The second annual Bob Gibson Heritage Project banquet was held in Omaha, Neb. on Tuesday night and it produced some great baseball stories from Jack McKeon, Frank White and Bill Beck.
The project is designed to recognize the role that baseball has played in American culture and to assist underserved communities in providing opportunities for young people to enjoy the national pastime.
Last year, the project unveiled a Gibson statue outside of Werner Park. This year, the project wants to build a walk of fame at the same ballpark that will honor native-born members of the HOF, including Richie Ashburn, Sam Crawford, Wade Boggs, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Bill Southworth.
The banquet included a roundtable discussion hosted by a local radio personality between McKeon (who managed the Omaha Royals from 1969-‘72), White, and Beck (Omaha's first play-by-play announcer).
The legendary manager who has been in the game for more than 60 years in one form or another (guiding the 2003 Florida Marlins to the World Series title) started by telling the audience how he got involved in the game.
Scouts wanted to sign him out of high school but his dad, who only had a seventh grade education, told him there was no way he would allow Jack or his brother to sign because he wanted them to get a college education. So he went to Holy Cross on a scholarship.
McKeon, takes his Catholic faith quite seriously but he isn't afraid to tell a funny faith-related story and he did so on this night. While attending Holy Cross, he wanted to leave early to turn pro, so he came up with a plan to convince his father to allow him to do so.
"Every night I went to the dining hall at Holy Cross, I passed by a shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary," McKeon said. "And on the way back, I would stop and pray. I would pray for about ten or fifteen minutes and I would ask the Blessed Virgin if there was any way she could help me out - any way that she could convince my father to let me sign.
"Well, just to show you how sometimes prayers are answered, I went home for the Christmas holiday and the scouts came back to our house. My father called me into the other room and he said, ‘You really want to play, don't you?' I said, ‘Yeah, I do.' He said, ‘I'll tell you what I'll do. I make you a deal. If you promise me you'll get a college education, I'll let you sign.'
McKeon agreed. He left Holy Cross early, signed a contract and eventually went back to get his college degree. Of course, he had another quip about needing help during his professional career.
"Every time I had problems on the field or managing, I'd go back to the Blessed Virgin and say, ‘Hey, you got me into this jam, now help me out.'"
McKeon told another funny story that included a faith element - this one was about when he was managing in Cincinnati and they were home for a series against the Dodgers. McKeon, who attends mass regularly, ran into Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda in church.
"After mass was over, I see Tommy sneak up to the altar to light a candle," McKeon said, presuming that Lasorda was doing so as a prayer for a win that night. "And he didn't see me, but later on, we were exchanging lineups at home plate on that Sunday afternoon and I said, ‘Tommy, it's not going to work.'" He said, ‘What do you mean?' I said, ‘I saw you sneak up and light that candle, but you didn't see me sneak up and blow it out.'"
At one point in the ceremony, the 83-year-old McKeon, who has retired from managing twice, was asked whether he would consider managing again if a major league team came calling.
"Yeah, I would. Yes," McKeon said. "As long as you're in good health and stay on top of things, I don't see any reason why ... you know, age is just a number. People thought I was too old when I was 72. I tried to tell them I was a seasoned citizen, not a senior citizen. But, I'm always open. I once wrote a book in which I said I would never manage again, but of course I did - once, twice. So I'll never say that again."
Before the event, McKeon met with the media. He talked about a number of topics I haven't addressed above, including how he helped to build a baseball legacy in Omaha, how the game has changed over the years and more. Here's the full interview.
White, the acrobatic second baseman who won eight Gold Gloves with the Royals, spoke about his humble beginnings. He grew up close enough to Municipal Stadium in Kansas City that he could see the lights in the distance.
"In the summer we would collect pop bottles and go cash them in at the drug store, then we would go to Arthur Bryant's - the famous rib place and we'd go buy some fries and go sit in the bleachers and watch the games and I think that's what really got me thinking about being a pro baseball player," White said.
"You would walk outside the stadium and rub your hand down the wall and wonder what it would be like to play with these guys. But the thing that really got me going was, we used to stand by the door when the players used to come out after games. Back then, there was no TV. Everything was on transistor radio. So these guys were like gods to us. When they came out of the stadium we didn't go rushing to them with pens and paper, saying, ‘Will you sign this?' We just backed up and gave them their due."
After playing baseball in high school, he thought his playing days were over. Then, at the age of 19, he heard about the Royals baseball academy and he begged his boss for two days off so he could try out. The rest, as they say, is history.
White recounted a funny story about his training days at the academy outside of Sarasota, in a remote area, with a pond nearby. White said it wasn't unusual to see alligators walking around. That's not all they had to deal with.
"In Florida, you get heavy rains, and after those heavy rains you would go out to the field and find rattlesnakes on the mound or you'd be playing a game in the afternoon and they would have to stop the game because an outfielder came running in after seeing a snake crawling around."
White went from dodging alligators and snakes to the biggest stage in baseball. In the 1985 World Series against the Cardinals, the Royals weren't allowed to use the DH so Hal McRae couldn't start, prompting manager Dick Howser to shuffle the lineup.
"He calls me into his office and says, ‘Hey, you are going to bat fourth in the World Series,'" White recalled. "I said, ‘You gotta be nuts. Why me? Why not George [Brett]? Brett wanted to hit third. So I told Dick I would hit fourth, but I said, ‘If I do well, they'll write about it and if I don't well, they'll say I shouldn't have been there in the first place.'
"But I just relaxed and ended up leading the Series in RBIs and had a home run. I found out later on that I was one of only two second baseman in the history of baseball to bat fourth in all seven games of the World Series. The other was Jackie Robinson, so that made it pretty special."
White met with the media before the event and he recalled several more stories you might be interested in, including one about a game during Spring Training when he was just coming up through the ranks in which the Royals faced Gibson. You can see the entire interview below.
In addition to being the first play-by-play radio announcer for the Omaha Royals (from 1969-'74), Beck went on to work for Kansas City and San Diego, and he's been working for the Marlins in one capacity or another for the past twenty-three seasons.
Beck joined the Omaha Royals when Kansas City was an expansion club, and he said they only had three full-time employees - the general manager, a secretary and himself.
"We did everything," Beck said. "There were many a day when it started raining and we didn't have enough people on the ground crew and I ruined many a pair of shoes, but it was a great experience. Getting into baseball is something I always wanted to do."