Pioneering executive Hemond gets top honor
Front-office fixture receives lifetime achievement award
COOPERSTOWN -- The man who's made the right move so often in his 60 years in this game knew well what the right words were. When he lost them on stage at Doubleday Field, the pause was only brief; a necessary few seconds to wade through a career of extraordinary length and devotion.
One of the most genial people anywhere and one of the most pioneering executives in the sport, a choked up Roland Hemond officially became the second recipient of the Hall of Fame's Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award on Saturday afternoon.
Hemond, 81 and currently a special assistant with the D-backs, was the third and last honoree to be introduced to the crowd, with a bevy of Hall of Fame players seated behind him on the stage. Dave Van Horne was presented with the Ford C. Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting, while the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for writing was presented to Bill Conlin of Philadelphia, completing the first wave of the 2011 Hall of Fame ceremonies.
He's an architect.
Hemond is a forefather of the Arizona Fall League. He's the president of the Association of Professional Ballplayers of America, a non-profit that helps players past and present. He was a founder of the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation, an aid organization for the scouting community. And that's just the extracurriculuars.
Minor League Baseball once named Hemond the "King of Baseball," and he spent 23 years as a Major League general manager with the White Sox and Orioles. That still doesn't count his senior roles with the Sox and, most recently, Arizona, nor does it encompass his earliest work in the Minors and with the Angels and the Braves.
Through it all, Hemond's been named MLB's Executive of the Year three times. But one honor's topped it all.
"I would have to place [Saturday] No. 1, because I got to know Buck O'Neill and what he meant to baseball," Hemond said. "He was one of the great ambassadors of our game and his history and the person that he was, and then for me to be the recipient."
The Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award is presented by the Hall of Fame's Board of Directors at the most often, once every three years. Nominations are open to the public, but it's an extraordinary bill to fit: the award is given in honor of an individual who enhanced baseball's positive impact on society, broadened the game's appeal, and whose integrity was comparable to O'Neil's. O'Neil, a Negro Leagues legend, passed away in 2006 after eight decades contributing to the game.
That Hemond ended up with the award was a bit of a role reversal.
"Nine years ago, I presented Buck O'Neill with an award, a Baseball America Award, bearing my name," Hemond said during his speech. "And he was the recipient. It was such a great honor for me to meet this gentleman - his graciousness, his smile, his genuine love for people in our game."
There are two other awards in Hemond's name in addition to the one presented by Baseball America. The White Sox and the Society of American Baseball Research name the others.
Not particularly tall but as warm in conversation as he is effective in his work, Hemond said the toughest challenge he ever undertook was the Orioles, whom he GM'd from 1988-95.
That '88 team infamously lost its first 21 games.
"[Manager] Frank Robinson and I had to put up with the club that we had at that time and then Frank did a superior job the next year," Hemond said. "That's the challenges that you love though. You have to pull yourself by the bootstraps and accept what you have to work with, wherever you are, and get the most results."
Next year's "Comeback Kids" finished with 87 wins -- 33 more than the previous year -- and fell short of the playoffs in their last series of the regular season, with the division-champion Blue Jays.
As a Buck O'Neill winner, there's no cap that Hemond needs to select to go into the Hall. He certainly would have plenty of options if there were, and were he forced to choose, Hemond arrived at an answer: the White Sox. There was talk of relocating the franchise in the first half of his tenure as GM on the South Side, which lasted from 1971-85, and he led a resurgence there in just his second year.
Long before he was a GM, Hemond's entry into baseball was an accident: "a two week tryout has gone to 60-plus years," he said. But his effect has been felt everywhere.
That trade for closer Francisco Rodriguez? Brewers general manager Doug Melvin, in attendance on Saturday, learned those tricks somewhere. Same with Tigers president Dave Dombrowski, one of many, along with Melvin, who Hemond asked to stand during his speech.
"There's no question I learned everything I know from him," said Dombrowski, who got his start with Hemond's late 70s White Sox. "He took me under his wing in every respect as a youngster breaking into the game. We had very small front offices at the time and I spent time with him all the time, at the ballpark away from the ballpark. He really helped me in every facet in baseball as well as life."
The way Dombrowski described Hemond was the same way Hemond described Bill Veeck, the innovative owner who kept the White Sox in Chicago. Hemond was a mentor who taught baseball and so much beyond it.
Hemond's parting words to the crowd Saturday were partly in French, an homage to his mother. A French-Canadian seamstress, she used to go to the rummage sales and would find used suits and trim them down to Hemond's 11-year-old size, making him "the best dressed kid in town," as he put it.
Saturday brought the answer. Said Hemond, with emotion propelling instead of restraining his voice this time, "Ma, the Buck O'Neill Award!"