Sports

McKechnie family’s anger over stadium renaming draws apology from Pirates

LECOM Park logo unveiled

The logo for LECOM Park is unveiled in Bradenton
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The logo for LECOM Park is unveiled in Bradenton

Carol Montgomery can’t remember all the details from the time around her father’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, just that the way he received the news was fittingly humble. Bill McKechnie was visiting his son in Syracuse, N.Y., when a call came from Branch Rickey. McKechnie was heading to Cooperstown, N.Y.

The year 1962 was an important one for the former Pirates manager. He made his way to the Hall of Fame through a veteran’s committee selection. Later in the year, the spring training stadium in Bradenton, which had just been vacated by the Braves for the Athletics, had a new name: McKechnie Field.

“The naming of the stadium and his induction to the Hall really blew him away,” said Montgomery, McKechnie’s last living daughter. “He was not expecting those.”

Fifty-four years later, Montgomery was sitting at her home in Jacksonville as her husband flipped through the spring training schedules in The Florida Times-Union. He noticed something strange about Pittsburgh, which had called McKechnie home for spring training since 1969 and had the Bradenton Marauders play there as its Class A Advanced affiliate since 2010.

“The Pirates are at LECOM,” she remembers him saying.

“What are you talking about?” she asked.

“Maybe there are two parks,” he responded.

LECOM Park timeline City Park (1923-1926) Ninth Street Park (1927-1947) Braves Field (1948-1961) McKechnie Field (1962-2017) LECOM Park (2017-present)

“No,” Montgomery said as a realization set in. “I don’t think so.”

This was how the 85-year-old found out her father’s name had been replaced by a corporate sponsorship — a 15-year naming-rights deal between the organization and Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, better known by the abbreviation LECOM.

The college has a connection to Manatee County: LECOM’s second branch opened in the county in 2004.

“I was around here when LECOM was just an empty lot,” said Michael Suchy, a minor league outfielder who attended Southeast High School. “It’s definitely crazy that it turned out to be taking over the stadium.”

Montgomery didn’t know that either until she started doing research. She found Pittsburgh’s proposed compromise — a decision to rename the clubhouse at LECOM Park in McKechnie’s honor, complete with a plaque like the one that commemorates him at the Hall of Fame and Museum.

What surprised her most, though, was the Pirates’ assertion that they had made an effort to reach out to surviving McKechnie family members so they could know before the announcment was made.

“I was very surprised and really pretty miffed, ticked off that I wasn’t contacted,” Montgomery said. “I had no input on it whatsoever and no one from my family did.”

She can’t understand how the franchise couldn’t track her down. Three years ago, she threw out the first pitch at a spring training game at the park in conjunction with a book tour to promote “The Deacon’s Daughter.” McKechnie was one of 13 siblings, so it’s not like there was a shortage of relatives beyond Montgomery, including some who still have the McKechnie last name.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Pirates issued the family a formal apology:

“Our intent was to locate any family members living in the area to discuss with them the partnership opportunity that we were pursuing that would include the naming rights to the ballpark. We wanted Bill McKechnie’s surviving family members to know that it was important to us that we continue to honor Bill’s legacy by naming the home clubhouse after him, as well as affixing a permanent plaque that would inform our fans for years to come of Bill’s Hall of Fame career.

“Regrettably, our efforts to find Bill’s surviving relatives fell short, and there is not an acceptable reason for that. The head of our Bradenton operations had recently changed and the general manager of the Bradenton Marauders was out on maternity leave, but we still should have been able to tap into the institutional knowledge of Mrs. Montgomery’s past visit to the ballpark.

“We regret the fact that we did not inform Mrs. Montgomery of the name change in advance of the announcement. Particularly given her trip to the ballpark several years ago, we understand completely why she was not pleased to hear about the change from someone other than the Pirates, and for that we apologize.”

Dad was not the kind that expected accolades and he was very pleased and surprised that they named it.

Carol Montgomery, Bill McKechnie’s daughter

Pittsburgh officials insist they would like to have relatives be in attendance when they dedicate the clubhouse in McKechnie’s honor.

“We tried to be respectful and tried to be sensitive,” owner Bob Nutting said when the announcement was made. “In today’s world, we need to have flexibility to do a naming-rights deal to fund the performance that we want to bring in.”

Even with the increased corporatization of sports — with brand logos coming to NBA jerseys, corporate names popping up on other Grapefruit League stadiums and TV deals always trying to squeeze in as much commercial time as possible — Montgomery never thought about her father’s name coming down completely from the historic structure at the corner of Ninth Street West and 17th Avenue West.

“My main complaint is why could they not have used a double name. Why not leave McKechnie,” Montgomery wonders, “and add the other one to it?”

Even though McKechnie never saw the stadium in its modern state — he died in 1965 — the three years he knew the field with his name on it were important. McKechnie is buried about 70 feet away from fellow Hall of Famer Paul Waner at Manasota Memorial Park and Funeral Home, and the funeral procession before he was buried there traveled past McKechnie Field.

David Wilson: 941-745-7057, @DBWilson2

Sports reporter Jason Dill contributed to this report.

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