Roland Hemond, ‘King of Baseball’: An Oral History

This article was written by Bill Nowlin

This article was published in the Road Trips: SABR Convention Journal Articles


This article was originally published in “The Northern Game—And Beyond,” the 2002 SABR convention journal.

 

Like the sea captains of an earlier era, Roland Hemond is a native New Englander who has sailed far and wide and worked in many ports along the way. A kid with a fervor for baseball, he started at the bottom sweeping out Hartford’s Bulkeley Stadium, home of the Hartford Chiefs, only to rise through the ranks and become general manager of two major league teams—the White Sox and the Orioles. He’s been an executive for seven teams and three times was named Major League Executive of the Year—by The Sporting News in 1972 with the White Sox and in 1989 with Baltimore and by United Press International in 1983 for his work with the White Sox.

Through the years, Hemond groomed such executives as Dave Dombrowski, Walt Jocketty, Dan Evans, and Doug Melvin. He helped create the Arizona Fall League and played a significant role in Team USA’s preparation for the Pan American Games and the 2000 Olympics.

In 2001, Hemond was recognized by the Society for American Baseball Research for his contributions to scouting, as SABR instituted the annual Roland Hemond Award. Hemond himself was its first recipient.

In December 2001, he was crowned “King of Baseball” by Minor League Baseball at its 2001 annual winter meetings banquet. Each year the minor leagues salute a baseball veteran for his years of service. Baseball America gave him its Distinguished Service Award as well, on the occasion of its 20th anniversary The award recognized 12 people who had 20 or more years of service in the game and Roland was one of the 12, including Cal Ripken Jr.

In January 2002, Hemond received the Boston Baseball Writers Association’s most prestigious award, the Judge Emil E. Fuchs Award for “long and meritorious contributions to baseball.”

Hemond still manifests his passion for the game. While working with the White Sox as a special adviser to GM Ken Williams, he is able to devote time and energy to providing care for baseball people in need, to honoring others who have served, and to promoting baseball to young people. He’s also active, inspiring baseball research through SABR as an active member of Team SABR.

Roland Hemond was born in 1929 in Central Falls, Rhode Island, a textile mill community next to Pawtucket. It was a French-Canadian community and Roland did not speak English until he was about six years old. His father, Ernest, who worked as a bread delivery man, was born and raised in Rhode Island; his mother, Antoinette, a seamstress, moved to the area from a suburb of Montreal when she was about 18. One time at a baseball convention, Hemond announced a trade in French, just for the fun of it.

A neighborhood teenager, Leo Laboissiere, befriended and invited Roland to his first Fenway Park game. When Laboissiere had to cancel at the last minute, the 10-year-old Roland made his way to Fenway and back—before admitting to his parents that his escort had been unable to accompany him.

I conducted three interviews with Roland Hemond, two by telephone and one in person, all in late 2001. Hemond then read the transcriptions to ensure accuracy. This is an abridged version of the full oral history. The complete version is contained on the SABR 32 convention CD.

 

“I first fell in love with baseball about 1938. I was going on eight years old at the time and just fell in love with the Red Sox. I started playing on the corner playgrounds. Jimmie Foxx was my first hero; he had that MVP year in ‘38. When I went to my first game at Fenway and I saw that green grass, I was hooked. Then Ted Williams came on and Bobby Doerr. I was just a diehard Red Sox fan like so many other New Englanders.

I was a Braves fan also, but not as fanatical. I spent a lot of time at Pawtucket, at McCoy Stadium. I was there when it opened in 1942. Bump Hadley pitched that day. He was out of the major leagues by then, and he was the starting pitcher for, I think it was the Lynn team [of the New England League] pitching against Pawtucket. The Pawtucket Slaters. It was a semi-pro team at that time. Later on [after World War II] they went into the Class B New England League.

“I got up to Fenway about two or three times a year. I used to get there before the gates opened, because I was always hoping that Ted would be taking some extra hitting. My mother let me play hooky twice. Once, to see Bob Feller pitch. I think that was 1940 or ’41. I said to my mother, ‘Mom, this is one of the great pitchers of all time.’ And she said, ‘Well, I guess it’s OK.’ I think he won 2-1.

“And the 1946 World Series also. I saw the fourth game. St. Louis won, 12-3. I sat in the center-field bleachers. I was there at like six o’clock in the morning. I went with some friends and sat in that little triangle in the center-field bleachers.”

Hemond, who once played against future Red Sox GM Lou Gorman in a Rhode Island state baseball championship game, joined the Coast Guard in 1947 and advanced to storekeeper first class, in charge of the pay records. He was stationed at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, New York, but still made his way to watch the Red Sox.

“I used to get to Yankee Stadium every chance I had when the Red Sox were in town, but they didn’t have much luck in those games.

“I was there on that 1949 Fourth of July game. The Red Sox had the bases loaded and Al Zarilla was at the plate. During that inning, the rally looked like it was coming on, but it got real dark and the winds were real weird. It started raining and the umpires finally stopped play with Zarilla at bat. There was a long rain delay. It looked like there was no chance to resume. There were a lot of people upended in their boats on Long Island Sound; there were a lot of drownings that day It was an unpredictable quick electric storm. When the game resumed, it was real dark. They turned the lights on, but Zarilla hit a line drive over the head of Jerry Coleman at second, and Cliff Mapes came and fielded it.

“I was out by the left-field foul pole and I saw the umpire call the runner out at the plate. Berra got it on one hop and no tag. I said, ‘He didn’t tag him! He didn’t tag him!’ And I said, ‘Oh, gosh. That’s Pesky!’ Pesky was out at the plate. Kiki Cuyler was the third base coach and I guess Pesky had started one step toward the plate and Cuyler told him to tag up because the ball went over Coleman’s glove—except that Johnny had no chance then. He was definitely out on the force play.

“Then Doerr hit a fly ball down the right-field line, curving inside that pole, that low fence in those days. Mapes leaned in and caught the ball. He would have had a grand slam. The Red Sox lost the second game also. Casey Stengel said, ‘Well, that takes care of the Red Sox.’ It put them about 122 games behind. It’s the first time I sort of gave up on my old Red Sox.

“I was there that last weekend in ’49, too, when they lost the last two games of the season. The Red Sox came all the way back—to come so close—and lost on the Saturday when Johnny Lindell hit a home run off Joe Dobson in the tenth inning. As history records, the Yankees won the next game, too—and the 1949 pennant.”

How did Hemond move from being a fan to working in baseball? How did he get his start? It was actually a deliberate decision on his part. He wanted to work in baseball and so took a leave during spring training to visit a cousin, a pitcher in the Pirates system. Through a series of circumstances, he met Branch Rickey, who introduced him to Charlie Blossfield, GM of the Hartford (Connecticut) Boston Braves farm club. He landed a job working with Hartford for $28.00 a week. These were modest beginnings, starting at the ground floor, but Hemond today stresses the importance of getting to know baseball at all levels.

“I used to unlock the ballpark in the morning and help Harvey Stone, the trainer, to sweep out the park. Clean it up and get the concession stands ready. Sell tickets in the afternoon and do some p.a. announcing sometimes. Then I would check in the ticket takers and the concessions people at the end of the night, and then lock up the park at 11, 11:30 at night. That still happens with young people in the minor leagues. You wear all sorts of hats, but you’re getting your start. At the end of the season, Charlie said he couldn’t afford me but he wanted me back the next year. About two weeks after I got home in Rhode Island, before I was going to leave for that course at Florida Southern, he called me and he said there’s an opening in the Braves farm system office and, he said, I’ve recommended you. I had learned to type in the Coast Guard, so I went up to Boston and John Mullen, the farm director, was going to need some help in the office so he said he’d give me a two-week tryout, and here I am today. That’s how it all evolved. Being lucky to be at the right places at the right time.

“When I first started, I was like an intern. $35 a week. I got a raise. I got to the big leagues and I got a $7 a week raise.”

Hemond was working for the Boston Braves, in Boston. Life took another turn, though, as life sometimes does—not only for the Braves with their departure for Milwaukee but for Hemond personally as well. Within 18 months of when he joined the Braves, Hemond had moved to Milwaukee with the club. In 1958, he married Morgo Quinn, “the boss’s daughter”—though John Quinn resigned only six weeks or so afterward.

“I was eight full years in Milwaukee. That was a great experience. I officially became assistant to John Mullen—instead of being an apprentice or an intern—when he became official farm director in ‘53. I became the assistant to him for the remaining years in Milwaukee.

“Then I went to the Angels as farm and scouting director, when they became an expansion club. I reported to them January 3, 1961.

“We have five children. Susan did a lot of associate director’s TV work with the San Diego Padres and ESPN and the West Coast teams, and Anaheim, etc. Bob is now part owner of the Sacramento franchise in the Pacific Coast League. Jay has done some work in baseball. He worked in the farm office of the Florida Marlins for a couple of years, and this past year managed a team in Winchester, Tennessee, in the All American Association.

“He worked for the Frederick Keys in the Carolina League for a while. Our daughter Tere and our youngest son, Ryan, not yet. He’s 27. They all gravitate to the game, though, and have a great love for it.

“[In California] I was farm director and scouting director Fred Haney, who had been the manager of the Braves in the ’50s, was the general manager, and he hired me. I was there for 10 years with them and then became general manager of the White Sox on September 14, 1970. The whole ’60s with the Angels, and then from the last two weeks of the 1970 season through 1985, I was general manager of the White Sox. We [the White Sox] were never endowed with much money to work with. The White Sox team that I joined, that year they were 56 and 106. Chuck Tanner was our manager and we had worked together with the Angels, and we’d been in the Braves organization together. We worked extremely well together. At the first winter meetings in December of 1970, we moved 16 players in the first 18 hours of the convention. Coming and going. We improved by 23 games the first year. Then that next winter, we acquired Dick Allen and Stan Bahnsen in a couple of big deals and we made a heck of a run at it in ’72. We weren’t eliminated until the last week. Then we were under financial problems so it was hard to do much other than try to survive the next three years. Oakland, they were great. In ‘73, it looked like we were ready to make a good shot at it and we opened the season about six games in front. At the last part of May, Ken Henderson, whom we had acquired that winter to play center field, tore up his knee badly at a play at the plate. Then Dick Allen also suffered an injury. Mike Epstein ran over him and broke the tibia bone. That robbed us of an opportunity. I think we would have had a shot at it that year.

“Then ’74 and ’75 the rumors were heavy that the club might move or be sold, so we couldn’t make very many moves. Then Bill Veeck came, and in ’77 we gave it a real good run again. We came back after a dismal ’76 season and made a good run that year against Kansas City. [Working with Veeck] was a tremendous experience that I greatly treasure and will forever relish. It was a fantastic experience to be with him. In all facets of life. Baseball as well. He was just an incredible man. He used to say, ‘Don’t bother preparing a budget, Roland. We don’t have any money. We’ll think of something.’ We had a lot of fun and competed as best we could.

“So we traded young players like Bucky Dent, Rich Gossage and Terry Forster to get Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble. Signed Eric Soderholm as a free agent, and he was the Comeback Player of the Year. Zisk hit 30 home runs and Gamble hit 31. Soderholm hit 25. That was quite a fun year. It was hard for Bill, again, to compete on a financial basis, but I would never trade those five years for anything. Then Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn bought the club and we made some moves, signing Carlton Fisk as a free agent, and acquired Greg Luzinski. The club got better and better and we won the division by 20 games in ’83. We lost a tough postseason series against Baltimore.

“Then I went to the commissioner’s office for a year and a half, in about May of ’86. Peter Ueberroth [the commissioner] asked Jerry Reinsdorf—I’d been retained by the White Sox in a capacity as a special assistant. Peter asked permission, if they could have me in the front office, the commissioner’s office, because of my experience with ball clubs. I was there for a year and a half until the opportunity came to be general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. Edward Bennett Williams, the owner of the Orioles, I was interviewed by him and club president Larry Lucchino. He was impressed that I had been at Bulkeley Stadium in Hartford also, because as a young boy he had sold hot dogs and beer at Bulkeley Stadium. He was from Hartford. He said the hot dogs were cold and the beer was warm.

“Then I spent eight years with the Orioles, and then five years with the Diamondbacks and now back with the White Sox. I don’t regret it [not being with the Diamondbacks as they won the 2001 World Series]. I’m happy for them. I thoroughly enjoyed their accomplishment, and you know that during the period of time you were there you made some contributions that led to their success. I was thrilled to be asked by the White Sox to come back. I thoroughly enjoyed this year with the White Sox. I thought the club performed very well under a lot of adversity and kept battling.”

When Hemond first joined the Diamondbacks, it was just as they were forming up. Hemond came in at the ground level, one of their first hires. “As soon as Jerry Colangelo found my not being retained by the Orioles, then he contacted me and I joined the Diamondbacks and we all worked for the preparation for a couple of years for the expansion draft and then the next three years with them.

“We won 100 games our second year. I think people have a tendency to forget about that. They think about this year [2001], but we went to the postseason with 100 victories our second season. Played the Mets in the playoffs.

“Richard Dozier, the president of the club, and Joe Garagiola Jr. as general manager were already hired. I became executive vice president of baseball operations. Basically, the same type job that I now have with the White Sox. Jerry Colangelo hired me.

“He talked to Joe about it, and since it was a new position for Joe—first-time general manager— [it must have struck them as good] to have someone like me to help him. I was one of the originals, and then Buck Showalter was hired after me.

“There was no farm system, and I was in that position also when I joined the California Angels way back, which was the Los Angeles Angels, when I was named farm and scouting director. The Angels had already made the expansion selections in early December and I joined them January 3, but I started a farm system and scouting department right from scratch. When I first joined them, we put together one Class A ball club in Statesville, North Carolina, to get started and we got a limited working agreement in Triple A with Dallas/Fort Worth. That was the beginning. That gave us a place to send some of the players that we had selected. Then we needed sort of a rookie type club to get started.

“Then with the Diamondbacks, we didn’t play for two years in the major leagues, so when we started, we started a rookie club in Arizona and South Bend in a Class A league. We got an affiliation with South Bend and started a new club in the Arizona Rookie League. We had to hire minor league managers and coaches, instructors and scouts and all that stuff. And players. It’s exciting. It’s a great process to be involved in.”

After 15 years with the White Sox, Hemond had joined the Office of the Commissioner in May of 1986. “Dr. Bobby Brown was the president of the American League. One of his duties was the grassroots baseball. Summer leagues, and the various programs. Babe Ruth program. American Legion. I helped him and I traveled around. Cape Cod League. The Northeastern League they had in New York State at that time. A new league in Ohio. The Great Lakes League. The Jayhawk League. I’d come back with reports on each of the franchises and what I thought could be improved and what we should do.

“Al Campanis unfortunately made his remarks, it turns out he was actually of great service to the game. . . It was in April 1987 when Al Campanis appeared on the TV show Nightline and made disparaging remarks regarding the capabilities of minorities—we all felt for Al . . . This was unfortunate. Al had helped and had given support to minorities throughout his baseball career. He had played shortstop in Montreal alongside Robinson, his teammate with the Montreal Royals when Jackie went from the Negro Leagues to the Brooklyn Dodgers farm system. “He could be classified as a hero now. It really sparked efforts to institute a program to help minorities to gain baseball employment other than within the playing ranks. Commissioner Ueberroth had spoken at length, and emphatically, that baseball should hire more minorities in various non-playing positions I think in the past many of the minorities didn’t even let you know they’d be interested, because they figured they didn’t have a chance. Those were the facts of life. They hadn’t seen any action. Peter then hired Clifford Alexander and Grant Hill’s mother, Janet Hill.

“They had an agency in Washington, D.C., where they were helping minorities get placed in the corporate world. He also hired Harry Edwards, the sociology professor at the University of California in Berkeley and former Olympic track star. Then he had me meet with them, and we prepared questionnaires to send out to as many people as we could find out where they might be located, so they could indicate what they might like to do if they had an opportunity to get back into the game.

“Alexander and Hill concentrated mainly on front office positions and minor league jobs. Edwards was more for coaches and managers’ jobs. I was sort of the coordinator working with them.

“The commissioner also sent me to Australia. He assigned me to Japan with the Major League All-Star team to represent the commissioner’s office. People should spend some time in the commissioner’s office. There’s a tendency to say, “Well, what do they do up there?” Well, they do a lot of things. That’s why there’s more marketing now. There’s more TV. They work on a lot of programs to help our game. You have greater respect when you’re not working just with your own ball club. It helped me to broaden my scope of imagination. Not too long after, I got the job with Baltimore.

“Hank Peters preceded me in Baltimore. He had a fine career there, but they’d had a couple of bad years just before I arrived. They’d had a bad year in ’87 and then when I joined them in November [as vice president and general manager], it wasn’t a good club. We lost the first 21 games in 1988. I used to tell myself, ‘Well, I didn’t create it. I inherited it.’ That’s why you get those jobs. Then the next year, we improved by 32 1/2 games. And our payroll was only $8.5 million, the whole payroll. Williams had been the owner for some time. He had the ’83 club. He bought the Orioles about 1978, ’79, I think. In ’83 I was with the White Sox and they beat us in the playoffs. Then they kind of slipped from then on and started going the other way When I came in, the manager was Cal Ripken Sr. We made a change early in the ’88 season, after six games. Frank Robinson, we made him the manager, and we lost our next 15.

“We made some trades that summer. Mike Boddicker to the Red Sox for Curt Schilling and Brady Anderson. Traded Fred Lynn in late August for Chris Hoiles. We traded Eddie Murray that winter, after the season, at the winter meetings to the Dodgers for Juan Bell, Brian Holton, and the pitcher Ken Howell. We traded him immediately to Philadelphia for Phil Bradley. The next year we really improved by an enormous number of games. It was one of the biggest comebacks of all time.“

It was in fact a 32 1/2-game turnaround—from last place and 34 1/2 games out in 1988 to finishing just two games behind the Blue Jays in 1989. Hemond was named Executive of the Year again by The Sporting News. Two years later he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award from Baseball America.

“It was quite gratifying to me to receive the Distinguished Service Award. Cal Ripken was one of the recipients. John Schuerholz, on behalf of the Atlanta Braves, for the consistency in their organization over the last ten years. Paul Snyder, I was very, very happy to see him get recognition as their director of scouting. They say the scouts are the unsung heroes. I’ve heard that since I broke in, in the early ’50s, and I have recognized that they’re the unsung heroes, so I always say, ‘Well, let’s sing their praises.’ I want to see them get recognition that they so justly deserve. They never get any headlines. They never get any recognition. A lot of people take the bows, but without their good scouting staff and good scouts and their recommendations and their signings, you’re not successful. Many of us are working toward scouts getting better recognition in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

“I see there are still quite a few general managers from New England. Tal Smith was from Massachusetts. Harry Dalton was Lou Gorman, from Rhode Island. Dave Littlefield is from Massachusetts, now with Pittsburgh. Jim Beattie is from New Hampshire. Dan Duquette and J.P. Ricciardi are from Massachusetts. I think it’s because of the rich baseball tradition here in New England. People are so much into it, maybe more so than in some other parts of the country where baseball is relatively new. The American League office used to be here in Boston. Before Cronin, Will Harridge was in Chicago. Cronin put it in New England.”

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