It’s when the locals in Scioto County come together on a January night to raise funds for a civic cause and celebrate their incredible legacy of major league baseball. It’s baseball of the people…and for the people.
“Hey, did you ever get down this way to take some pictures of the murals?”, said a Scioto County man at Wednesday night’s annual Murals Banquet in downtown Portsmouth.
His was a face I had met on three previous occasions when attending the banquet with Hal McCoy, and embarrassingly…I still don’t know the man’s name.
I assured him that I had. I had stopped along the river last summer on a trip to nearby Ironton to take a first-hand look at the flood wall art that distinguishes this Ohio River community. The photo of Branch Rickey’s image on the front page is testimony. He shook my hand and added, “Good, good. I’ll be anxious to see your pictures.”
But in fact a space of this size cannot do justice to the remarkable work initiated years ago to adorn the the walls and the legacy of Portsmouth, Ohio – a town proud of its legacy both in mural artwork…and for turning out a disproportionate number of major league baseball standouts.
Think of it – Branch Rickey (executive), Larry Hisle (Phillies), Al Oliver (Pirates), Don Gullett (Reds), Johnnie LeMaster (Giants), Gene Tenace (Athletics), John Stephenson (Mets), John Hernnstein (Cubs), Josh Newman (Rockies), Terry Craft, Greg Gibson and Charlie Reliford (umpires), Walt Terrell (Tigers), Del Rice (Cubs), and Gene Bennett (scout for the Cincinnati Reds) all hail from the greater Scioto County area…from Ashland, Kentucky west to Portsmouth, Lucasville south to South Shores, Kentucky.
More impressively, there are even more names that I’ve left out.
But you know baseball season’s coming when the phone rings a day or so after New Year’s and Hal McCoy’s voice questions, “You want to go to Portsmouth for the banquet this year?” In recent years Hal and I have been the annual guests of Lucasville funeral director, and banquet sponsor, Wm. McKinley.
I had been there on two other occasions, impressed with the passions the locals have not only for baseball, but for their river heritage and community pride. The “Murals”, are a big deal in Portsmouth, and the annual fundraiser serves to finance the maintenance of the giant project.
“If you like Baptists, baseball, and a little beer (and not much beer, at that) this is a great place to be,” said that same man when I first joined Hal for the event four years ago. “We have a lot of fun.”
And indeed, you do see a lot of the same faces year after year having fun. It’s what they do in Portsmouth, and they set their clocks by it. The civic center that hosts the event is always packed, and there is an order of ritual!
Former Pirate, Expo, and Ranger great Al Oliver gives the yearly prayer before they open the buffet line.
“That alone is worth the price of your ticket,” joked umpire Greg Gibson on Wednesday. Only, he wasn’t joking. Oliver’s annual pre-meal grace covers everything, honest and sincere.
They recognize the local LIttle Leagues, and high school teams that have distinguished themselves since last year’s banquet. The Wheelersburg Pirates have won a pair of state baseball titles; and the Pirates softball team was honored Wednesday for their own state title in 2016.
It’s always a little different, something new. Former Red Tom Browning signed copies of his book Wednesday, and later honored endless requests for autographed bats and baseballs. His self-deprecating humor delighted those who pressed around to meet him.
Most of the former big leaguers are invited to speak and share something of their community past, and its impact on their career success. Many, like former Red Don Gullett, credit local patriarch Gene Bennett, the scout who discovered and signed the high school lefthander prior to his days as a member of the Sparky Anderson’s Big Red Machine. Gullett choked up with emotion on Wednesday and had to end his tribute to Bennett prematurely. They all understood.
Bennett is such a beloved figure in the community they’ve named the Little League complex after him and proceeds from the sale of his recent book, My 58 Years With The Cincinnati Reds, are directed to help keep the complex pristine in his honor.
Former Red, Doug Flynn, a member of the ’75 and ’76 World Championship teams, was the featured speaker Wednesday. Besides having an entertaining resemblance to a young George W. Bush, his stories of past days playing basketball for the University of Kentucky – and showing up for a Reds tryout camp in cutoffs, a tank top, and wearing a head band, delighted the crowd. Flynn would go on to a nice big league career, and was the principle player involved in the 1977 deal that brought Tom Seaver to the Reds from the New York Mets.
In terms of genuine affection for each other, for the community, and for the love of the game, there is no better harbinger of spring and another season of baseball. If you’ve never been to Portsmouth, first check out the flood wall come summer. The time and the trip are worth it.
Then, mark your calendar for the second week of January, and go…at least once. They’ve done this now for 13 years, and while it gets a little repetitive it’s always different; and it never gets old. Not even octogenarian Gene Bennett.
That same smiling man whose name I’ve yet to learn once called it…baseball of the people and for the people.
I cannot disagree!