Braves’ Bill Lucas Fellowship launches careers in baseball

Five years ago, when planning ways to honor her late husband at their new stadium, the Braves asked Rubye Lucas what she’d like to see done.

“I said, ‘I’d like to see something that is ongoing and really making a significant difference in the lives of young people,’” she recalled recently.

The team launched the Bill Lucas Fellowship program, a one-year-plus apprenticeship for young people from diverse backgrounds, in honor of the beloved Braves executive who was MLB’s first Black general manager from 1976 until his death in 1979. The goal of the program, the Braves said, is to increase the number of Black executives working in baseball operations in MLB.

There’s a long way to go, but the early results have been heart-warming to Rubye Lucas: The first two recipients of the fellowship, Jordan Jackson and Jeremy Dorsey, have landed permanent positions in baseball, the 28-year-old Jackson as manager of baseball operations for the Miami Marlins and the 26-year-old Dorsey as an analyst in major-league operations for the Braves.

When Rubye Lucas got a phone call informing her the Braves had hired Dorsey after his fellowship, she was so moved “it just made me cry,” she said. “In fact, I’m tearing up now. I am so very pleased with the program and so happy the Braves started it.”

She hopes the Bill Lucas Fellowship will spawn other programs like it and ultimately make a much-needed difference in a sport that continues to have a woeful record of hiring Black candidates in high-level positions such as general manager and manager.

“One of the reasons I pushed this idea so hard,” she said, “was that I just couldn’t understand, after we had Luke (as her husband was known) and he reached the level he reached, why couldn’t the Braves – I wasn’t thinking about other teams – see that there were other young African-American men and women out there who can do the same kind of thing if only they had the opportunity?

“It has been my desire and my aim and my goal and my purpose to carry on the legacy of Luke. … I want to see young Black people making decisions about what is happening in the Braves’ front office, in baseball.”

Jackson, Dorsey and the latest participant in the fellowship program, Terrence Pinkston, hope to be in such a position some day. All have aspirations of becoming an MLB team’s general manager.

“Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Rubye Lucas said.

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

Credit: ccompton@ajc.com

The Bill Lucas Fellowship “allows for people like (Jackson and Pinkston) and me to get our foot in the door and show what we can do, where maybe otherwise we might not necessarily have the chance,” said Dorsey, who has a statistics degree from Notre Dame. “I do think positions like these are needed because sometimes I truly believe that candidates just get left out, particularly those who look like us.

“You ask any Black professional in baseball, and I think they would agree it’s tough to be in any kind of environment where there aren’t very many people who look like you. … But I do think it’s important for people like us who have such high aspirational goals to push through … because of those who are going to come after us.”

Jackson was chosen from 140 applicants in the fellowship’s first year in 2018, starting his path to his current position in Miami.

“You’re seeing more diverse candidates, (including) more women, to fill these roles that traditionally they’ve had not as much success climbing into,” Jackson said. “For me, being a diverse candidate, having an opportunity now to work in baseball (is) largely because of the creation of the Bill Lucas Fellowship.”

He also thinks the program allowed him to be considered despite a “non-traditional” background: “I was a law school student, not typically the people who feed into baseball operations.” He was selected as the Braves’ first Lucas fellow upon graduating from Tulane Law School in May 2018. When he left the program in December 2019, he had his job with the Marlins lined up.

“Without the program and the guidance and leadership of the people who shepherded it, as well as everyone there, I would not have been able to accomplish what I have accomplished so far,” he said.

Credit: Special

Credit: Special

According to Dixie Keller, who runs the program as the Braves’ senior director of baseball administration, the paid fellowship includes a rotation through major-league operations, player development, research and development, amateur scouting and pro scouting. The fellows assist with preparations for spring training, the amateur draft and the trade deadline and help with strategizing for major-league games through analytics. The fellowship can be extended with a second optional year to focus on a particular area of interest.

“So far, we are 2-for-2,” said Keller, meaning the first two people to complete the program have landed MLB positions. “I think we are achieving our objectives. ... And we’ll be able to follow their careers long-term because they are going to move up.”

While the Lucas Fellowship is focused on baseball operations, the Braves and stadium naming-rights partner Truist last year launched the Henry Aaron Fellowship to train young people from diverse backgrounds on the business side of the front office.

The success of the Lucas Fellowship’s first two recipients made an impression on Pinkston, who just last month started his stint as the third.

“It’s very encouraging that if I work hard … there is a possibility for me at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

Pinkston, 25, was selected for the program after earning an undergraduate degree in sociology from Norfolk State and a master’s in government policy from Maryland-Baltimore County and playing baseball in college and independent leagues.

“When I first graduated undergrad, I was looking to get into baseball, but didn’t know how to get my foot in the door,” Pinkston said. “I knew analytics was a big thing coming up in baseball, so the first job I took was as a data analyst with the city of Baltimore. That was one of my ways to enhance my skill set to get into baseball and try to stick in there for a long time.”

Dorsey has known since high school – “since my playing days were coming to an end at the age of 18″ – that he wanted to work in an MLB’s team front office.

“The ultimate goal is to be a GM,” Dorsey said, “but then on top of that to win multiple World Series.”

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The man for whom the fellowship is named lends stature and prestige to it.

Bill Lucas didn’t have the formal title of general manager with the Braves, but only because the team used a different title – vice president of player personnel – for the same job at the time. He had all the responsibilities and duties of general manager – making trades, signing players, etc. – and was known inside and outside the organization as the Braves’ GM.

He spent more than 20 years with the Braves in a variety of roles: minor-league infielder starting in 1957, member of the transition team that oversaw the franchise’s move from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966, farm-system director starting in 1972 and the team’s top baseball executive from September 1976 until he died far too young at age 43 in May 1979 of a massive cerebral hemorrhage caused by an aneurysm. He was instrumental in the Braves drafting Dale Murphy and Bob Horner and hiring Bobby Cox for his first stint as manager.

Almost 43 years after Lucas’ death, he remains one of the most respected figures in franchise history. He was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2006.

Rubye Lucas said her late husband “would be extremely grateful and thankful to the Braves for implementing this program.” She makes a point to get to know all of the fellowship recipients. “I call them my children,” she said. Jackson recalls a two-hour meeting with her as “probably my favorite moment of my time there.”

“Leaving that conversation, not only did I know her, but I feel like I got to know Bill Lucas as well,” he said from Miami. “It gave me a renewed sense of … trying to carry that legacy forward.”