I’ve always found baseball discussions over the years, particularly on the major level, to serve as a bridge to previous generations of the sport once known as “America’s Pastime”. Being a proud Baby Boomer, the collection of trading cards as a kid was always a highlight each season to compare with the vast accumulation already in your shoe boxes. This of course predated the explosive windfall that would beset that industry down the road (boy if I had a fraction of that collection in contemporary times). Be that as it may, on the verge of the upcoming 2023 Major League Baseball season, I browsed through some of my previously released MLB-related videos and chose to post the links in this baseball edition. Before we dive in, congratulations to the 2022 World Series Champion Houston Astros led by future Hall of Fame skipper Dusty Baker. Perhaps it not ironic that the first two video links are pertaining to the “back in the day” version of Baker as he speaks with Lenny Moon about former teammate Hank Aaron’s lack of respect as an all-time great, as well as the Hammer’s torturous home run chase of Babe Ruth’s then-record (see below).
Following an up and down early career with the Los Angeles Dodgers, hurler Dave Stewart found himself up the coast in Oakland and developed himself into the ace of the Athletics (1986-92) and later the Toronto Blue Jays (1993-94) where he won World Series titles with both franchises. Stewart talked with Lenny Moon about why he felt that there were not more Black pitchers in the modern day game (see below).
We caught up with famed Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vincent Edward “Vin” Skully during our MLB coverage days as he talked about why he felt the southern California team produced so many Rookie-of-the-Year Award winners. Skully served 67 years as the voice of the Dodgers prior to retiring in 2016. On that same video, “Mr October” Reggie Jackson talked with Lenny Moon about being a star in New York and “doing his thing” in fabled Yankee Stadium (see below).
We wrap this segment with a gentleman that created history in 1974 by becoming the first Black manager in the history of Major League Baseball. Hall of Fame slugger Frank Robinson talks with Lenny Moon about his preparation of posturing himself to become the game’s barrier-breaker as the leader of a MLB team (see below).
WITH THE GAME’S RICH HISTORY, THE CALENDAR TELLS US THAT IT’S TIME AGAIN FOR SOUNDING THE ALARM TO “LET’S PLAY BALL”
The history books tell us that back in 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers led by team executive Branch Rickey, rolled the dice and comprised the experiment that led to Jack Roosevelt Robinson to become the first Black to integrate Major League Baseball. Nearly 76 years removed from that historic event, this may not seem like such a big deal to one who chooses to only glance at this occurrence. But for those who owned citizenship in America or chose to look a bit deeper into why this was a “big deal”, it becomes clearer that this was so much more than just a sports story. Leading up to and including 1947, America was an extremely unstable reality for citizens of color. The bundle of the basic symbols of citizenship ( Civil Rights Act-1964, Voting Rights Act-1965 and Fair Housing Act-1968) were nearly two decades away. During this era it typically was the entertainment or sports arena that was accepted by the so-called mainstream if one derived from the minority community. Even at that, the sports arena was still reluctant to comply in that athletes were revered as heroes that even kids looked up to which placed a different spin on the topic.
There was a tremendous amount of pressure on Robinson to not only succeed on the diamond, but to not retaliate to the hostility that he agreed to endure as a condition for him to be selected for the experiment. He literally carried the weight of his entire race on his shoulders (along with future MLB prospects) to prove to the establishment that created the barriers that given an opportunity Blacks could positively impact “America’s Pastime”. Like so many others from my era, the discussion of Robinson’s case was commonplace. With so few national African American role models that effectively penetrated the fortified wall of exclusion, Jackie represented what can happen when opportunities afford themselves to people of color in this country. He created hope that parents passed down to their kids that this accomplishment was something tangible to build upon. This was a sign that second class citizenship had an opportunity to become a thing of the past moving forward. When one is perceived to be less than a total person in the nation which their labor significantly help to construct then hope is latched onto tightly wherever it surfaces. This was the environment in the USA during the 40s in which Jackie had to find a method to navigate.
It’s important to reference that the period of time that’s we’re speaking of is the forties in the United States of America. That has to be established to begin to process how difficult of a task Mr Robinson was facing to become the barrier-breaker that he was determined to attain. Jackie’s, (born in 1919) grandparents were actually slaves. His mother fled Georgia, carrying Jackie and his four siblings to Pasadena, Ca when he was barely a year old. It was his stint at local college UCLA where Robinson would explode on the athletic scene where he lettered in four sports (football, basketball, track and baseball) after spending his first two collegiate years at Pasadena Jr College. It was there where he initially crossed paths with his future wife Rachel, also a student at the Westwood area university. This union would prove critical down the road in the history that she so aptly assisted him in creating. The dichotomy associated with Jackie is that he was polar opposite of the role he accepted to become the game’s first ever Black player in the league. Rachel was quoted as saying that Jackie would often wear white starched shirts to illuminate his dark Black skin symbolic of the pride in which he wore his Blackness. He was honorably discharged from the Army as a second lieutenant for aggressively dealing with a race-related conflict during the World War II era. He and Rachel were married just before his minor league tour of duty commenced, where she provided a support system during his pre-Dodgers games and especially while decompressing at home. After a socially turbulent yet successful minor league prelude, it was time for the majors on April 15 1947.
Once Jackie arrived in Brooklyn as a bonafide member of Dodgers, now the real litmus test would transpire. To his credit, Rachel was able to attend all home games as a stabilizing component at New York’s Ebbets Field but his own teammates were not as welcoming. There was a serious boycott by his mates that if management went forward with elevating a Black to their level, they would not suit up. Several asked to be traded rather than to be a teammate with a Black man. This opposition was led by their star outfielder “Dixie” Walker, a gentleman from Leeds, Alabama (Charles Barkley hometown) who eventually relaxed his position. Another teammate named Kirby Higbee stated that he developed his pitching arm by throwing rocks at Negroes while he was a kid. There was a threat by a number of the National League clubs that they would not take the field if the Dodgers had a Black on the field with them. During this era, it was estimated that approximately 33% of all major leaguers were from the South. Needless to say that was not a healthy ratio for incorporating desegregation. Above and beyond that, even the Brooklyn fans threatened to withdraw their support, not so much pertaining to Jackie but reluctant to share their stadium with the vastly anticipated Black patrons. Before he could play his first home game, Robinson was instructed to “talk to his people” as he addressed local civic clubs, churches and the like to not disrupt the environment for others. Even Brooklyn’s famed announcer Red Barber, a native of the deep South had to be brought in to be counseled about not allowing his native culture inadvertently articulated over the air. And this was the friendly fire. When Philadelphia made their first trip to Brooklyn to face the newly integrated Dodgers, their manager Ben Chapman reportedly shouted out to Jackie “shouldn’t you be picking cotton” and ‘hey boy, come and shine my shoes”. Needless to say, this transition by MLB did not come about without it’s share of drama. Those are just small samples of the adversity Jackie was willing to sacrifice for America, by turning the other cheek for a cause that was much larger than any single person. Even Dr Martin L. King indicated his inspiration exhibited by the Robinsons that predated his legendary treks that would began in the 50s with the Rosa Parks-Montgomery Bus Boycott issue a few years later.
After withstanding extreme hatred which included being spiked by sliding opponents and having frequent pitches thrown at his head, unfortunately was equivalent to a day at the office for the Pasadena, Ca native. Hearing a constant flow of racist epithets by opposing players and fans, and even having a black cat thrown on the field in his direction at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field were some of the tactics resistors attempted to throw his game off. At the end of the day, Robinson would go on to earn National League Rookie of the Year and leading his team to the World Series in 1947 vs crosstown rival Yankees. Under intense pressure, he led the Dodgers in runs, total bases, doubles, home runs, lead the N.L in steals while hitting just under .300. He was classified as the most famous Black person in America. It didn’t stop there, as he was ranked as the second most famous American across the board trailing only singer Bing Crosby and finishing ahead of Frank Sinatra, former first lady Elanor Roosevelt and General Dwight Eisenhower. Without question, this “experiment” was significantly more than a sports story.
When the calendar rolls around to the 12th of February of 2023, the National Football League turns the clock on its most significant position on the gridiron. The foundation was laid when Philadelphia defeated San Francisco to rep the National Football Conference led by signal caller Jalen Hurts. Later that same day, the American Football Conference champ was decided when Kansas City, led by their mercurial quarterback Patrick Mahomes II, prevailed over defending titlist Cincinnati. These ingredients provide the recipe for the two starting quarterbacks in a Super Bowl contest being of African American decent for the first time in the 57 year history of the bowl’s history. For the record, the NFL was established back in 1920 (47 years prior to the first Super Bowl). The first two Black quarterbacks to start in Super Bowl competition actually are products of Historically Black Universities in Doug Williams (Grambling/ Washington SB-XXII vs Denver) and Steve McNair (Alcorn/ Tennessee SB-XXXIV vs St Louis). Since 2014, there have been six starting appearances by Black quarterbacks with San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick in SB-XLVII vs Baltimore, Russell Wilson’s two appearances ( both with Seattle; SB- XLVIII and SB-XLIX), Charlotte’s Cam Newton in SB-50 vs Denver and this year’s entry Patrick Mahomes (3rd Super Bowl) who previously appeared in SB-LIV vs San Francisco and SB-LV vs Tampa.
Let’s visit the history of Blacks attempting to receive a fair shot at competing for the quarterback position in the NFL. This is a topic that’s found itself in my columns seemingly for decades. In simplified terms, a NFL franchise is a billion dollar business. The face of any pro football organization in any market is the quarterback. Additionally, the single most vital component to the success of a team’s ability to score more points than the opposition is the signal caller (aka the field general). As in the business community, qualified Blacks and other minorities struggle to obtain the benefit of a level playing field when it comes to upper tier level opportunities. It’s akin to a glass ceiling that’s not quite visible, but designed to prohibit one’s advancement in spite of credentials. A case study is the trek that former Houston Oilers Hall of Fame QB Warren Moon was forced to travel across the border to later be considered by the NFL. For those who might not be familiar with his story, Moon was not even drafted by the NFL in the late 70s after earning the then Pac-8 Player of the Year while leading his Washington Huskies to the Rose Bowl victory as their signal caller vs powerhouse Michigan in his senior campaign. Consequently, the Southern California native refused to change positions and accepted an opportunity to play in the Canadian Football League for the Edmonton franchise. Moon promptly led the Eskimos to five championships in his six seasons there before the NFL came calling. Warren was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006. Even prior to the aforementioned Oilers star, former Los Angeles Rams star James “Shack” Harris once shared with my radio audience that his offensive linemen would purposely make errors in practice drills proclaiming that they could not understand his diction (their way of proving he could not communicate the position). Coming from Grambling in the 60s, the Monroe, La native did not allow that to disrupt his rhythm and went on the become the first Afro-American opening day starter in the NFL along with earning Pro Bow MVP status (also a first by a Black QB). There are too many instances to mention in the allotted space for this commentary, but symbolic of the history of the Black QB and the NFL. When Doug Williams became the first starting Black quarterback in a Super Bowl during SB XXII, he was willing to play with one good leg after being injured in the first half (similar to Mahomes vs 49ers) and broke every significant passing record on the books. His exchange with his college coach, the legendary Eddie Robinson, was classic. Following his postgame on field interviews, he crossed paths with Robinson in the tunnel. Expecting a congrats from his coach about his record-smashing performance, instead Coach Rob in his exuberance stated “son, I’m so proud of you that you got back up to finish the job”. Provocative in a multitude of ways.
The evolution of the NFL has progressively gotten faster over the years, with better conditioned and stronger athletes. With increasing salary residuals afforded the modern day pro football player, year round training is now commonplace. Although protections have been implemented to protect the NFL’s precious commodity, quarterbacks have fewer seconds to release the football before the walls cave in. Both Super Bowl starting signal callers signify what’s required of the modern day NFL snap-taker in their ability to convert plays outside of the pocket; and/or matriculate the ball on the ground if necessary. (Ironically, Warren Moon, Doug Williams and James Harris were all pocket passes in the former prototype NFL model). The state of Texas will be beaming with pride in that both starting signal callers hail from the Lone Star State. Mahomes is a Tyler area native having starred at Whitehouse High, while Hurts is a Houston area product having starred at Chanelview High. At 27 years of age, Mahomes has risen as the top talent at his position in pro football, already having procured a Super Bowl championship (SB-LIV) earning the MVP in both the regular season and the Super Bowl. This year’s Super Bowl finds Patrick Mahomes II at the apex of his powers. The 24-year old Hurts is a second year starter in Philly and is constantly disproving his critics that he’s more than capable of passing the football to go along with his mobility. The baffling aspect about Jalen is that he’s always been a dual-threat talent. In high school he was ranked amongst the top double-threat quarterbacks in the nation prior to selecting collegiate powerhouse Alabama. Once there he became the first true freshman to start for the storied program in school history. He proved that decision correct by leading the Crimson Tide to a national title while throwing for nearly 2,800 yds and 23 TDs and rushing for 954 yards and 13 more TDs for a total of 36 end zone visits. His final collegiate season after transferring to Oklahoma, was a Heisman trophy finalist tossing for just under 3,300 yards with 32 TDs and rushed for 1,298 yards and 20 more TDs for a total of a whopping 52 TDs. What measuring stick are they using to appraise this guy’s skill-set pertaining to doubting his NFL capability. He’s been a winner wherever he’s performed. Both he and Mahomes are strong candidates for MVP honors for the recently completed 2022 season.
As a slight disclaimer, the following perspective comes from not directly covering the collegiate coaching career of Deion Luwynn Sanders (aka Coach Prime) but merely from the sidelines since his arrival. Covering Historical Black College football for over three decades does provide a vantage point from whence I speak. The appropriate timing by anyone is an aspect that most would rather procure than having all of the skill in the world. If one is able to merge both “timing and skill” then usually that entity finds themselves ahead of the brood. For openers, the premier of Deion Sanders tenure as a rookie head collegiate football coach while landing at a traditional Black conference (in 2020) was a breath of fresh air for a multitude of reasons. Certainly worthy of mentioning was the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s decision for opting to play spring football during the pandemic thus creating a television product for ESPN at a time when most of the remainder of the country had been forced to shut down. This of course created a hunger for live televised football programming at an all-time high (“good timing is more valuable than skill”).
Sanders brought national attention to the existence of HBCU football (the SWAC in particular) significantly more than that product had ever witnessed. Of course the popularity had always been firmly entrenched in certain pockets of the country, primarily in the “Chitling Circuit”. But the so-called mainstream had little or no interest in what transpired on “the other side of the tracks”. At the risk of sounding redundant, “timing is more effective than skill”. The merging of timing and skill postures one to significantly impact the radar screen. Sanders has always understood the formula for attracting attention to his brand. To his credit, he commanded attention for his supreme athletic ability that he readily articulated frequently, was camera friendly, colorful and controversial. Last time that I checked, he was the only Pro Football Hall of Fame caliber gridder in history that concurrently had the skill to hold down a Major League Baseball position that qualified to participate in the World Series with the Atlanta Braves in the 90s. So needless to say that the under-served HBCU football product received a much deserved infusion of spotlight with the arrival of Coach Prime. Additionally, he’s proving to be one of the most effective recruiters going, which again is a variable of his crafty salesmanship skills that deserves a world of credit. With the added exposure comes additional revenue opportunities that obviously had not been available with less eyeballs involved.
Having spent over three decades covering HBCU football, primarily the SWAC conference, I’m well aware of the rich legacy earned and associated with that storied conference. The SWAC conference led the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS once known as 1-AA) in attendance in 43 of the past 44 football campaigns. The only blemish during that impressive run was 2005 when they finished 3rd. Let’s be clear, this achievement is measured against all comparable conferences nationally, not just of African American decent. A great portion of those years, Jackson State set the pace as the leader, highlighted by their healthy contribution to NFL rosters as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame (see photo above). The SWAC, HBCU football and Jackson State had rich traditions long before the arrival of Coach Prime aka Deion Sanders. Let’s not forget that Grambling’s Eddie Robinson was college football’s all-time winningest coach until recent years, and provided a truckload of NFL players for decades, including Doug Williams who dispelled the myth pertaining to Black signal callers forever with his Super Bowl XXII record-breaking performance. James “Shack” Harris predated Williams at that position to become the first opening day Black starting QB in the league and went on to Pro Bowl status from the same institution. Alcorn’s Steve McNair finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting, not only from a FCS program, but an HBCU product from the SWAC. Buck Buchanan (another Grambling alum) was the first player selected way back in the 1963 NFL Draft. And many, many other examples exist that reflect the undersold legacy and contribution of Black College Football. In summary, Sanders brought a spotlight to the HBCU product that previously had very little appeal to the so-called mainstream. This author is not on the bandwagon of judging what Coach Sanders should or should not have done with his career. But akin to the TV commercial that flashes the sexy woman that’s intended to grab the viewer’s attention to sell auto parts, “Now that we have your attention. here’s a quality product that we’d like for you to check out” with a proven track record of sustained excellence. There’s only one Coach Sanders but the lesson that he left behind for the HBCU community, the SWAC and Jackson State is that Black College Football is a viable product if appropriately marketed and packaged to satisfy the palate of even the so-called mainstream’s appetite.
Congratulations to both the American League baseball champion Houston Astros as well as the National League kingpin Philadelphia Phillies that have earned their way as participants in the 2022 World Series. Once we were rendered the finalist from both leagues, it immediately carried me back to the last time that these two clubs met in the postseason in dramatic fashion. The year was 1980, fifteen years from the inception of perhaps the most brilliant architecture of the 20th Century. The venue was the Astrodome (8th Wonder of the World), the occasion was the National League Championship Series (Houston’s first ever), the teams Houston Astros vs the veteran and savvy Philadelphia Phillies.
This predated my eventual status of becoming a member of the media in the fall of 1980, but still found myself “in the house” as an attendant in what was referred as the “Skybox” (suite located on the 9th floor of the Dome where VIP and corporate types would host private parties during the game). As fate would have it, out of the 80 or so Skyboxes, yours truly would be assigned to the then former owner of the Astros and the builder of the Astrodome in Judge Roy Hofheinz. At this juncture of his life, the former Mayor of Houston and longtime powerbroker of his city had been stricken by a stroke and confined to a wheelchair with caretakers monitoring his every move. Needless to say, MLB dignitaries were coming and going constantly to greet and pay homage to this pioneer.
Certainly one of the reflections from that 1980 Astros season was the case of All-Star fireballer James Rodney “J.R.” Richard. At this stage of his career, Richard had evolved into the most feared pitcher in the game. Standing a hulking 6 foot 8 inches with a fastball that traveled over 100 mph and a complimentary slider that was just as un-hittable, opposing players would choose to take a day off instead of standing in the box against this force of nature. J.R. was coming off two consecutive 20-win campaigns and had led the league in strikeouts both of those seasons. His success carried into 1980, being named the starter for the N.L. during the 1980 MLB All-Star Game while posting a sparkling 10-4 record and a 1.96 ERA and mowing down practically every hitter he faced during the mid-summer classic. Richard would incur a stroke, following complaints of a “dead arm” that was misdiagnosed by the doctors of the Astros which ultimately led to the premature conclusion of his baseball career. We can only wonder what would have transpired had J.R. had to opportunity to be properly treated and possibly had a chance to further contribute to that 1980 club.
The 1980 Houston Astros squad was by and large a team driven by a solid pitching staff, spearheaded by Hall of Fame hurler Nolan Ryan (in the absence of Richard) and essentially a “small ball” outfit. Playing in the cavernous Astrodome, their leading home run hitter was Terry Puhl (13), but possessed five players with over 20 stolen bases led by outfielder Cesar Cedeno with 48. Even future Hall of Fame infielder Joe Morgan (who was drafted by Houston nearly two decades earlier) returned to H-Town to get in on the party with 24 steals. Conversely, Philly entered that series with two of that era’s top bashers in Hall of Fame slugger Mike Schmidt (league leader) and outfielder Greg Luzinski. Additionally, two other Hall of Fame members in outfielder/ infielder Pete Rose (MLB all-time hit leader) and crafty lefty Steve Carlton (24 wins and a 2.34 ERA) anchored the pitching staff (Rose has not officially been inducted). The “best of five” series became epic as two of the first three clashes of that matchup resulted in a 10 inning extra inning game along with an 11 inning contest. The Astros won two of those with the final two played in the friendly confines of the Judge’s Astrodome. With the tension as thick as any sporting environment most of us had witnessed in Harris County, Philly won Game 4 by the score of 5-3 along with the series-clinching victory 8-7 also in 10th innings to win the best of five showdown three games to two.
The Houston Astros managed to appear in only one World Series in its first 40 years of existence, being swept by the Chicago White Sox in 2005 as a member of the National League. But now being a member of the American League since 2013 it took them only four seasons to land in the Fall Classic, defeating the Los Angeles Dodgers in seven games (4-3) with outfielder George Springer evolving as the WS-MVP. The 2022 version of the Astros represent their fourth “bite out of the apple” in the last six seasons and the second consecutive appearance for skipper Dusty Baker. The defending A.L. Champions enter the World Series having swept both the hot Seattle Mariners and the always potent New York Yankees. The Houston organization deserves a world of the credit, having lost the likes of Springer, Carlos Carrera, Merwin Gonzalez and Garrit Cole. In return they’ve inserted homegrown stars such as Yordan Alavrez, Jeremy Pena, Kyle Tucker, Framber Valdez, and Luis Garcia among others and managed to not miss a beat through their losses at free agency. Another stroke of genius was procuring veteran skipper Baker from his retirement rocking chair to postseason appearances in all three of his H-Town seasons (following the firing of their GM and Manager from cheating scandal) including two consecutive American League championships. Although Dusty earned a World Series ring as a member of the Dodgers as a player, he’s still seeking his first as a manager. The Astros enter the Fall Classic as the favorite to reign supreme and projected to cap perhaps the most successful season in franchise history.
This may not be the textbook definition of what constitutes the qualities of a candidate for Pro Football Hall of Fame consideration, but merely through the lens of a journalist that’s covered the game since the 80s and been a fan since pre-school. Here goes; if a player of pro football was an impact player during his active era or as a contributor ascended the game to new heights as a result of said individual’s “contributions”. Or maybe perhaps an individual that “contributed” to the betterment of the NFL in a multitude of capacities. Enter the dignified gentleman that’s worn several hats during his 50-plus years of service to the NFL by the name of John Wooten.
Following an All-American career at the University of Colorado, Wooten was drafted in 1959 by the Cleveland Browns, where he performed until 1967 and finished with Washington in 1968 as an active National Football League player. And by the way, the all-pro offensive lineman blocked for three Pro Football Hall of Fame running backs in Cleveland (Jim Brown, Bobby Mitchell and Leroy Kelly). Other involvements with the NFL include Director of Pro Scouting with Dallas (1975-91) and the creation of Player Programs/ Player Development programs for the NFL in 1991. It was his work with Dallas where he assisted greatly in consummating the famous “Herchel Walker Trade” that postured the Cowboys to three Super Bowl titles during the 90s. Additionally, the Riverview, Tx native served as VP/ Player Personnel for Philadelphia in 1992 and also Assistant Director, Pro/ College Scouting for Baltimore until his retirement in 1998. He would go on to serve as Co-Founder/ first Chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance in 2003. It was Wooten who brought all parties together (over 100 coaches, scouts and front office personnel of color) following the findings from a study spearheaded by famed attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Cyrus Mehri at the NFL combine that same year. For consideration of allotted space, this is only a small capsule of the massive contributions of John Wooten. Below, we provided some clips of several gentlemen that know Mr Wooten better than most including NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell, Co-Founder of the Black College Football Hall of Fame and retired NFL executive James “Shack” Harris, Pro Football Hall of Fame member Harry Carson who also served as Executive Director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. Also, former teammate and business partner, Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown (see videos below)
FORMER HOUSTON OILER STARS BUBBA MCDOWELL, EDDIE ROBINSON JR AND EDDIE GEORGE NOW LEAD PRAIRIE VIEW, ALABAMA STATE & TENNESSEE STATE FOOTBALL PROGRAMS
Three former Houston Oilers stars have gone on to launch collegiate football coaching careers as head coaches at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Two of these former Columbia blue clad stars were actually teammates while the team was still in Houston while two were teammates in both H-Town and Nashville after the team relocated. The three newly inserted HBCU head coaches are Bubba McDowell at Prairie View A&M (Oilers-1989-94, ’89 Draft-3rd Rd), Eddie Robinson Jr at his alma mater Alabama State (Oilers-1992-95/ Tenn-1998-01, ’92 Draft-2nd Rd), and Eddie George at Tennessee State (Oilers/ Tennessee-1996-03, ’96 Draft-1st Rd). McDowell and Robinson Jr are rookie collegiate head coaches while George has embarked on his second season as a first-time head football coach.
Personally, I had the pleasure of covering the Oilers during their respective Houston stints and crossed paths with McDowell while broadcasting athletics on “the hill” while he was an assistant at PVAMU. A product of the University of Miami, “B-Mac” was a hard-hitting safety for Houston who earned a starting slot on some very good Oiler teams as a pro. The 1992 Houston Oilers team was amongst the best post-AFL team the city had witnessed (nine Pro Bowl selections). As history recorded, the Oilers lost 41-38 to the Buffalo Bills on January 4, 1993 in overtime after relinquishing a 32-point lead at Rich Stadium in Buffalo. Certainly a highlight for the road team that day was McDowell’s pick-six, taking it to the house from 58 yards out. Backup signal caller Frank Reich (now head coach with the Indianapolis Colts) subbed for injured Hall of Fame QB Jim Kelly and led his team to the historic comeback victory. Oilers Hall of Fame QB Warren Moon threw for 371 yds and 4 TDs in defeat. McDowell was victorious in his coaching debut as his PVAMU Panthers defeated rival Texas Southern (see trophy photo above) on “the hill” at Prairie View in the recent Labor Day Classic.
Very early in the sports broadcasting career of yours truly (while voicing Texas Southern athletics), Black College Football power Alabama State marched into H-Town to take on conference foe TSU. This was the 1991 gridiron campaign that would see the Hornets eventually snare the National Championship title. Spearheading that impressive contingent was Academic and football All-American Eddie Robinson Jr, senior linebacker from New Orleans. That game turned out to be the only blemish on an otherwise perfect season by ASU (11-0-1) vs the TSU encounter when it ended with a low scoring tied score. Robinson Jr (no known relation to Grambling State legendary head coach that shared his namesake) would come back to Houston when drafted by the Oilers in the 2nd round of the 1992 NFL Draft.
As someone was once quoted “You only get one shot to make a first impression” , well E-Rob definitely made his count. During his initial couple of months or so in town, he accepted an invitation to come over to the studio for an interview. After covering all of the football topics, we gravitated away from the gridiron discussions and recalibrated to his being a citizen of Montgomery, Al (home base of ASU) and the civil rights history that’s associated with that community. Without hesitation, it was apparent that he was well versed with the legacy of Rosa Parks from the “Montgomery Bus Boycott” era to Dr Martin L. King Jr who was pastor of Dexter Ave Baptist Church and of course leader of the aforementioned boycott. The Academic All-American displayed why his collegiate status was “student-athlete”. As a rookie collegiate coach, Robinson led his Alabama State team to victory over Howard University in his debut on ESPN in the annual “SWAC vs MEAC Challenge”.
When the Houston Oilers drafted 1995 Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George in the 1st round of the 1996 NFL Draft (from Ohio State), the professional football team that had been a staple of the community for 35 years was a “lame duck” organization having committed to relocate to Tennessee the following season. Attendance suffered greatly and so did the quality of play in George’s only season as a Houston Oiler. Eddie would go on to an illustrious career in Tennessee (initially known as the Tennessee Oilers and later Tennessee Titans), culminating in their Super Bowl XXXIV loss to the St Louis Rams 23-16. Another HBCU legend that spearheaded that era of Titans football was Steve “Air” McNair from Alcorn State. Eddie was spectacular for Tennessee, rushing for over 1,000 yards in seven of this eight seasons in Houston/Nashville and fell just shy of a grand in the other (939 yds).
George took over the reigns of Tennessee State’ s football program last season when he compiled a respectable 5-6, 3-3 in his rookie campaign. Eddie seemingly has found a comfort zone as a collegiate coach, being afforded the opportunity to operate in the same city where he earned so much acclaim as a 4-time All-Pro running back. At the time of his departure from the Titans, he held a whopping 28 franchise records.
WILLIAM FELTON “BILL” RUSSELL PASSED ON JULY 31 2022 AT 88 YRS OF AGE (FEB 12 1934 – JULY 31 2022). IN TRIBUTE TO THE LEGACY OF MR RUSSELL, WE DECIDED TO RE-POST THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BACK ON MAY 29, 2020. EDITORS NOTE: THE DRIVING MOTIVATION FOR THE COMPOSITION OF THE DISCUSSION INDICATED BELOW IS THE CONSTANT EXCLUSION OF BILL RUSSELL’S NAME WHEN THE TOPIC OF GREATEST PLAYERS IN THE HISTORY OF THE NBA ARE MENTIONED. WITH ALL DUE RESPECT TO MR JORDAN AND ALL OF THE OTHER SPECIAL TALENTS THAT’S TOILED IN THE LEAGUE, WE CAN HAVE DIFFERENT OPINIONS; BUT THE FACTS ARE THE FACTS.
When the sports bar conversation centers around the NBA’s greatest athlete, most would concur that the selection would quickly be settled with the Michael Jordan resolution. With all due respect, “MJ” would be safe if the criteria centers around the ability to dominate for a sustained period of time while adding the optimal amount of flair to his presentation. But if the conversation is expanded to discussing the game’s biggest winner in NBA history then a different sheriff has to be implemented by the name of Bill Russell.
For those roundball fans born during the evolution of Jordan’s Nike “JumpMan” era, perhaps those individuals receive a pass. The flip side of this equation creates a “teachable” moment that bridges the two eras. William Felton Russell was a 6-10 low post wizard that revolutionized the game of basketball on multiple levels. The Oakland, Ca native utilized his vast mental capability to directly impact the flow of a basketball game from the defensive end of the court that led to higher percentage baskets for his offense. Bill has exhibited an uncanny ability to win at every conceivable level. Not only were his team usually the last one standing, but the Celtic star willingly accepted the leadership role while amassing unprecedented success.
The long and the short of the narrative pertaining to the greatest winner in the history of American team sports is the author of 11 championships during his 13 total seasons as the integral component is Bill Russell. He led his team to eight consecutive NBA titles (1959-66) in addition to leading his team to two NCAA titles (1955 & 56) and the anchor on the 1956 USA Olympic basketball championship. With all due respect, Jordan outdistanced himself from all of his contemporaries by leading his Chicago teams to two separate “3-peats” (1991-93 & 1996-98). The Wilmington, NC native procured the NBA Finals MVP during each of the aforementioned titles. We will not go into the hypothetical discussion about eras that neither legendary player had control. But what we do know is that the facts are the litmus test. Leading your team to championships in 85% of the seasons that you participated at the games’ highest level (won two as a player/coach in 1968 & 69) then the numbers easily provide the conclusion. In this author’s humble opinion, Mr Russell is the greatest winner in American team sports.
A product of Riverside, Ca, Johnnie B. Baker aka “Dusty” has always shown signs of being a fierce competitor since his childhood. His moniker of “Dusty” was said to be attached to his propensity of being the dirtiest kid on the playground or even from his backyard sports activities. For newer fans of “America’s Pastime”, Baker was quite a power-hitting outfielder during his playing days which spanned 19 years (1968-1986). Two things quickly come to mind when reflecting on his active career. On the final day of the 1977 season, Baker became part of Major League Baseball history when deposited his 30th home run of the season for the Los Angeles Dodgers thus becoming part of the first quartet (Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Reggie Smith) to blast 30 or more home runs from the same lineup. The second Baker memory that readily jumps out is his being on deck in 1974 (see video link at the bottom of article) when MLB icon Hank Aaron slammed his 715th round tripper vs ironically the same Dodgers.
A quick Dusty Baker story. During the time I was covering MLB on a consistent basis as Sports Editor for a Houston, Tx based newspaper, I decided to do a feature on Baker while he was the skipper of the San Francisco Giants during the late 90s. I strolled over to the Astrodome (then home of the local Houston Astros) to make that happen. I popped into the Giants clubhouse and did not know specifically where the manager’s office was at that time. I located a familiar-looking face and decided to ask him where the Skip’s office was. The gentleman was Bobby Bonds (father of famed slugger Barry Bonds) who was on staff as one of the coaches. The senior Bonds instructed where the office was located and offered that Baker has an open door policy and if closed, wait until reopened to approach. I thanked him and walked down this narrow hallway to the door. Once there, I posted directly across from the door when I detected a series of high-pitched discussions seeping from the other side of the wall. I began to have second thoughts after hearing the heated discussion assuming that I had chosen a “not so good day” for a friendly chat with the Giants skipper.
Following an estimated 10 min wait, the door flung open and out walks a smiling Barry Bonds who spoke and went on about his business. I hesitated but thought again that since I had invested this amount of effort to procure this visit with Baker that I self-convinced myself to move forward with the process. The skipper invited me to come in and have a seat which resulted in one of the more memorable baseball interviews that I encountered from that era. I asked Baker to reflect on his days as a young player with the Atlanta Braves, and what was revealed was his relationship with mentor Hank Aaron who himself was a product of the Negro Leagues and consequently one of the early Black players to enter the game in 1954. Their association carried beyond the baseball diamond and the reverence for the “Hammer” from Dusty is a conversation that I’ll always remember.
As a manager, Baker has exceeded all expectations with his current Houston Astros. He inherited a team that had been penalized by the league for cheating and resulted in the firing of previous manager A.J. Hinch. Candidates were not exactly lining up to fill the Stros newly created void, and eventually Baker agreed to come out of retirement to take the job. In his first full season, Dusty led his club to the World Series and at press time has Houston again positioned as an American League force and will be the manager of the 2022 MLB All-Star Game.
The year was 1975 when a gentleman named Richard Milhouse Nixon was president of the United States. The unpopular Viet Nam War was still on the landscape, Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” were MLB kingpins, the Pittsburgh Steelers led by a cadre of HBCU performers were the reigning Super Bowl champs and the NBA was creating their own history with two Black coaches facing off to determine who would lead their contingent to the top of the throne on the hardwood. Golden State’s Al Alttles and the Washington’s K.C. Jones earned this distinction when the Warriors would go on to shut out the Bullets 4-0. Fast forward the clock to the third decade of the 21st Century and we’re witnessing the Boston Celtics (coached by rookie Ime Udoka) and the Dallas Mavericks (led by veteran Jason Kidd) in the NBA’s Final Four.
Let’s begin with Dallas Mavericks head coach Jason Frederick Kidd. At press time, it would be a daunting task for his Mavs to come back from a series deficit vs the vaunted Golden State Warriors but he’s led his contingent to the Western Conference Finals. A native of Oakland, Ca, the 49 yr old Kidd is a highly accomplished roundball aficionado on every conceivable level, having rose to the top high school player in the nation as a 6-4 point guard, an All-American in college and two-time Olympic Gold Medalist (2000 Sydney & 2008 Beijing). He was the 2nd player selected in the First Round of the 1994 NBA Draft by the Dallas Mavericks. From there, Kidd would go on to enjoy a sparkling 20-yr NBA career (1994-2013) that resulted in him being a member of the 2011 Dallas squad that won the NBA Finals and ultimately the 10-time NBA All-Star would be named to the NBA 75th Anniversary Team. As a player, Kidd was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. As a head coach in the NBA, Brooklyn came calling immediately following his retirement where Kidd led the Nets to the Conference Semifinals in 2014. He would go on to lead the Milwaukee Bucks to a pair of playoff appearances (2015 & 2017) as a prelude to arriving in the “Big D”. His Mavs 52-30 record is his best regular season mark so far in his 6-yr NBA head coaching career.
Boston Celtics rookie head coach Ime Udoka has been one of the most refreshing stories that hit the NBA in quite awhile. Unlike Kidd who landed an NBA head coaching job fresh from hanging up his sneakers as an active player, Udoka’s trek was much more complex. The American-Nigerian whose phonetics are (EE-may, oo-DOH-ke) was born in Portland, Oregon and played collegiately for three universities. His last stop was his most efficient at Portland State where he earned All-Big Sky Conference and Big Sky Newcomer of the Year his senior campaign. Although not drafted by the NBA, he bounced around the pro basketball circuit in the USA and overseas while toiling for the Knicks, Trail Blazers, Spurs and Kings of the NBA along the way.
Udoka’s coaching career began in 2012, being hired as an assistant for future hall of fame head coach Greg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs. He was on staff when the Spurs defeated LeBron James and the Miami Heat 4-1 to win the 2014 NBA Finals. Ime would serve eight seasons in San Antonio prior to migrating to stops with the Philadelphia 76ers and the Brooklyn Nets (all three jobs as an assistant coach). On June 28, 2021 Udoka was hired to become the head coach of the Boston Celtics representing his first opportunity to serve as a head coach. Certainly one of his biggest challenges early on was to merge the talents of two of the brightest young stars in the league in forwards Jason “JT” Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Udoka’s no nonsense approach along with his ability to communicate with his players are traits that resemble his mentor Popovich from his San Antonio days. His exposure to professional basketball overseas as well as the states seemingly has been packaged and allowing roundball fans to witness one of the most impressive “rookie” coaching performances the league has ever seen.