Lucas left lasting legacy in Braves' front office
Former GM brought Cox to Atlanta, nurtured a young Murphy
ATLANTA -- Less than a decade after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, former Braves owner Ted Turner made Bill Lucas the highest ranking African-American in baseball history.
Along with being historical, it was a decision that had a tremendous impact on Braves history. Lucas was the man who brought Bobby Cox to the organization, and he was a patient father figure who helped nurture a struggling Dale Murphy as he attempted to prove himself at the Minor League level.
"I was just really lucky to have him there with the Braves during my formative years," Murphy said. "No matter how old you are or what level you are in, you play for your leaders, you play for your managers.
"[Lucas] had a way as GM and Minor League director to make you want to play for him and do well for him. I knew he was pulling for me. I knew he was in my corner. I needed him there when I was trying to find a position to play."
Lucas was Atlanta's director of Minor League operations when the club selected Murphy with the fifth overall pick in the 1974 First-Year Player Draft. He greeted a wide-eyed 18-year-old Murphy at the airport and managed to give the young catcher the comfort he needed as he prepared to begin his Minor League career.
"Everybody remembers Bill with real fondness," Murphy said. "He was just comfortable to be around."
Cox has similar recollections of Lucas, the man responsible for giving him his first managerial role at the Major League level.
Lucas hired Cox to serve as the Braves' skipper before the start of the 1978 season. This created the link that would bring Cox back to Atlanta as general manager in '85, after he had completed a four-year stint as the Blue Jays' manager. Six years later, Cox was back on the bench, leading Atlanta to the first of its 14 consecutive division titles.
"Bill was just a tremendous person," Cox said. "He was very knowledgeable and really knew baseball. He was a joy to be around. Everybody loved him."
When Lucas was elevated to vice president of baseball operations in September 1976, he essentially became the first African-American to serve as general manager for a Major League club. His responsibilities were the same as other GMs, and he would have had the title had the eccentric Turner not chosen to keep it for himself.
"I always thought of him as the GM until a few years later, I heard or read something where somebody said Bob Watson was the first African-American GM," Murphy said. "I never really understood that. I always thought of Bill as our general manager."
Watson was baseball's first African-American to gain the GM title when the Astros promoted him to that role in 1993. But Lucas had performed the role more than a decade earlier without much attention placed on the historical significance.
"Ted hired the best guy for the job, and I really didn't even think about that at the time," Murphy said.
During a seven-year Minor League career with the Braves, Lucas was regularly introduced to the cruel realities of segregation. Still showing the will of his boyhood idol Jackie Robinson, Lucas dealt with these issues and in the process showed some of the characteristics that were admired by the many who had the pleasure of knowing him.
"He couldn't eat in the same place we did," legendary Braves scout Paul Snyder said when Lucas was inducted to the Braves' Hall of Fame in 2006. "A lot of nights, we'd bring food down to him in the bus. A lot of nights, he'd sleep in a boarded-up hotel downtown. 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 reluctantly accepted the Braves' offer to join the front office in 1965. He came to Atlanta a full year before the club moved from Milwaukee and began implementing integration plans to show the public that this was an equal opportunity organization.
It was his idea to attempt to hire an equal amount of Caucasians and African-Americans to work within the front office and as part of the staff at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
Lucas encountered some frustration as he attempted to work amid some of the racial tensions that still existed in the Deep South during the 1960s. In an interview that ran in the July 1977 issue of Ebony, he often thought about Robinson when he encountered some of these problems.
"Things were really rough then and when I would start entertaining notions of giving it up, I'd think about what Jackie had to put up with," Lucas told the magazine. "My problems would then get to be minute. I'd think to myself, if he hadn't succeeded, there's no way I would have been in the front office in the first place. So I'd come away thinking I had to succeed to open some doors."
Lucas rose through the Braves' front office and found himself at the top of the baseball operations department at just 41. A few months later, he traveled to the Dominican Republic to evaluate players and let Murphy know that the organization still believed in him as he struggled to find comfort as a catcher.
"He pulled me aside and said, 'You're doing great,'" Murphy said. "I said, 'I am?' He said, 'Yeah, you have that performance bonus in your contract and we're going to give it to you.' It was at their discretion. I was kind of like, 'No.' I was kind of dumbfounded, because I had not earned it at all.
"They ended up giving me the bonus. I didn't know what to say. Eventually I just said, 'Thank you.' It was one of those things he didn't have to do. It was just a nice gesture. It really motivated me, not as much because of the money, but more about what it said to me. He really believed in me and really wanted me to succeed."
Unfortunately, Lucas was not around when Murphy made the successful conversion to outfielder and won back-to-back National League MVP Awards in 1982 and '83. 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. He was just 43 when he died the following day.
"It was just shock, disbelief and sadness all rolled up into one," Murphy said. "I didn't really know how to process it and put it all together. He was so young and had made such an impact on me and so many of the guys. I look back and wonder if I could have made it without him in a position that he was in. He stuck with me. It's unusual to have a friendship with somebody who is your boss. You're really lucky when you can experience that."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.