Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Legends --- Gone but they’ll never be forgotten I


The year that was is over, and before SBN’s Insider Reports (180 written in 2006, an 80 percent increase over the 100 published in 2005) moves forward, there are a few more look backs at 2006 that need to taken care of first. The sports industry lost a number of leaders, several pillars of industry, men and women who need to be remembered for their lifelong contributions to the sports world for their outstanding contributions in helping sports grow into a half trillion dollar industry.

For a generation of sports fans, those who lived for NBC’s Game of the Week, the World Series and those who grew up in New England, Curt Gowdy was baseball. On February 20 as his beloved Red Sox were reporting to spring training Gowdy passed away.

Mr. Gowdy was ''one of the greatest sports broadcasters in history," NBC Universal sports chairman Dick Ebersol said in an NBC release on February 20.

''He was in a class with Mel Allen and all those great announcers," Johnny Pesky of the Red Sox said of Mr. Gowdy at his passing. ''You always go by the voice, and when they got that good voice, you could listen to them all day."

If being a member of a Hall of Fame suggests one’s contribution to sports and society, then Gowdy was at the top of everyone’s list. Consider that Gowdy was a member of no less than 20 halls of fame, including those of baseball, professional football, and basketball. For seven years, he served as president of the Basketball Hall of Fame; and the hall's annual sportswriting and broadcasting awards bear his name. He was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 1995.

Awards – Gowdy could have created the : “Curt Gowdy Hall of Fame” to help hold 13 Emmy Awards, Mr. Gowdy was the first sportscaster to win a Peabody Award, a prestigious honor in broadcasting. He broadcasted 16 World Series, nine Super Bowls, eight Olympics, 12 Rose Bowls, and 24 NCAA Final Fours. As ESPN's Chris Berman told The New York Times in 2003, ''When Curt Gowdy called a game, it was big."

What can possibly be said about Byron Nelson? 50, 75 years from now youngsters will be asking who Tiger Woods was and what did he accomplish. Consider the amazing career Byron Nelson had as a golfer several generations before Tiger took control of professional golf:

• Won 52 PGA Tour events.
• Won 11 tournaments in a row in 1945 (an all-time record).
• Won 18 total tournaments that year
• Won five total majors (1937 and '42 Masters, 1939 U.S. Open, 1940 and '45 PGA Championship)
• Made 113 consecutive cuts at one point, second all-time to Tiger Woods' 142
• Played on Ryder Cup teams in 1937 and 1947 and was a non-playing captain of the 1965 team.
• Finished in the Top 10 in 65 consecutive tournaments from 1942 to 1946.
• The EDS Byron Nelson Championship is the only PGA Tour stop named after a professional golfer.
• First win was 1935 New Jersey State Open
• Last win was 1951 Bing Crosby Pro-Am

When Nelson passed away at the age of 94 on September 26, a full life lived, the golf world made it clear the impact Nelson had had on golf as an industry.

"Byron Nelson was, without question, one of the greatest players our game has seen," said Jack Nicklaus, whose 73 PGA Tour wins rank second only to Sam Snead's 83. "When you talk about people who provided the foundation for the modern game of golf, Bryon Nelson is one of the first names you must mention. I think the only thing that rivals Byron's greatness on a golf course is the manner in which he conducted his life -- as a gentleman, a role model and an ambassador."

Tiger Woods called Nelson "the greatest ambassador golf has ever known."

"He retired early," Woods said at Nelson’s passing from the American Express Championship outside London. "All he wanted to do was make enough money to buy his ranch. If he had kept playing like guys do now, more than likely he would have won more tournaments than anyone."

Tiger one day is likely going to win more career golf tournaments than anyone else. One record Woods isn’t likely to beat is the amazing streak of 11 consecutive tournaments Nelson won in 1945.

"In this day and age, with this competition, to win 11 in a row would be almost unheard of," Woods said after his fifth straight victory when asked how Nelson's accomplishment compared with others, like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak.

"What Byron accomplished, that goes down as one of the great years in the history of our sport. ... DiMaggio's record, I see that being broken more than winning 11 in a row."

Another golf legend -- Arnold Palmer -- agreed with Woods.

"I don't think that anyone will ever exceed the things that Byron did by winning 11 tournaments in a row in one year," Palmer said in a statement. "But, I suppose that is not the most admirable thing that he did, although it was certainly tremendous. He was a fantastic person whom I admired from the time I was a boy.''

"Today we have lost a truly wonderful gentleman," Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said. "Byron has meant so much to so many people, and has been an integral and important part of this Tournament since he first played here in 1935. Byron will be sorely missed at this year's Champions dinner and will be remembered in perpetuity as players cross the bridge at No. 13 that bears his name."

Golfers today earn tens of millions of dollars throughout their careers, some (like Woods) hundreds of millions of dollars. Byron Nelson’s the master of his generation wasn’t quite as fortunate. Nelson however never saw it that way.

"I only won $182,000 in my whole life," he said. "In 1937, I got fifth-place money at the British Open -- $187 -- and it cost me $3,000 to play because I had to take a one-month leave of absence from my club job to go."

"Apart from being one of the greatest players ever, Byron Nelson was always the epitome of a gentleman. His passing marks the end of arguably golf's most prolific era, which included the likes of Ben Hogan and Sam Snead," Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion and winner of Nelson's tournament in 1983, said in a statement. "To my mind, Byron was possibly golf's most consistent player ever."

Nelson retired from competitive golf in 1946 content to spend most of his time on his 673-acre ranch in Roanoke, Texas.

Nelson, who tutored eight-time major championship winner Tom Watson, had a swing players envied.

"For many Byron will be remembered for his incredible record as a professional golfer, including winning 11 tournaments in a row. But he will be most remembered for the genuineness and gentleness he brought to all those around him. I will miss him, but I will always remember what he taught me," Watson said in a statement.

Golf also lost Patty Berg on September 10 at the age of 88. A true visionary and a leader in the evolution of the development of women’s sports, Berg founded the LPGA with 12 other people.

“Patty was a wonderfully talented woman who was dedicated to golf, to growing the game and to making the sport fun for golfers of all ages,” said LPGA Commissioner Carolyn F. Bivens. “She was a pioneer, an athlete, a mentor, a friend and an entertainer. She had a sense of humor that sparked a smile in all who met her. As a founder of the LPGA, Patty took the LPGA to new heights, and it was the work, passion and dedication that she and her fellow co-founders exhibited that has allowed the LPGA to grow and prosper for so many years. I, along with the entire LPGA family, mourn Patty's passing, but we will forever celebrate her legacy.”

Born on Feb. 13, 1918, in Minneapolis, Berg took up golf at age 13. She also played a bit of football as a youth, quarterbacking a Minneapolis sandlot squad named the “50 th Street Tigers,” which included legendary University of Oklahoma coach Bud Wilkinson.

In 1934, she won the Minneapolis City Championship for the first of 28 amateur titles in a seven-year span; among those victories was the 1938 U.S. Amateur Championship. Berg, an LPGA Tour and World Golf Halls of Fame member, won three majors during her amateur career – all three Titleholders Championships held from 1937 through 1939 – and was named as the Associated Press Athlete of the Year in 1938 (she would garner that honor again in 1943 and 1955).

Berg was inducted to the Hall of Fame of Women's Golf in 1951 and became one of six inaugural members of the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame in 1967 (the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame chose to recognize 1951 as the retroactive date of her induction). In addition, she has been inducted into the LPGA Teaching and Club Professional Hall of Fame, Women's Sports Hall of Fame, PGA of America Golf Hall of Fame, University of Minnesota Hall of Fame, American, Minnesota and Florida Sports Halls of Fame, All-American Collegiate Hall of Fame, the University of Minnesota Women's Athletics Department Hall of Fame and the United States Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame.

“She was indeed a great lady ! I t was an honor and pleasure to know her during my time with the LPGA . She taught me lots about the old days in the LPGA . How it got started. Who the leaders were. What the issues were. And what attitudes would carry them forward. Her vision--always rosy about the LPGA--would not be contradicted . Her can do attitude was contagious and infected all those around her.”

“Patty was a mother, a sister, a best friend to all those who knew her. The LPGA lost a dear person. But knowing Patty, she will find a way to follow the tour and guide it from heaven.” Ray Volpe, the LPGA Tour's first commissioner

“The golf world lost a pioneer and legend with the passing of Patty Berg. Her many contributions to the betterment of the LPGA and the game of golf will be a lasting part of her legacy. She will be remembered for her commitment to excellence and her will to succeed, as well as her boundless energy and enthusiasm, which were always evident at every World Golf Hall of Fame induction ceremony she attended.”

“The game of golf is made up of thousands of wonderful people, but Patty stands out among them. On a personal level, I always found her to be uplifting and I enjoyed being around her. She was an inspiration to everyone who met her and we will all miss her. ” Tim Finchem, PGA TOUR Commissioner and Chairman of the World Golf Foundation Board

The players call him Skip, for Buck O'Neil was the captain of the ship that sent more Negro League veterans ashore to the white Majors than any man in baseball history. His crew included such Major League standouts as Ernie Banks, George Altman, Gene Baker, Francisco Herrera, Elston Howard, J.C. Hartman, Connie Johnson, Sweet Lou Johnson, Satchel Paige, Hank Thompson and Bob Thurman. On October 6 the remarkable life of Buck O’Neil ended all too early for one of the games greatest at a young and vibrant 94.

Buck was nicknamed after the co-owner of the semi-pro Miami Giants, Buck O'Neil . He played briefly in 1937 with the Memphis Red Sox, before joining the Kansas City Monarchs for the remainder of his stellar career. Only a two-year tour with the U.S. Navy, 1944-45, interrupted his baseball career.

In 1942, O'Neil led the Monarchs to a Negro American League title and faced the Homestead Grays in the Negro World Series. Buck hit a robust .353, as the Monarchs swept the Grays in four games. His Grays' counterpart Buck Leonard recalled, "He would find the gap in the outfield and hit it there. He was one of the best ball players I have ever seen." O'Neil won batting titles in 1940 and 1946, blasting out averages of .345 and .350, respectively.

Baseball Commissioner Allan H. (Bud) Selig made the following statement regarding the passing of Buck O'Neil: "Major League Baseball is saddened by the passing of Buck O'Neil. Buck was a pioneer, a legend and will be missed for as long as the game is played. I had the good fortune of spending some time with him in Cooperstown a couple of months ago and I will miss his wisdom and counsel. I have asked all clubs to observe a moment of silence before today's games."

Well known in baseball circles for his talent and wit, he became a national icon after being featured in Ken Burns tremendous Public Broadcasting System documentary Baseball in 1994.

Recently finding himself in the middle of a controversy over his failure to gain election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, Mr. O’Neil asked disappointed fans to “shed no tears for Old Buck.”

He told supporters that not being able to attend Sarasota High School and the University of Florida because of segregation had hurt. Not being elected to the Hall of Fame didn’t because at least he had a chance.

Winner of two Negro League batting titles during his playing career, Mr. O’Neil retired and led the Kansas City Monarchs to the pennant as a manager. For a while he was also a scout for the Chicago Cubs, whose famous signings included Hall of Famers Lou Brock and Ernie Banks.

His love for the game nurtured through childhood talks with Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth of the famed New York Yankees “Murderers Row” of the 1920s. Mr. O’Neil was able to pass on his wisdom to modern day players, and with it, his respect for the game that had been his life.

On December 15, President Bush recognized by posthumously awarding O’Neil the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor America can bestow upon a civilian. Bush the former managing partner of the Texas Rangers understood what a Baseball Hall of Fame committee failed to comprehend in February when in a special vote to recognize baseball players from the Negro League’s enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, O’Neil was a very special person and a great American.

"Buck O'Neil lived long enough to see baseball and America change for the better," Bush told the assembled audience. "He's one of the people we can thank for that. Buck O'Neil was a legend and a beautiful human being and we honor the memory of Buck O'Neil."

Sitting in the audience, Bob Kendrick, director of marketing for the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo., said he felt "a little melancholy" wishing Buck was there.

"He would have lit that room up," Kendrick said. "He had this amazing charisma unlike anybody I've ever encountered. We know that his spirit was there and Warren represented his brother very well."

O'Neil left the Chicago Cubs as a scout in 1988, but many more great accomplishments awaited him. He returned to Kansas City and helped lead the effort to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, established in 1990. He served on the National Baseball Hall of Fame's Committee on Veterans, helping ensure the induction of several Negro Leagues players. O'Neil also continues to touch thousands of people each year through promotion of baseball history, public speaking, and educational endeavors.

O'Neil was nominated to a special Hall ballot for Negro League players, managers, and executives in 2006, but failed (by a single vote) to receive the necessary 75% to gain admission; however, 17 other Negro League figures were selected.

After hearing that he had not been elected to the Hall at age 94, O'Neil spoke to about 200 well-wishers who had gathered to celebrate, but instead stood hushed and solemn, telling the crowd:

“God's been good to me. They didn't think Buck was good enough to be in the Hall of Fame. That's the way they thought about it and that's the way it is, so we're going to live with that. Now, if I'm a Hall of Famer for you, that's all right with me. Just keep loving old Buck. Don't weep for Buck. No, man, be happy, be thankful”

His humility stands as a true testament to the man Buck O’Neil will always be.

In Part II of SBN’s Legends --- Gone but they’ll never be forgotten, we’ll take a farewell look at the first two Obit’s that appeared in the pages of SBN.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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