Luncheon For A Legend

I’ve attended and participated in scores of baseball-related programs over the years—book signings, school visits, commemorative days honoring retired stars, and meetings of the Society for American Baseball Research. Yet, I’ve never attended a baseball event that was as well organized or as effective as the one I participated in earlier this week.

On Monday at Philadelphia’s Renaissance Airport Hotel, I took part in a special benefit luncheon commemorating the 35th anniversary of the lineup that Pittsburgh Pirates manager Danny Murtaugh wrote out on September 1, 1971. Regular readers of this column know of what I speak: the first all-minority lineup in major league history. The luncheon provided local baseball officials with a way of honoring Murtaugh’s history-making lineup while simultaneously raising much needed funding for the last youth baseball team still operating in Murtaugh’s financially depressed hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania.

A gentleman named Jim Vankoski deserves more than a few pats on the back for the exhaustive work he did in putting together a smoothly run, well-paced, and supremely entertaining event. Vankoski, the president of the local Delaware County Baseball League (of which Chester is a member), almost single-handedly tied up all of the loose ends in the planning of the event. The list of attendees that Vankoski managed to secure included former Philadelphia Phillies slugger **** Allen, who overcame repeated bouts with racism to become the first African-American star in the team’s history; his brother, Hank Allen, currently a scout with the Milwaukee Brewers and formerly a utility player with the Brewers, Washington Senators, and Chicago White Sox; Tim Murtaugh, the son of Danny Murtaugh and a former player and minor league manager with the Pirates; and former Senators star Mickey Vernon, a native son of Delaware County who won two American League batting titles during a career that was interrupted by World War II.

**** Allen and Tim Murtaugh both spoke during the two-hour event, which almost became a three-hour program as some of the baseball celebrities graciously stayed late to sign autographs and take pictures. Allen wasn’t scheduled to speak, but agreed to when asked at the last moment. Showing few signs of a lack of preparations, he delivered a short series of thoughtful and funny remarks, exhibiting the kind of intelligence and humor that the media wrote so little about during his tumultuous career in the sixties and seventies. The soft-spoken Murtaugh concluded the program, which was ably emceed by Phillies PA announcer Dan Baker, by offering some heartfelt recollections of his father, who was almost universally beloved by Pirates players during a career that included four managerial terms in Pittsburgh.

Although Hank Allen and Mickey Vernon did not make formal comments during the luncheon, they both made strong impressions as approachable gentlemen willing to talk openly about their careers in baseball. I was fortunate enough to interview both; Allen was articulate and amiable, and highly respectful of the accomplishments of his brother, while the 88-year-old Vernon was sharp and insightful, giving off the presence of a much younger man.

The luncheon also provided a personal thrill. After I made a few public comments about Danny Murtaugh and his involvement in starting the all-minority nine, **** Allen motioned me to come over to his table, extended his large right hand, and congratulated me for the remarks I made. It’s not often that I’ve received that kind of acknowledgment at a speaking engagement, especially from someone as noteworthy as **** Allen.

More importantly, the Philadelphia luncheon achieved both of its intended goals. The luncheon sold out, and with an overflow turnout of 150 fans at a rate of $35 per person, the Chester baseball team received a substantial jumpstart in remaining in business for 2007. Just as happily, the nearly 200 people that attended the program learned a little bit more about the Pirates’ first all-minority lineup, a story that continues to be ignored by much of the mainstream media. A few more folks will learn about that historic event now, thanks in part to the presence of reporters from both the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Tribune, the latter being the oldest black newspaper in the country.

It isn’t often that such events achieve financial success while also delivering an inspiring message along the way. Simply put, the luncheon honoring Murtaugh and the all-minority lineup exhibited the stark way in which past and present can come full circle. In 1971, Murtaugh showed the courage to field a lineup consisting entirely of black and Latino players. Thirty five years later, Murtaugh’s good name and reputation have allowed the youth team from his hometown of Chester, a team that consists largely of black and Latino players, to continue playing the game that Murtaugh’s Pirates played so well.

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