Neil O’Donell. (Yawn.) The Titans made an eye-opening gambit last weekend that caught notices all around the NFL. And, with all due respect to Mr. O’D, it wasn’t the signing of a reserve quarterback should Steve McNair become injured or falter.
Sure, O’Donell was a prudent, even inspired, acquisition. He’s an accomplished veteran whounlike McNairhas taken a team to the playoffs. Few clubs can boast of as much depth at QB as the Titans now enjoy. But the O’Donell deal almost obscured the real coup, which occurred well removed from the playing field. Among many other recent goings-on, the team also picked up a new president/chief operating officer andmaybe more importantlost another.
The buzz has it that Jeff Diamond, the new Top Titan in Nashville, is the pearl of great price that any right-minded NFL team would drop everything else to obtain.
Diamond, who left Minnesota after a spat with the club’s owner, helped build the Vikings into the NFC’s best team (our apologies to Atlanta). For his work there, The Sporting News named him NFL Executive of the Year.
He’s reputed to be a shrewd negotiator of player contracts, an excellent evaluator of talent, and sufficiently brilliant to play five simultaneous chess games while calculating his taxes and watching that how-to-paint show on PBS.
So far, the closest anyone has come to a negative comment about Diamond is that he learned racquetball from Bud Grant (the expressionless old Vikings coach who was less animated than Portland cement). But what’s particularly newsworthy is not that the Titans hired somebody with Diamond’s impeccable qualifications to fill this position. It’s that the position was open at all.
We’re told that Diamond will oversee every aspect of the team’s operations here in Nashville. Which means, of course, that the incumbent officeholder was effectively relinquishing those responsibilities. That would be Bud Adams.
For all these 40 years since he cooked up the Oilers from scratch, Adams has been only slightly less unyielding than the iceberg that took down the Titanic. For him simply to melt away now would indicate some climatic shift of Old Testament proportions. Chairman Bud (he’ll still retain that title) isn’t really melting, of course. He will not shy away from reminding you that all team decisions finally rest with him.
Yet for Adams to pull himself away even this much has involved an incredible journey. (Remember how long it took for him to be willing to give up the team’s old name?) Perhaps Diamond’s unexpected availability brought it on, but Bud seems to have experienced an epiphany: He is committed to working in Houston, while his team is committed to playing in Nashville (at least for 30 years).
Hey, wow, it makes eminent good sense to have someone with authority over all operations based in the same city as the team. In fact, it makes such good sense that you might wonder how the Titans, given some of their well-publicized missteps on the Long March from the Astrodome to Adelphia, ever thunk of it. (Aren’t these the fellows who came within a couple of stumbles and bumbles of putting a taboo on tailgating at their new free-lunch coliseum?) Diamond, presumably, will help the Titans avert any more self-inflicted foot woundsand win hearts and minds in Nashville while they’re trying to win football games.
Last weekend represented several strides in the right direction. The team sold 38,000 tickets in one day. (Often, last year, they didn’t match that number during whole weeks.) They made perhaps the best personnel signing in their brief history in Tennessee and, oh by the way, picked up a pretty good quarterback to boot. Bud’s in Houston, and all’s right with the world.
One of Nashville’s sports legends died the other daymaybe the greatest baseball player the city ever produced. Chances are excellent that you never heard of him.
Had he played in a different league, Henry Kimbro might have been a candidate for baseball’s Hall of Fame. In 17 professional seasons, he averaged better than .300. A speedy leadoff hitter, he stole hundreds of bases during his career. A centerfielder with huge shoulders and a powerful arm, he could nail runners attempting to sneak an extra base on a hit. Six times he played in the annual All-Star game.
But the teams he played forthe Baltimore Elite Giants, New York Black Yankees, and Birmingham Baronsall were part of the Negro Leagues. Otherwise, Kimbro would have been part of many conversations among white baseball fans of his day. Instead, he was a lamp under a bushel, hidden from view and too easily forgotten.
Yet his stories were unforgettable to anyone who chanced to hear them. In recent years, you could find Mr. Kimbro, as everyone called him, almost every day at the Old Negro League Shop on Jefferson Street. He’d drop by for an hour or two to talk about baseball, especially the old days, and he loved to regale listeners with tales of what it was like to play in the era when baseball was segregated. He would talk about the winter that Satchel Paige lived in Nashville, under contract with the hometown Elite Giants, and how he and the great pitcher developed both a friendship and a good-natured rivalry. (Throughout their careers, Paige delighted in opportunities to strike out Kimbro, who took great pride in his ability to make contact with the most wicked pitches.)
Mr. Kimbro would tell stories of other greats from the Negro Leagues, like his teammate, Roy Campanella. He would recount what it was like to barnstorm across the country playing baseball, and how the players lived on cold cuts they made into sandwiches on the bus because no restaurants would serve them.
He could tell stories that were recorded nowhere elselike of the afternoon when, in an eruption of his volcanic temper, he went after Josh Gibson, the greatest power hitter in black baseball, with a bat. Or of the time in Detroit when he hit a towering ball over the roof of Briggs Stadium (today’s Tiger Stadium). Ted Williams, he said, was the only other player ever to match that feat. But the day after his blast, the newspaper that served Detroit’s African American community erroneously credited the homer to the batter after Kimbro. Half a century later, he still bristled over the hit for which he wasn’t recognized.
When Negro Leaguers like Henry Kimbro die, their stories are an irreplaceable loss. By necessity, many of those tales passed down through oral tradition; Negro League games were almost never preserved on film, newspaper reports are spotty, and even the record books can provide only an educated guess at players’ accomplishments. There are more than a dozen veterans of the Negro Leagues still living in Nashville, and every one with whom I have talked can tell amazing baseball stories that few others have heard. They are witnesses to a world that is gone. And when they are gone too, their stories may be lost.
That would be not just a shame but a crime. Perhaps the Nashville Sports Council, or some enterprising social studies teacher, will undertake an oral history project to record the stories of the Negro Leaguers for all time. They would be a wonderful resource for baseball fans and historians. And more than that, they would provide a measure of belated recognition for the men, like Henry Kimbro, who might have been revered everywhere as legends had only they not been confined to baseball’s shadows.