Legacy of former Braves GM extends to SunTrust Park

Some icons of Braves history — Hank Aaron and Dale Murphy among them — showed up at SunTrust Park on Thursday for a ceremony honoring another of the franchise’s greats.

The Braves unveiled plans for a series of tributes to the late team executive Bill Lucas, the first African-American to run the player-personnel department of an MLB club.

The conference room in the baseball operations department at the Braves’ new stadium will be named the Bill Lucas Conference Room. The street, off Circle 75 Parkway, on which Braves players and executives will enter the stadium will be named Bill Lucas Way. And the Bill Lucas Apprenticeship program will be created to offer year-long apprentice positions in baseball operations to candidates of diverse backgrounds.

Lucas spent more than 20 years in the Braves’ organization in a variety of roles, starting as a minor-league player in 1956, continuing as a member of the transition team that oversaw the franchise’s move from Milwaukee to Atlanta in 1966 and culminating with his appointment as vice president of player personnel — effectively general manager — in 1976.

Lucas served in the latter role until his death at age 43 on May 5, 1979, of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.

The impact Lucas made on the Braves organization was reflected all these decades later in the turnout of franchise heavyweights for the ceremony announcing how he’ll be remembered at the new ballpark.

“This is really wonderful,” Aaron said.

In attendance, along with Aaron and Murphy, were former team owner Bill Bartholomay, current chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk, former general manager and current vice chairman John Schuerholz, former director of scouting Paul Snyder, current general manager John Coppolella and current president of business Derek Schiller.

Also on hand, and clearly moved by the tributes, were members of Lucas’ family: his wife, Rubye, and daughters, Wonya and Andrea.

“I want to thank you all for remembering him and for carrying on his legacy through the apprenticeship,” Wonya Lucas told the gathering. “That would have meant so much to him. It’s about reaching back and helping others and paying it forward.”

“Let me tell you, there are not many organizations in this country who would take a family and continue to take care of them and to love them and make them a part of their life for (almost) 40-something years after someone passes,” Rubye Lucas said. “The Atlanta Braves have been our life.”

Photos of Lucas were displayed on the center-field video board in SunTrust Park, where virtually all of the seats have been installed and the field has been prepared for the installation of grass. The Braves’ regular-season home opener there is April 14 against San Diego.

A citation under a photo of Lucas in the conference room bearing his name read: “In recognition of his contributions to the Atlanta Braves and pioneering the transformation of Baseball’s front office.”

Lucas was named to run the Braves’ player personnel department by then-owner Ted Turner in September 1976, making him the highest-ranking African-American in MLB at the time.

“Although entitled at the time vice president of player personnel, we all knew he was the general manager of the Atlanta Braves,” said Schuerholz, who was in the Kansas City Royals’ front office at the time.

McGuirk said Lucas’ responsibilities actually exceeded those of current general managers, because MLB teams didn’t have as many front-office positions and titles in those days.

“Everyone knew Bill was the right man for the job,” said McGuirk, who worked with Lucas for three years. “The fact that he was the first African-American to ever hold that lofty position was almost irrelevant to him. He knew that he was the best man for the job.

“It’s fitting as we put our roots down in this new ballpark that Bill has a permanent place of remembrance so that all future Braves executives and employees will know how highly we regard this Braves hero.”

Lucas was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in 2006. He played key roles in the drafting and development of Murphy and in the hiring of Bobby Cox as manager in 1978, the first of Cox’s two stints as Braves manager.

Murphy brought a special document with him to SunTrust Park on Thursday: a copy of his $25,000 contract for the 1978 season, signed by Lucas.

“He took a chance on a skinny kid from Portland, Oregon,” Murphy said. “I didn’t know what I was doing, had never been to Georgia, didn’t expect to be drafted by the Braves (in 1974). … I flew here to Atlanta, walked off the plane, and there was Bill waiting for me.

“It sounds kind of funny, actually, to say Bill. I don’t think I ever called him anything except Mr. Lucas.”