The Franchise is 47 years old. He played his last game years ago. But Dick Cecil is all we've got. He's the man who brought major league baseball back to Washington. His game, the Cracker Jack Old Timers Classic, is Washington's season.
"I really don't want the burden," he said. "I refuse to accept the weight."
Fair enough. It's tough satisfying the cravings of a baseball-starved city that subsists on memories and box scores. For one night last summer, Cecil brought back Whitey, Spahnie, Campy and Stan the Man. Luke Appling, 75, hit a home run. Hank Aaron got hit in the chin with a fly ball. Lew Burdette, the losing pitcher, gave up four runs and said, "Boy, I'm glad this season's over."
"It was a magic night," Cecil said of the game, which drew nearly 30,000 fans despite heavy rain for two hours before the game. Although it may be difficult to cast the same spell, they'll try again on July 18 at RFK Stadium.
For most of his adult life, Cecil was a baseball man, "a background guy." He was a freshman college coach and a bird dog scout. He says he discovered no one. He was the Braves' vice president in charge of everything but player personnel. He ran the stadium, helped found a soccer league and a soccer team. In 1965, he booked the Beatles into Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.
He's not used to talking about himself. You might almost accuse him of trying to make himself less interesting than he is. He had a job people fantasize about. For 17 years, he helped run a baseball team.
In 1974, he quit to go into business as a consultant. His company, Cecil and Associates, helps corporations spend money on sports promotions. Two years ago, a client, Ketchum Communications, asked him to develop a promotion for Cracker Jack. "They had a long relationship with baseball," he said. "It's in the song."
Cecil, who had become increasingly uncomfortable with the way baseball is, created a game for the way it was.
He grew up in Nebraska, an outfielder. "Before I was scouted I thought I was pretty good," he said. "Once I became a scout, I realized I wasn't."
Three wrist operations ended his aspirations. He coached at the University of Nebraska and got a master's degree in history along the way. He scouted the area, not the most fertile baseball territory. He saw Tommie Agee and Lou Brock and Bob Gibson play the outfield one cold Nebraska day.
In the early 1960s, as assistant farm director, he ran the Braves' minor league spring training camp in Waycross, Ga., where black and white baseball players and black and white fans stayed apart. "Over the next two or three years, we took steps to integrate as many phases of the baseball operation as possible," he said.
It was a formative time for him, for everyone. "I realized there were a lot of other things than baseball," he said. "That's when the restlessness began."
Later, when the Braves prepared to leave Milwaukee, he went to Atlanta to supervise the construction of the stadium and set up the front office. "I came into Atlanta at a time when the civil rights movement was at its zenith," he said. "We could have gone one of two ways: conservative or progressive. I said, 'If we're going to be a major league city, we're going to do everything we can in a major league way.' "
The first person he hired was Bill Lucas, a black, a friend. "There were phone calls in the middle of the night," he said. "In certain sections of town, I was persona non grata."
"I could always sense that he was supportive of black players and understood their problems," Aaron said. "There were problems. He was much more involved in civil rights than I was."
Cecil knew Martin Luther King, a sports fan, and Andrew Young, now mayor of Atlanta. He was the cochairman of Young's finance committee the first time he ran for Congress.
The weekend King was killed, the Braves had three exhibitions scheduled with the Orioles. Cecil decided they would play the first and third, but not the second, a day of mourning. "I wanted to show the city of Atlanta was not panicking," he said.
"The Braves made no compromise with the traditional South," Young said. "They put Hank forward as the star. I remember the Braves' parade coming down Peachtree Street and standing there in front of one of the hotels and hearing one good old boy, who you normally would have expected to be hostile on race. When Hank passed, he said, 'That guy ought to be able to buy a house in any part of this city. If we're going to have a big league team, we ought to be a big league town.'
"That was what Dick Cecil and the Braves brought to Atlanta . . . Dick really got in and became a part of the progressive leadership that helped save the South."
As Cecil's political role in the community increased, so did his sense of the narrowness of baseball. "After 17 years, it became very predictable," he said. "You go to spring training. You open the season and play 162 games. You close it with the World Series and you go to the winter meetings. Next thing you're back at spring training."
He still runs Braves Productions Inc., which books events into the stadium and other Atlanta entertainment facilities. He has no desire to be back in baseball. Though he felt out of step with some of management's attitudes (for example, the reserve system), he does not feel comfortable with agents, either. "I don't think I would enjoy it," he said. "The humor has been lost in the big business."
The old-timers game, which costs between $750,000-$1.5 million to stage, is not expected to make money. A guaranteed sum of $50,000 goes to the Association of Professional Ballplayers of America, which looks after former players in need of financial assistance. Each player on the roster receives a $1,000 stipend and transportation for two.
He expected a crowd of 20,000 last year; 29,196 came. This year, he expects 35,000-40,000; 13,000 tickets have been sold.
He chose Washington for several reasons: it had national media and a lot of open dates. "Washington basically had a void," he said. "There hadn't been a game here in 10 years. It's a good sports town if you give it something to respond to . . . There are lots of frustrated old fans--Senator fans, the Emil Verban Club, guys who get together to celebrate the failure of the Cubs. There are people who thrive on the past and the tradition of the game."
Cecil believes Washington should never abandon the quest to regain a team. He also believes the chances of getting one are remote. In the meantime, the old-timers keep the memories and the hopes alive. The 65-player roster has a hero for everyone.
Last year, on the day baseball returned to Washington, the rains came and kept coming up until game time. It was inconceivable that the city would wait 10 years for a rainout. Cecil said, "Play ball."
It was too wet for the players to line up along the base lines for introductions, the way they usually do. "We did it one at a time and now we always will," Cecil said. "Ballplayers get self-conscious standing out there. When Stan Musial went out and did his familiar crouch and a mock swing, I said, 'It's show time.' "
Aaron said it was one of the most moving nights of his career, seeing all those Hall of Famers together. "The people didn't even come out to see them play," he said. "They just came to see them standing there, to see Stan Musial's crouch, to see how high Warren Spahn could get his leg. They didn't come out to see Hank Aaron get hit in the chin. They came to see me hit one out. But Luke Appling took that from me and I said, 'I won't steal your thunder.' I decided not to hit a home run."
Cecil smiled, thinking back. "Everybody likes to dip back and remember, remember the good things. It was a good thing."