DICK HELLER A CLASS ACT: THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES AND SUPPORT!

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 Top Photo: Dick Heller receives KIT Life Time Achievement  Award from Green Bay Packer great Willie Wood. No. 30 Maury Wills, No. 24 Willie Wood,  No. 11 Earl Lloyd all benefited from Dick’s honest sports reporting when it came to the local athlete.

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When my friend and mentor Dick Heller went home to be with the lord last year he left a void in the integrity of sports reporting.  Dick had watched several of DC’s finest athletes came up on the short end when the powers-to-be were giving credit where credit was due.  He gave credit where credit was due and several DC local athletes benefited including, Willie Wood, Earl Lloyd, Maury Wills and yours truly.   

For example; DC public high school legend and NFL Green Bay Packer great Willie Wood was a Heller favorite.  Willie was left on the outside looking in while his Packer teammates were being inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame.  He was being blackballed by the powers-to-be.   It was Dick who took the media lead in campaigning for Willie’s induction.  In 1989 almost 20 years after his retirement he was finally inducted into the hollowed halls of the NFL Hall of Fame, thanks to Dick Heller. 

The story of media reach-back continued: 

Alexandria, Virginia native and Parker Gray High School basketball legend Earl Lloyd was all but forgotten for his pioneering efforts in the NBA.  Dick teamed up with NBA legendary Boston Celtic coach Red Auerbach.  They campaigned for Lloyd’s overlooked induction into the NBA Hall of Fame.

It took 53 years after his NBA debut on October 31, 1950 before the NBA finally remembered Earl Lloyd.  He was inducted as a contributor in 2003. 

The Boston Celtics’ Chuck Cooper was the first to sign an NBA contract but Earl was the first to play in a game.  He beat Chuck by one day!  Thanks again Dick Heller.

The beat goes on, DC Public high school legendary all-around athlete, Maury Wills (aka Sonny) revolutionized the art of base stealing and changed the way Major League Baseball played the game from first base to home plate. His legs changed the game from power to speed.

In 1962 he actually ran the great Ty Cobb out of the record books.  Cobb was considered the King of the stolen base before Sonny entered baseball in 1959 after spending 8 years in the Dodger farm system. 

It was at Busch Stadium on September 23, 1962 that he stole his 97th base of the season.  He  shattered the major League record held by the immortal  Cobb.  The record had stood for 47 years.”  

In a story written by Dick in the Washington Times in September of 2003 he said, “It was a game against the St. Louis Cardinals that I saw Maury running with the pitch from right-hander Larry Jackson.  Catcher Carl Sawatski’s hurried throw got past shortstop Dal Maxvill as he slid safety into second. 

According to Dick, “there was no great uproar compared with that of a year earlier when Roger Maris surpassed Babe Ruth’s 1927 total of 60 home runs. 

Sonny was 26 years old in 1959 and he took the Dodgers from 7th place to first and won the World Series! 

The 8 years he spent in the Dodger farm system he became all that he could be.  He taught himself how to hit from both sides of the plate (switch hitter).  He stole 50 bases in 1960 and 35 in 1961, leading the National League both years.  1962 would be his breakout year.

The eyes of baseball were on him and the Dodgers fans were wondering how many bases would he steal in the 62 season!  He finished the year with 104 stolen bases in 117 attempts.  This gave him a success rate of of 89% that shattered Cobb’s record of 71% (96 of 135) in 1915.  His record has since been surpassed by former Cardinal great Lou Brock and the “How great I am” Ricky Henderson (twice).  But it was Sonny Wills who put the excitement and flash of the stolen base back into baseball after several decades where a total low of 15 once led the league (Dom DiMaggio in 1950). 

 After his great season (208 hits, .299 BA to go with his stolen base record and a anemic $30,000 salary, he was looking for a hefty raise for the upcoming 1863 season. 

Sonny said, “I went into (vice-president) Buzzi Bavasi’s office looking to cash in and I came out 15 minutes later happy that I was still on the team.  Buzzie had an unfriendly way of negotiating, he finally gave me a $20,000 raise and told me not to tell anyone.” 

Sonny Wills was from “Parkside” the same NE housing project I grew up in.  Confidence was not in short supply in the Wills’ household. There were 12 other siblings and he was not even the best athlete or best baseball player in the family. 

I lived on Kenilworth Terrace and his family lived on Kenilworth Avenue one street over.  His father was a minister and he ran a tight but a close knit family ship.

 Sonny is definitely one of the greatest all-around athletes to come out of the DC Public School system (Cardozo).   I admired  and looked up to him growing up.  He was a great running back in high school and played with the Stone Walls A. C. a top notch DC amateur football team.   My Spingarn high school coach Dave Brown would often arrange for us to scrimmage against the Stone Walls.  I had an opportunity to see Sonny up close and personal.  It was definitely men against boys!

His brother Donald (QB) and I (WR) were the touchdown combination at Spingarn HS.  Donald (aka Duck) and I decided to continue our education at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina to play for the legendary coach, Bighouse Gaines.

In 1962 during Sonny’s record breaking year I remember joining the Wills family on a bus trip to see the Dodgers take on the Philadelpia Phillies in Philly.  Donald and I had a plan to ask Sonny for some money to help support us in school.

We waited for him at the visitors exit after the game.  First, there were hugs and kisses with family and friends.  I don’t remember how we got him by himself for a minute, but Donald did ask him for some money to help us in school.  He cried broke. 

He explained he was broke in the life style he was living and not really broke in our lifestyle.  I walked away in disbelief.

I now understand exactly where he was coming from after reading the story in Dick’s column about how cheap the Dodgers were after his record breaking year and how he had to beg for a $20,000 raise.   

He did not forget us, he eventually send a $25,000 check down to Winston-Salem.  The check came from a sponsor of the MVP Award that he received for his record breaking year. 

The award came with strings attached.  The player receiving the award had to donate it to a non-profit organization. Enter; Winston-Salem State University.

The money went directly into the school’s athletic fund, I am sure Bighouse gave Duck some money off the top.

Sonny’s stats and winning ways as a Dodger during a brilliant career screams “Hall of Fame!” The Dodgers won pennants in 63, 65 and 66.  They just missed in 1962 losing to the Giants in a play-off. 

There is no argument that he revolutionized the game with his legs.  He changed the game from power (home run) to speed (stolen base).

He had a brief run with the Pirates before returning to finish his career with the Dodgers in 1972.

Sonny Wills was a outspoken and stong-minded individual.  He was not always the most popular of players (sounds familiar).  He dated the cream of the crop, white Hollywood stars like Doris Day, and anybody else he wanted.  He thumped his nose at the media when questioned about his life style.

His drug and alcohol abuse along with tabloid news about disputes with his son “Bump” Wills also a major league baseball player won’t help. His fling with Doris Day and his Major League managerial record (26-56) with the Seattle Mariners, all of this will give the naysayers an excuse not to nominate for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. 

During his career Sonny found little reason to come back home accept for death in the family and sometimes he didn’t make some of those funerals. 

He did comeback to have Banneker Baseball field located across the street from Howard University  named after him.  All this was around the same time Major League Baseball was returning to the Nation’s Capitol.  He was searching for a job but there were no takers!

Dick Heller’s campaign to get Sonny inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame does not look promising, but I wonder what is keeping him out of the DC Sports Hall of Fame?  Could it be the same “Good Old Boy” attitude has spilled over into the local hall of fame? 

Sonny and I have not always seen eye to eye. There were times when I thought he was too selfish when it came to family and friends, but that has become a normal trait in our community. 

We went our separate ways when he forgot to call Dick Heller and thank him for the outstanding column written on his behalf.

Despite the misgivings he deserves to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  He earned it the hard way—hard work!

Dick might just have to settle for two out of three (Wood and Lloyd).  Michael Wilbon was just inducted into the DC Sports Hall of Fame (for what?).  What is the criteria?  I would guess Tony Cornhiser and Chuck Brown are next up!

This type of “Blackballing” sounds like the 1800’s when they tried to crucify the first black Heavyweight Champion of the world, Jack Johnson. 

The Powers-To-Be came up with “The Mann Act.”

This was a law drummed up by some racist stating “A black man could not transport white women across state lines for immoral purposes.”

The more things change the more they stay the same.

There have been recurring proposals to grant Johnson a posthumous presidential pardon.  A bill requesting President George W. Bush to pardon Johnson in 2008, was passed in the House, but failed to pass in the Senate. In April 2009, Senator John McCain, along with Representative Peter King, filmmaker Ken Burns (all white men) requesting a presidential pardon for Johnson from guess who, the first black President of the United States.

Barack Obama, President of all the people?  He has yet to move on the recommendation.  How can we as black folks bad mouth George W. Bush?

On July 29, 2009, Congress passed a resolution calling on President Obama to issue a pardon.

Remember, this is the same President who had a beer in the Rose Garden with a white racist Boston cop and recently took the time out with Tiger Woods to play a round of golf, but has not had time to sign off on a pardon for Jack Johnson.  Come on MAN!

What’s the problem, is Johnson too black?  Yea, I know the “Race Card” but does it count when it is black on black crime?

Maury Povich, Bob Addie, Tom Callahan, Byron Rosen (Washington Post), *Mo Seigel (Washington Star/Times) were the cream of the crop when it comes to honesty, integrity and calling a spade a spade.  They were all great writers—Dick Heller belongs in that same class.

*Mo Seigel could sometimes be brutally honest

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