By: Barry M. Bloom / MLB.com columnist and SABR AZ Chapter president
PHOENIX — In the general manager’s box at Chase Field during the Kevin Towers’ era sat a long, black leather couch situated against a rear wall with a pillow on the near end.
“This is where Roland comes in and takes his nap every day at 3 o’clock in the afternoon,” said Towers, D-backs general manager from 2011-14. “Sometimes I come in here and find him sleeping, dead to the world.”
The Roland he’s referring to is Roland Hemond, a long-time baseball executive, who tops everyone’s list as the nicest man in the game. Since 1952, Hemond has worked for Lou Perini of the Boston Braves, Bill Veeck and Jerry Reinsdorf of the Chicago White Sox, Gene Autry of the California Angels (as they were called then), Peter Angelos of the Baltimore Orioles and now Derrick Hall of the Arizona Diamondbacks.
As of this past January 28, he has his name on our Arizona SABR chapter, sharing the marquis with Flame Delhi, the pitcher and first Arizona native to play in the Major Leagues, al bet quite briefly in 1912. It only seems like Roland has been around for that long.
Our own Bernie Pleskoff — scout, dean of students, fund raiser and now a fine baseball writer — informed Roland of his latest honor. Bernie reported that Roland was moved, as always.
Hemond has a myriad of awards and honors. Just add this one to the group: Hemond-Delhi SABR AZ Chapter. It rolls easily off the tongue.
I was lucky enough to be there in Cooperstown, N.Y., — circa, 2011 –when Roland became the second recipient of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award. (Buck was the first.) Hemond, nearing 82 years old at the time, was honored for his six decades of baseball service. He’s 87 now, glib, silver-haired and still going strong.
With Hall, Reinsdorf, Towers and a bevy of baseball officials and literati past and present in attendance that day at venerable old Doubleday Field, Roland stood at the podium and gave a speech for the ages.
When he arrived at the “thank you” portion of the address, Roland non-chalantly noted that he had a few people he wanted to mention. With that, he unfurled a roll of white paper that flooded off the lectern and toward a loudly laughing audience.
That’s Roland, but he’s not always so gregarious.
Hemond actually broke down in tears that February when he was called into an office at the D-backs’ Spring Training facility at Salt River Fields and was given the news he had won a relatively new award named after the Negro Leagues star who best exemplified the spirit and commitment to baseball. In the room were Reinsdorf, Hall and Towers. On the phone was Jane Forbes Clark, the Hall’s chair.
It was déjà vu for Hall, who was also there that day in Los Angeles in 1997 when Clark called Tommy Lasorda to tell him he was going into the Hall of Fame as a manager. Hall was vice president of communications for the Dodgers at the time.
“They were two very similar situations,” Hall said. “But the day with Roland was one of the most emotional of my career. He was so emotional and so full of tears that he dialed his wife and couldn’t finish the conversation with Margo. He had to hand me the phone to do it. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
The O’Neil Award was instituted in 2007 when a bronze statue of the former Negro League star was placed in the foyer of the Hall’s red-brick museum on Main Street. O’Neil, one of baseball’s great ambassadors, was the first recipient of his own award, an honor which came just after he missed being elected to the Hall of Fame itself, reportedly by one vote in 2006, with a group of 17 of his Negro League contemporaries.
Hemond was very friendly with the statesman-like O’Neil and was obviously quite humbled by his name being placed on the award.
“That tells it all,” Hemond said in an interview.
Roland is the guy who, as general manager of the White Sox, famously set up a table in a hotel lobby at the Winter Meetings and hung a sign that read: “Open for Business!” It happened in 1975 at Hollywood, Fla. Just after the owners approved Veeck’s purchase of the White Sox for a second time, Hemond suggested the antics and the one-legged, publicity-minded Veeck heartily agreed.
“He said, ‘Get it done,'” Hemond recalled. “He told me to let my imagination run rampant. He’s probably the only owner in baseball who would’ve let me do that. I set up some straight-backed chairs at a table and we completed four trades out in the open by midnight.”
But that isn’t Hemond’s favorite all-time story, particularly when it applies to the Hall of Fame. He said he’s partial to one Hall of Famer: Hank Aaron, who was signed out of the Negro Leagues in 1952 when Hemond was just beginning his career with the Braves.
“One of our scouts gave me a report on Henry Louis Aaron,” Hemond recalled. “I used to re-type the reports and sometimes their writing wasn’t very good, so I used to reconstruct it and hand it to our general manager and scouting director. Henry has a special place in my heart because little did we realize at that time that we’d be signing a superstar of such major proportions.”
The Braves moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953 and Aaron led them to the ’57 World Series title. It was 38 years before Hemond would again be associated with a World Series winner — the 2005 White Sox. Hemond, a year-round resident of Phoenix now, moved to the D-backs after that with Reinsdorf’s blessings. He’s still an assistant to Hall and is involved with various duties, like scheduling exhibition games.
Towers said he’s physically challenged when trying to punch up numbers on a telephone. So is Hemond. Fred Uhlman Jr., who worked with Hemond in Baltimore and Towers in San Diego, where he’s still an assistant GM, said Hemond was the worst.
“He’d always dial up wrong numbers,” Towers said. “I have the same problem. It’ll take me three or four times before I get the right number. And Fred used to call me Roland: ‘Come on, Roland. Dial it right.'”
The two were ultimately paired with the D-backs when Towers and Hemond tried to set up end-of-the-spring exhibition games with some Mexican League teams at Chase Field.
“Between both of us it took us 45 minutes to get through to Mexico,” Towers said. “I’d try it. Then he’d try it and then I’d try it again. So we called Fred in San Diego and asked for assistance. Neither one of us could get through. It was a 001 number or something. We just broke down together laughing.”
Then again, there’s always Hemond’s penchant for sleeping. There was the big Bon Jovi concert in New York’s Central Park during All-Star festivities in 2008 at the old Yankee Stadium. Hemond loves music and was at the concert with the D-backs contingent dancing up a storm. Suddenly, he went missing.
“Nobody could find him and we worried about his whereabouts,” Hall recalled.
He was eventually found under a tree, taking another of his famous naps.
“He slept for a couple of hours and then got up dancing again,” Hall said.
May the Hemond part of the SABR Arizona chapter title always be so intrepid and energetic.