“So, you’re a friend of Dave Freisleben?” asked Gene Locklear as we walked up to his house. Wayne responded with a yes, we are. “We’ll, if I had known that, I wouldn’t have invited you,” was Gene’s smiling response and with that, our interview with Gene began.
“Now let’s be clear with the Gene that you’re talking to. It’s the Indian, not the black guy or the Italian” (referring to Gene Richards and Gene Tenace) and with that perfectly clear, we started chatting about the life of the ballplayer and artist.
Gene grew up in the small town of Pembroke in North Carolina and it was there that he first started playing baseball. “We didn’t have Little League or Babe Ruth, so at the age of 16, I started playing with the adults. It’s what we did on Saturday and Sunday, it was the main thing to do. It didn’t cost much money and it was something the guys could do together.” By the age of 18, he was spotted by a bird dog, someone who works with a scout. “This bird dog was umpiring in one of the leagues I was playing in and offered me a tryout with the Reds,” who signed Gene to a contract and assigned him to Tampa.
Gene spent a few years in the Reds minor league system before getting called up to begin the 1973 season. “I was originally signed and a second base and third baseman, but the Reds decided to move me to the outfield but I sure wish I had stayed at third base.” Gene put up great numbers in the minors while learning a new position he wasn’t use to, but he still couldn’t get playing time with the Reds. “I was never one of Sparky’s (Anderson) guys. He liked Ken Griffey and Dan Driessen and never had anything positive to say about me. During my time with the Reds, I only started 2 games ” even though he won 2 batting titles and was the MVP 3 of 4 years in the Reds minor league system. It was obvious to Gene that “Griffey was Sparky’s” guy so he wasn’t going to get a fair shot in Cincinnati.
During the 1973 season, Gene was traded to the Padres along with Mike Johnson in exchange for Fred Norman, which gave Gene an opportunity to play more. With a new manager in Don Zimmer, Gene finally got some playing time in 1973 and finished the season with a .233 average with 3 home runs and 25 RBIs.
1974 provided more playing time for Gene with the AAA Hawaii Islanders than it did for the Padres. Even in 1975, when Gene batted .321, he was told “I’d never play here,” even though “Cleveland, St. Louis, and Oakland were interested in me, the Padres wouldn’t let me go.” Gene believed that Buzzie Bavasi didn’t like him and “Buzzie would punish you if he didn’t like you.” Before a game with the Houston Astros, Gene was talking to one of the Astros players and “Buzzie saw me and called the home plate umpire and demanded the umpire fine me $500.00 for fraternizing with the other team.” “I know this because the umpire told me and said he wasn’t going to fine me.”
Gene was traded in the 1976 season to the New York Yankees and played his last major league game on October 2, 1977 going 3 for 5 with 2 RBIs against the Detroit Tigers.
There’s still a lot more to cover from our interview with Gene Locklear: his thoughts on baseball today, his transition to being an artist, and a fun Q & A with some former teammates. Stay tuned!