By BOB STRICKLEY
PDT Sports Editor
A roster fit for an Major League Baseball All-Star game attended Wednesday’s Sixth Annual Portsmouth Murals Baseball Banquet.
Local baseball greats Don Gullett, Larry Hisle, Gene Bennett, John Stephenson, Al Oliver and umpire Terry Craft took their turns speaking to a sellout crowd of baseball enthusiasts.
The banquet benefits Portsmouth Murals Inc. and their ongoing efforts to maintain the flood wall murals depicting Portsmouth’s history.
Two murals, one depicting Branch Rickey and the other the Portsmouth Spartans, were in need of restoration in 2011 and the annual baseball banquet was one of the key fund-raising efforts needed to pay the $20,000 required in the restoration.
Portsmouth Murals Inc. President Robert Morton spoke about the importance of the evening and the murals.
“The money raised from this will be going to a very good cause,” Morton said. “The money raised helped restore the Branch Rickey mural and we chose to rededicate the Branch Rickey mural on Aug. 28, the day Rickey signed Jackie Robinson because of the significance of that day in history.”
Portsmouth native and former seven-time All-Star Al Oliver reflected on the importance of Branch Rickey as the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier when he signed Jackie Robinson.
“It goes way back to people like Branch Rickey, who is responsible especially for myself and Larry Hisle being born and raised here, to have an opportunity to play major league baseball,” Oliver said. “As strange as it seems, it took someone from Southern Ohio to make that move while others before, for whatever reason, had a problem with race. But, thanks be to God that he was a Christian man and believed in equality.”
The players took their turns reflecting upon their time in the majors and how their lives have been changed by the game of baseball.
For Morton, it was a reminder of how much baseball talent has come from the Portsmouth area.
“People don’t realize the number of baseball people of major league caliber that came from Scioto County and Greenup County,” Morton said. “These fellows always speak to the audience with their own theme and are a delight to hear. People always enjoy it.”
Oliver relished in the opportunity to speak with other former players.
“In baseball there is a great camaraderie that we have,” he said. “No matter the type of player there’s no difference in regards to what type of career you had. When baseball players get together we have great stories and are always upbeat because it is one big fraternity that we all have been very privileged to have been part of.”
After the players addressed the patrons, a short video featuring the baseball life of Branch Rickey was shown and the night’s keynote speaker, MLB umpire Greg Gibson of Ironton, wrapped up what was a night about the history of baseball in Portsmouth.
Oliver was humbled to be part of an evening that reminded all in attendance that Portsmouth is undoubtedly a baseball town.
“With the great history we have had here, I’m just glad to be part of it,” Oliver said.
Bob Strickley may be reached at 740-353-3101, ext. 203, or email@example.com.