Roland Hemond built contenders, mentored generations

Written by: Matt Kelly

Roland Hemond began his baseball career as a stadium sweeper in Hartford, Conn. Decades later, he would be known as one of the most respected executives in the game.

In between, Hemond was an invaluable mentor to countless executives, managers and players.

Hemond, the Hall of Fame’s 2011 Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award winner, died Sunday, Dec. 12, at the age of 92. In seven decades spent in baseball’s front offices, Hemond helped to elevate three franchises to contenders while also cementing a reputation as one of the game’s great relationship builders. No matter where you were in Major League Baseball, it’s likely you or someone you knew were close with Roland Hemond.

Roland Hemond waves to fans during the 2011 Parade of Legends in Cooperstown. (Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)

“Roland Hemond came to Cooperstown as the 2011 Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award winner after a lifetime spent in baseball assembling championship teams and building treasured relationships,” said Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the Board of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “With a perpetual twinkle in his eye, Roland had a love for the game that was fueled by a respect and admiration for all who played it. He worked tirelessly to help baseball family members in need and never wavered in his commitment to serve. We extend our condolences to his wife, Margo, and the entire Hemond family.”

In 2011, the Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors selected Hemond as the second recipient of the Buck O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award for his impact on the game and mentorship of other baseball executives. When he learned he had won the award, Hemond told the Associated Press that the honor was “the epitome of the highest of pinnacles that I feel I would ever enjoy.”

Hemond received a World Series ring as an assistant scouting director with the Milwaukee Braves in 1957, and would go on to forge paths to playoff success for other franchises. As general manager, Hemond gave Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa his start with the Chicago White Sox and ignited a worst-to-first revival for the Baltimore Orioles. He would later help the Arizona Diamondbacks navigate their inaugural campaign as senior vice president in 1998, laying the foundation for their 2001 World Series championship.

Along the way, Hemond was honored twice as the Sporting News MLB Executive of the Year in 1972 and 1989 and won the United Press International Executive of the Year Award in 1983.

“Nobody in the baseball community compares to him when it comes to relationships and contacts,” said Arizona Diamondbacks president and CEO Derrick Hall of Hemond in 2007, “and his knowledge and experience in the industry is second to none.”

Born Oct. 26, 1929 in Central Falls, R.I., Hemond fell in love with the local Boston Red Sox as a boy, memorably taking a bus alone from Pawtucket to Fenway Park to watch the team at age 10. After serving in the Coast Guard, Hemond landed a job as a stadium worker at Hartford’s Bulkeley Stadium.

In 1953, Hemond joined the Braves – Hemond said he got the job due to his ability to type, then unusual for men – and helped them transition to their new home in Milwaukee. He ascended through the Braves’ front office system as the team began aggressively pursuing amateur talent that would result in two National League pennants from 1957-58.

His talent for establishing teams in new markets showed once again when he became farm and scouting director for the brand new Los Angeles Angels in 1961.

Hemond would take over as general manager for the Chicago White Sox in 1970 and began by making a flurry of trades that catapulted the South Siders into contention. At the 1976 Winter Meetings in Hollywood, Fla., with Hall of Fame owner Bill Veeck’s permission, Hemond famously set up a table in the lobby of the Diplomat Hotel and hung a sign declaring the White Sox were “Open For Business.”

“He had a deck of cards for each major league and a 3-by-5 card for each team, complete with starting lineup, pitching staff, reserves and brightest major league prospects,” wrote Veeck in 1983. “These are his trading cards, and he wears out five or six sets every year, shuffling them endlessly as he makes mental trades.”

Amid financial limitations and relocation rumors, Hemond’s creativity as Chicago’s general manager helped the White Sox win the American League West division in 1983 and reach the playoffs for the first time in 24 years.

“It isn’t too often that the GM walks into the clubhouse and is greeted with cheers,” said La Russa. “That’s how close he was to what was happening on the field. His sincerity and the trust he established, that was a difference-maker with the players.”

From 1986-87, Hemond served two years as an advisor for MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth before accepting an offer to be GM for the Orioles. He was honored as baseball’s Executive of the Year for a third time in 1989, before guiding the Baltimore franchise into a new era at Camden Yards and acquiring the building blocks for a team that would reach the 1996 AL Championship Series.

But before the Orioles tasted success in the 1996 postseason, Hemond had already transitioned to senior executive vice president for the new Arizona Diamondbacks expansion franchise. After drawing more than 3.6 million fans in their first season, Hemond’s Diamondbacks surprised the baseball world by winning 100 games and the NL West division title in 1999, setting the stage for their World Series run two years later.

Hemond returned to Chicago in 2001 as an executive advisor for the White Sox, overseeing many of the personnel changes that spurred the team’s historic World Series title in 2005, before returning to the Diamondbacks in 2007 to work as a special assistant to team president Derrick Hall.

But Hemond’s reputation stretched beyond his acumen for evaluating talent. He also served as president of the Association of Professional Baseball Players of America, which provides financial assistance and college scholarships to current and former players, scouts and others connected with pro baseball, and created the Professional Baseball Scouts Foundation. He was the first non-player to receive the Branch Rickey Award for community service, and was named the “King of Baseball” in 2001 for his contributions to the minor leagues.

As further testament to Hemond’s legacy, three other organizations – the White Sox, Baseball America magazine and the Society for American Baseball Research – named their service awards in honor of the legendary executive.

“He would give anyone an opportunity who loved the game and was willing to start at the bottom,” said former White Sox manager Chuck Tanner of Hemond. “He always had time for the little guy starting out, because he sold peanuts and popcorn himself.”

Matt Kelly is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y.

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