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Mudville: April 18, 2024 10:08 pm PDT

Gene Locklear

"I have a Creator. The Creator uses me for His purpose, not my purpose.”

At BallNine, we have chosen a few corners of the baseball world upon which we like to shine the light. Aside from gaining baseball insights from the players, managers, scouts, and announcers themselves, we also like to dig into other niches in the realm of baseball. Two of the more popular and lesser known facets we have covered have been showcasing baseball artists, and advocating for the pensionless group of 500 former Big Leaguers whom the Major League Baseball Players Association has ignored. This week, those two worlds intersect – as we go Spitballin’ with Gene Locklear.

Locklear played five seasons in the majors for the Reds, Padres, and Yankees and is also an incredible artist whose paintings can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Locklear is a full-blooded Native American from the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and his beginnings are about as humble as you can imagine. It’s actually quite amazing that he was able to become either a renowned artist or a major leaguer – considering where he came from; let alone both.

Locklear is also one of the approximately 500 former major leaguers who are without a pension; a group perpetually ignored by the virtue-signaling director of the Major League Players Association Tony Clark and player reps around the sport. They’ve also largely been ignored by the national media, baseball or otherwise, so we’re happy to continue to share their stories here at BallNine.

People should know about their plight; so as countless pitches go ignored by national media, join us as we go Spitballin’ with Gene Locklear.

Thanks for joining us, Mr. Locklear. We have a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in. Could you take us back to your childhood to give us some background on where you came from?

I think I’m a miracle. I was brought up in a Native American community and I did not participate in any way, including school or church, with anyone of any other nationality. We never had a TV or even a newspaper; we couldn’t afford it. My dad had a small radio that plugged into the wall and that was it. I didn’t know about Mickey Mantle until I was in high school. We lived off the farm. I say we didn’t make money, we made a living. Today, kids will see a quarter on the ground and they won’t even stop to pick it up. To this day, even if I see a penny on the ground I will pick it up. It reminds me of when I was a kid and you could buy a piece of bubble gum for a penny. If I ended up with a piece of bubble gum back then, I would chew it and then put it in the freezer so I could chew it again the next day. I would chew it until it disintegrated because I didn’t know when I’d have a spare penny to buy another piece.

I’ve interviewed some people with humble beginnings, but I don’t think many have had it that humble. How did you get into baseball?   

I was adopted and had a half-brother who was a diehard baseball fan. He lived with my grandfather and when I’d see him, we’d play baseball. He would tell me to hit from both sides because Mickey Mantle hit from both sides. I would think, “Who in the world is Mickey Mantle?” By the time I entered high school, I played a little football too. I was a pitcher, played shortstop and outfield. The one thing that advanced me very quickly was that even by 12 years old, I was playing baseball with grown men. Even a couple of minor leaguers. There was a guy named Durant Cooper who played in the minor leagues for the White Sox and he became my role model for wanting to play ball. Maybe not in the major leagues, but just to play professionally. I thought if he could do it, so could I.

How did you end up journeying from those beginnings to the Big Red Machine?

Well, nobody scouted me in high school despite [my] hitting .500 and throwing a perfect game. Pembroke State University’s property ran right up against the high school that I went to and even they didn’t come to look at me. If you want to talk about the conditions of prejudices against minorities and the rights of people who have the abilities to do something, but never got the chance, that’s the situation I was in. It wasn’t until about two years after high school that I signed with the Reds. I went to a tryout camp that the Pirates had in a local area. I was the fastest guy there and had the best arm. I saw five pitches and hit two out. The scout said I was the highest prospect, but it was July and too late to sign. The next spring, he called a guy named Bill Jameson and told him when he had a camp in my area to invite me, and he did. There were three of us, me, a catcher, and [an] outfielder. He signed me and the catcher. I found out later my scouting card was like Pete Rose’s scouting card. It said, “Can’t hit, can’t run, can’t throw but has a great attitude.”

You won batting titles in AA and AAA in back-to-back seasons and then were in the majors with the Reds by 1973. What was your first experience in the majors like?

I got a start with the Reds in the big leagues in ’73, but June of that year they traded me to San Diego for Fred Norman. I finally got a chance to play in 1970 and batted .321 and led the team in hitting. Then I didn’t play another game for three months. I went in to John McNamara and asked why he wasn’t playing me and he told me it came from upstairs. I said, “OK, I am giving you a choice. Send me to AAA where I’ll play, or I’m not going to play for you anymore.” I played and went 0-5. I went up at bat and just stood there. Then they traded me to the Yankees. I couldn’t take it anymore knowing what I went through just to get there and then to be treated like that.

They’re waiting for us to die. Once we all die, they’ll have all that money that they can give to other players who are already making millions and millions of dollars.

How did you end up journeying from those beginnings to the Big Red Machine?

Well, nobody scouted me in high school despite [my] hitting .500 and throwing a perfect game. Pembroke State University’s property ran right up against the high school that I went to and even they didn’t come to look at me. If you want to talk about the conditions of prejudices against minorities and the rights of people who have the abilities to do something, but never got the chance, that’s the situation I was in. It wasn’t until about two years after high school that I signed with the Reds. I went to a tryout camp that the Pirates had in a local area. I was the fastest guy there and had the best arm. I saw five pitches and hit two out. The scout said I was the highest prospect, but it was July and too late to sign. The next spring, he called a guy named Bill Jameson and told him when he had a camp in my area to invite me, and he did. There were three of us, me, a catcher, and [an] outfielder. He signed me and the catcher. I found out later my scouting card was like Pete Rose’s scouting card. It said, “Can’t hit, can’t run, can’t throw but has a great attitude.”

You won batting titles in AA and AAA in back-to-back seasons and then were in the majors with the Reds by 1973. What was your first experience in the majors like?

I got a start with the Reds in the big leagues in ’73, but June of that year they traded me to San Diego for Fred Norman. I finally got a chance to play in 1970 and batted .321 and led the team in hitting. Then I didn’t play another game for three months. I went in to John McNamara and asked why he wasn’t playing me and he told me it came from upstairs. I said, “OK, I am giving you a choice. Send me to AAA where I’ll play, or I’m not going to play for you anymore.” I played and went 0-5. I went up at bat and just stood there. Then they traded me to the Yankees. I couldn’t take it anymore knowing what I went through just to get there and then to be treated like that.

Photo via GeneLocklear.com

You were just 27 at that time, what did you do next?

I went home and was living with my mom. My dad had passed away a few years earlier. One day, I picked up the phone and called the Oakland A’s. Charlie Finley picked the phone right up. I thought, “Shit, at least he knows who I am!” I told him about my issues with the Yankees. He said he didn’t realize that and wanted to call the Yankees to see if they’d let me go. When I called back, he said the Yankees told him, “Hands off.” At that point, I knew there was no point calling anyone else. The Yankees had lied to me and made up their mind that I was gonna do what they wanted me to do. It didn’t matter to them whether I stayed in North Carolina the rest of my life. Eventually, I went back to AAA for 1977. They kept me there all year long. I batted .290 with 20 home runs and 84 RBIs. I hit four home runs in one game and it should have been five. I hit the fifth to centerfield and the centerfielder jumped up over the fence and caught it. I asked him later about it and he said it would have been a home run. I said, “I would have paid you a million dollars to have let that one go.” I would have been the only guy to hit five homers in a professional game.

It’s amazing that with your success in the Majors and that kind of production that they could keep you down there or not even explore trading you.

You’d think I was making this shit up wouldn’t you? The General Manager of the AAA team called me into his office and told me there were three teams that wanted me. He said they told him if they could get the Yankees to let me go, they’d give him $20,000 and I’d end up back in the Big Leagues. I said that was great. He called me the very next day and said that the Yankees wouldn’t let me go. I stayed in AAA all year and you know what that cost me? My retirement. I needed just 30 days in the majors to get my retirement pension and I never got it. I could be sitting here with $40,000 a year or so coming in if they had just let me go to another team. They did call me up in September, but I sat there the whole month. They let me start the final game of the season and I went 3-5.

The General Manager came to me and asked me to come up to his office to talk. I had already talked to Billy Martin and he told me the Yankees weren’t going to re-sign me. As I was getting dressed, I realized I had two choices. I could either go upstairs and talk, or walk out and leave because I was a free agent. I started thinking of how the Padres treated me and how the Yankees treated me. I said to myself, “There has to be someone out there who is willing to treat me like a human being.” I never went upstairs. I left the park and that was it.

What was your next step after that?

I was the first choice of the Minnesota Twins in free agency. The Dodgers drafted me, too, [and] so did a third team. The Twins offered me the same amount of money I made the year before in AAA. They just wanted me as insurance and were going to put me in the minors. I never knew if I would play in the majors, so I signed in Japan instead. They gave me $300,000 for three years, which was a lot of money back then. By then, my desire to play baseball was gone because of the way I had been treated. It started when I was in AAA and continued with the Reds with Sparky Anderson. Sparky never spoke to me; that was his way of saying he didn’t like me. Then it just continued for six or seven years.

It’s amazing to think that teams treated people that way and it really wasn’t that long ago. I have to say I’ve heard some similar stories from other players about teams in this era, especially the Padres.

Here’s a good one. In 1975, I was batting .450 in June. I was playing left field and batting third. In the weeks leading up to the All-Star Game, they took me out of the lineup. When it came time to pick the All-Stars, they called the Padres for input and they said, “Well, Locklear hasn’t been playing anymore.” They weren’t gonna pick a guy for the All-Star Game no matter what he was batting if he wasn’t even in the lineup. That was one of the Padres ways of keeping salary down. When someone was doing well, they would take them out of the lineup and keep their stats down. The owners back then didn’t care about winning. The first guy who owned the Padres when I was there was dealing with bankruptcy and then Ray Kroc wasn’t a baseball guy. If you went and looked back, the Padres led the league in grievances filed against the front office because of how they treated people.

Speaking of treating people poorly, how about Tony Clark and the MLBPA? You’re part of the group of pensionless players that people have been trying to advocate for. Can you talk to our readers about that?

In 1997, the major leagues gave Negro League players a retirement. Some guys who never even played in the majors had gotten pensions. How are they going to take my money and give it to someone else, without giving me and hundreds of guys like me any? I don’t give a shit what color anyone is, how’d they get away with that? Nobody writes shit about that. The conscience of Major League Baseball said they had to do something for them. Well what about guys like me who need just 30 days? I met a guy in Syracuse [who] said he needed one day! What about all these other guys who really could use the money? They’ll take care of one group of players, but they won’t take care of us. That’s so hypocritical. They’re waiting for us to die. Once we all die, they’ll have all that money that they can give to other players who are already making millions and millions of dollars.

We gotta get one or two of those guys on our side. Someone who wants to make it one of the things that they can feel good about in their lives. We need someone to stand up and say, “I did this for those people. I had the privilege of helping these old retired players who didn’t get a pension and now they have one.” We just need one or two people to want to have that kind of impact. We need people who want to be able to add that to their accomplishments in life.

Changing the topic off of baseball for a minute, you’re an incredible artist. Can you talk to our readers about your work in the art world?

I’ve been painting my whole life and have done so much with it. I was the Super Bowl artist for three years. I had two paintings hang in the White House; the first with Gerald Ford – and then Ronald Reagan wanted a different painting. I used to work for Turner Network; I did a lot of artwork with them. I’m sitting here working on a religious painting now that’s going to take me a lot of time. It’s called The Centerpiece of Life. It has to do with the crucifixion and rising of Christ. It would be a $20,000 painting if I sell it. If I sold it through a gallery, it would be $40,000-$50,000 because they get half. I try not to work through galleries though because they don’t give a shit about artists. I live in Western Texas, which is the heart of Western Art. I’ve lived here three years and I have been to one gallery this whole time because I know how they work.

Thank you for taking the time to share your baseball stories. It really is incredible to see how much you have been able to accomplish considering where you came from. As we wrap this up, do you have any final thoughts you’d like to leave us with?

It’s no accident I am where I am today. There’s a reason why everything that has happened to me has happened. Now, as I become more and more into an adult of spirituality, I look at life and the way things happen. It was no accident that I was treated the way I was in baseball. It is no accident that I am where I am today. I have a Creator. The Creator uses me for His purpose, not my purpose. Things may happen in a bad way to you, but that can be what you need to be strong to go into the next phase of your life and for you to learn from. Dealing with the Padres and Yankees, I know how businesses run. When I walk into someone’s business and they say they want to commission a painting, I’m way ahead of them with how they’re thinking. They’re going to pay me as low as they can get them. It’s not that it’s not fair, that’s just the way business is. I don’t get mad and ask why they’re treating me this way like I used to do with baseball.


Mr. Locklear’s art can be found on his website – https://www.genelocklear.com/

Rocco is a baseball writer with too much time on his hands who lives in the dusty corners of Baseball Reference. He was one half of the battery for the 1986 Belleville Recreation Farm League Champion Indians. He likes early 20th century baseball nicknames, pullover polyester jerseys and Old Hoss Radbourn. He works as a College Athletics Director and his second book was released in April of 2021.

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