Quick Takes


    Based on a tv documentary I just saw on Hank Greenberg, my article about him dated 1-17-02 doesn’t begin to do justice to the tremendous anti-semitism he had to endure in his own home park of Briggs Stadium in Detroit, prejudice fueled by Henry Ford, Ford Motor Co. founder, an outspoken Nazi and Hitler supporter. It was as prejudicial as it gets, but Greenberg lived with it in Detroit to become a baseball legend and Hall-of-Famer. He was an absolutely marvelous player, and can certainly be characterized as a pioneer in his own right.


    On February 7, the Phoenix Suns acquired Shaquille O’Neal in a stunning blockbuster deal that sent four-time All-Star Shawn Marion and Marcus Banks to the Miami Heat. The improbable pairing of the speedy Suns and the slow but once-mighty O'Neal became official. The trade, a dramatic if not intelligent move by first-year Phoenix general manager Steve Kerr, signals an unexpected change in philosophy for the Suns, adding a 7-foot-1, 325-pound center who has won four NBA championships but has been plagued by injuries in recent years and turns 36 next month. O’Neal was acquired to stop Tim Duncan in the playoffs, which didn’t happen. Now the Suns are saddled with part-timer Shaq for two more years at $20 million per.


    As a recovering cancer patient myself, I fully appreciate Boston’s Jon Lester. He came back from lymphoma cancer treatment last year and pitched a no-hitter against K.C. Monday night. Lester missed the end of the 2006 season after he was diagnosed with the rare form of lymphoma. The 24-year-old lefty survived the cancer to pitch the World Series clincher for Boston last fall. Jon Lester is a great story!


    I have the perfect system for betting NBA games. Hook up with the refs who will call the games your way. Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy bet on more than 100 games that he worked, federal prosecutors charged. Donaghy pleaded guilty last year to charges he conspired to engage in wire fraud and transmitted betting information through interstate commerce. Sentencing will take place July 14. So much for my system.


Story of the Week


    Willie O’Ree was to hockey what Jackie Robinson was to baseball as it relates to the color line. The following is an exact reprint of this most informative article.


By Jerome Crowe @ latimes.com.

January 14, 2008


Willie O'Ree broke racial barriers in NHL despite a physical disability. He kept it secret that he couldn't see out of an eye damaged in an on-ice accident, and became the first black player in the league in 1958.


Even after an on-ice accident robbed him of sight in his right eye, Willie O'Ree remained unflinchingly focused on reaching the highest levels of hockey -- a determination and steeliness that helped the Canadian winger break the NHL color barrier 50 years ago this week.

On Jan. 18, 1958, two years after a deflected puck destroyed his right retina, O'Ree became the league's first black player when he entered a game for the Boston Bruins against the Montreal Canadiens at Montreal.


It was a monumental moment, one that will be celebrated Saturday when the Bruins honor O'Ree at a game against the New York Rangers and again the following weekend when he is feted during All-Star weekend in Atlanta.

No less intriguing is that in 21 years in professional hockey, all but 45 games of which were played in the minors, O'Ree never took an eye test. "Lucky for me they never asked, because I never would have passed," O'Ree says from his home in La Mesa, outside San Diego. "Luckily for me, they were more concerned about my physical condition and I kept myself in good shape."

O'Ree, 72, is still in good shape. A Californian since 1961, when he debuted for the now-defunct Los Angeles Blades of the Western Hockey League, the father of three grown children enjoys golfing and horseback riding.

O'Ree, who played until he was 45, is still involved in hockey as the NHL's diversity programming director. It's a job that keeps him on the road about half the year, he says, and one he probably never would have landed, of course, if he had never played in the NHL. And he probably never would have played in the NHL if his blindness had not been such a well-kept secret. He told only two people of his condition -- Betty Robinson, an older sister, and Stan Maxwell, a black teammate -- and learned to adapt on the ice.

"I just forgot about what I couldn't see and I just concentrated on what I could see," says O'Ree, who had the eye removed a few years ago to alleviate pain and discomfort. "I used to over-skate the puck quite a bit because I was just trying so hard, but then I decided, 'Don't worry about it.' But it was difficult because I was a left-handed shot playing left wing and I had to turn my head all the way around to the right to be able to pick up the puck with my left eye."

But the Bruins knew nothing of his handicap, nor apparently did they give much thought to his skin color when they promoted him in January, 1958. His race "didn't mean anything to us," former Bruins linemate Don McKenney was quoted as saying years later. "He was one of us, a Bruin."

Says O'Ree of his debut: "The big deal was that we beat the Canadiens that night. We shut them out, 3-0. That was the big write-up. There wasn't anything said about Willie O'Ree breaking the color barrier. It wasn't until I was recalled again in 1961 that the media gave me the name, the Jackie Robinson of hockey."

By then, O'Ree had realized the dream he'd developed as a youngster in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada. The youngest of 13 children, he came from one of two black families in the city, which had been a stop along the Underground Railroad. And like many young Canadians, O'Ree took up hockey at an early age. "I started skating at the age of 2, then started playing organized hockey when I was 5," he says. "That's what young boys and girls do in Canada."

Though aware that no black players had reached the NHL, he nevertheless set his sights on making it. Growing up, he says, he heard his share of racial slurs on the ice, "but not to the extent of what I heard when I came to the States."


But he let neither the slurs nor his damaged eye deter him. Of concern for his personal safety, O'Ree says, "I never even gave it a second thought. We didn't wear any helmets or face shields or face masks back then, and I was just so geared up to play pro hockey."

He played one more game for the Bruins in 1958 -- in Boston, two nights after his debut -- and 43 in the 1960-61 season. He scored four goals. His career was brief, but O'Ree left his mark. Says Grant Fuhr, the goaltender on the Edmonton Oilers' five Stanley Cup-winning teams and the only black inductee in the Hockey Hall of Fame, "He's the one who made it real for us."

He was happy to do it. "At that time, it was a six-team league, and there were only about 120 hockey players in the NHL," O'Ree says. "I made a contribution to the sport and to the game. I wish I could have played longer, but things happen for a reason."

As noted, he’s still involved with hockey. His travels take him throughout North America for clinics and fundraisers and to find the next Fuhr or Jarome Iginla or Tony McKegney, the most accomplished of the small number of black players who have excelled in the NHL. Through its diversity efforts, the NHL helps to fund 39 youth programs, one in Anaheim.

"You're going to see more players of color coming into the league in the coming years," O'Ree says. "Hockey is a unique sport; if you don't have access to ice, you're not going to develop. You have to have the opportunity." It doesn't take two eyes to see that.


Last Week’s Trivia


    Paul Krause, a 6-3, 200-pound free safety from the University of Iowa, became the leading pass interceptor of all time with 81 steals during a 16-season career with the Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings from 1964 to 1979. He is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


Trivia Question of the Week


    98 MLB players have hit a home run in their very first AB. Only one has made it to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Who? See next week’s Sports Junkie for the answer.


    In all the years I’ve asked this question, only one person, Greg Abbott, has answered it correctly. I did a presentation on Jackie Robinson for a group meeting last month. After the meeting, I tossed this trivia question out to the audience, knowing I would not hear the correct response. In a matter of seconds, I did hear the correct answer. I couldn’t believe it. Greg Abbott knows sports. And you’ll know the answer next week, as well as the unique storyline about it.