career.

Unfortunately, Lucas was gone by the time the Braves won the 1982 National League West crown and Murphy won his consecutive MVP Awards. He watched the Braves on television as Phil Niekro notched his 200th career victory in Pittsburgh on May 1, 1979. A few hours later, he suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage caused by an aneurysm.

"Bill did so much for me and this entire organization," Murphy said. "This is not an easy profession. It can be very challenging. You just have to hope you have somebody like Bill Lucas in your corner."

Mark Bowman has covered the Braves for MLB.com since 2001. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.