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Portsmouth Murals Banquet Supports a
Great Cause in a Baseball-Rich Area

Lee Lowenfish details the heavy baseball connection with the Portsmouth Murals on the flood wall in Portsmouth, Ohio. The 14th annual banquet is dedicated to lifelong Reds scout Gene Bennett, who passed away in the summer of 2017.

By Lee Lowenfish, January 3, 2018
Famed muralist Robert Dafford stands before the Portsmouth flood wall panel dedicated to Branch Rickey.

On January 10, 2018, the 14th Annual Portsmouth Murals Baseball Banquet will take place in the picturesque Scioto County seat on the Ohio River. The murals stretch for 2,200 feet and have become one of the greatest tourist attractions in the Buckeye state. They have turned the desolate decaying walls erected in 1937 to stem a major flood into over one-third of a mile of inspiring art, the largest such installation in the United States.

I became a huge fan of the murals about six years ago when I learned that its creator Robert Dafford was returning to Portsmouth to touch up his mural of Branch Rickey signing Jackie Robinson. Water erosion had caused some damage, but Dafford and the local Portsmouth artist Herb Roe deftly restored it to its original luster. As a Branch Rickey biographer, I asked the personable Dafford about his prior interest in the baseball executive.

“I didn’t know anything about him until I got this assignment,” Dafford, a native of Lafayette, Louisiana, admitted. “I then realized what an impact he had not just on baseball but American society as a whole.” He added that he became entranced by “Rickey’s ability to help heroes become heroes.” When I recognized Dafford’s hometown as the same as the Yankees great southpaw Ron Guidry, I had to ask him if he knew the man New Yorkers dubbed “Louisiana Lightning.” Dafford’s reply stunned me: “I ran track with him in high school, usually far behind him.”

Sunset at the Point

In the handsome book of photographs and text The Public Art of Robert Dafford (University of Louisiana-Lafayette Press, 2014), author Philip Gould calls Dafford a “folk hero, a Johnny Appleseed with paint, brushes, and a vision.” The artist’s works have graced walls as far apart as the Chemainus Festival of Murals on Vancouver Island in British Columbia—where his “Waiting for the Whistle” panel drew great acclaim—to chimneys in France.

His most prolific work has depicted Ohio and Mississippi River towns. It was Dafford’s mural in Steubenville, Ohio, that a quarter of a century ago called him to the attention of a group of Portsmouth community leaders headed by Dr. Louis Chaboudy, his wife Ava, and longtime AAA Auto Club executive (and huge Cincinnati Reds fan) Bob Morton. They realized that their rust-belt city had declined in population from 40,000 to 20,000 and the steel mills and the Selby shoe factory were not coming back. On their visit to Steubenville in 1992, the local leaders fell in love with Dafford’s work. They shared his belief that, as Dafford explained it in John Lorentz’s DVD Beyond These Walls: Building Community Through Public Art, Portsmouth again “could be a beautiful place” where people would want to live and work.

Local acceptance was not immediate. “When we first started, people thought we were nuts . . . to spend money on murals,” Bob Morton told Philip Gould. “After Dafford finished the first one [a depiction of Portsmouth when it was founded in 1803, the same year that Ohio entered the Union], there was never another complaint.”

There are now almost 100 murals on the flood wall and other outside surfaces in Portsmouth’s historic Boneyfiddle District. Most of them are stunning in their lifelike often-haunting quality. Local notables are honored, like Roy Rogers whose family moved to the area from Cincinnati and was known in his pre-Hollywood cowboy life as Leonard Slye. There is a tribute to the 1932 Portsmouth Spartans, the “Eleven Iron Men” including Olympic hero Jim Thorpe, that won the National Football League title with nary a substitution before the franchise moved north to become the Detroit Lions.

Dafford’s homage to Scioto County’s rich baseball history includes a portrait of scout Billy Doyle, Branch Rickey’s contemporary, and the still-active Major League umpire Greg Gibson. Another mural salutes Scioto County’s 1962–63 American Legion teams that produced three excellent Major Leaguers: Larry Hisle, Al Oliver, and Gene Tenace. Known later for his prowess as a power-hitting catcher-DH on the world-champion Oakland A’s of the early 1970s, Tenace played shortstop for the Legion team. Hisle was signed by the Phillies but went on to stardom with the Brewers and Twins. Many consider the versatile outfielder–first baseman Al Oliver, who played primarily for the Pirates, Rangers, and Expos, worthy of the Hall of Fame for his 2,743 hits, career .303 batting average, 219 home runs, and .986 fielding average.

Oliver still lives in Portsmouth, where he is a minister. A highlight of the murals banquet is always his moving invocation at the start of the evening’s festivities. There will undoubtedly be a bittersweet tinge to this year’s banquet because it is being dedicated to Cincinnati Reds lifer Gene Bennett, who passed away in the summer of 2017 at the age of 91. Bennett lived his whole life in the Scioto County town of Wheelersburg and spent his entire 58-year career with the Reds. Starting out as a promising outfielder in the Reds system, an arm injury forced his early retirement. A chance encounter with his hero Branch Rickey shaped the rest of his life. The Reds organization had offered Gene a choice of a job as either Class D manager or scout. As Bennett remembered in the book, Gene Bennett: My 58 Years With the Cincinnati Reds, written by Steve Hayes, Rickey explained that even if a manager worked very hard, he could be fired if given a bad team. On the other hand, when you are a scout, Rickey said, “If you work hard and make the right decisions, you just might keep that job for the rest of your life.”

Rickey’s words were prophetic as Bennett became a revered and successful scout. He signed such future Reds stars as southpaw Don Gullett, future Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin, and outfielder Paul O’Neill, and he loved to tell stories about his discoveries. Gullett, who grew up across the Ohio River in Lynn, Kentucky, was such a precocious talent that he needed to play with older players. When Gullett was still in the eighth grade, Bennett invited top college players to take swings against the wunderkind. “All four struck out, 1-2-3,” Bennett recalled. (It was a baseball tragedy that Gullett’s path to Cooperstown was ruined by a shoulder injury that ended his career at the age of 30; he played for four World Series–winning teams in a row, the 1975–76 Big Red Machine and the 1977–78 Yankees.)

When Bennett learned that the Reds organization did not rank Barry Larkin as a top draft choice, the scout used his influence to insist that Larkin become the team’s number one pick. When Larkin decided to attend the University of Michigan on a football scholarship offered by coach Bo Schembechler, Bennett convinced Larkin that his future lay in baseball.

Gene got Paul O’Neill to sign with the Reds after the scout and Paul’s father agreed that O’Neill’s future was as a hitter and everyday player not a left-handed pitcher. It was not a happy day in Bennett’s life when the Reds traded O’Neill to the Yankees (for Roberto Kelly, who lasted less than two seasons in Cincinnati). And talk about the one who got away—Bennett saw the talent in an eighth grader in Kalamazoo, Michigan, named Derek Jeter, but when it came to the draft, the Reds chose outfielder Chad Mottola, who never established himself as a Major League player (though in 2017 he was the Tampa Bay Rays hitting coach).

Like all good scouts, Bennett looked beneath the surface to discover the inner working and desire of the player. “Talent sets the stage, character sets the ceiling” was one of Bennett’s most memorable adages. He was echoing the beliefs of Branch Rickey, who used to say that the only two traits that mattered in baseball were ability and character. “I will never forget him telling me,” Bennett remembered, “that he would rather have a son and daughter come home tired from work and go right to bed rather than having them standing idle on some street corner.”

Bennett’s absence will certainly leave a gaping hole at this year’s banquet, but the event surely will be enlivened by the presence of many retired Major Leaguers who come and mingle easily with the fans. This year’s after-dinner speaker will be the gregarious southpaw Tom Browning, who hurled a perfect game for the 1988 Reds and later risked a league fine by mingling with the Bleacher Bums during a Wrigley Field road game. Last year’s banquet speaker was Doug Flynn from nearby Lexington, Kentucky. Flynn feels a special connection to Gene Bennett because he gave the undrafted athlete a chance to play for the Reds. Flynn’s father, Bobby, was often Gene’s basketball-refereeing partner at college games and recommended he take a look at his son. Flynn rose to be a valued utility player on the Big Red Machine world champions of 1975 and 1976. The next season he was one of the four players traded to the Mets in 1977 for future Hall of Famer Tom Seaver. (When Pete Rose told him he was traded for Seaver, Flynn quipped, “Straight up?”)

Though the absence of Gene Bennett will surely be felt at the upcoming Portsmouth Murals banquet, his spirit will certainly live on—in the players he signed and mentored, in the Wheelersburg Little League and high school softball leagues that play at Gene Bennett Field, and in the Gene Bennett Classic Tournament for older youth at Portsmouth’s Shawnee State University. The evening will also serve as another tribute to Robert Dafford, who has just completed more Portsmouth murals honoring local football and basketball heroes and whose work has made the lovely southern Ohio town a destination not to be missed.

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All photographs are courtesy of the author, Lee Lowenfish.

 

 

 

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