Pop quiz, hotshot.

Who beat out George Foster for a roster spot on the Big Red Machine in 1973?

Who won consecutive batting titles while in the Reds minor league system for Three Rivers (Class AA) and Indianapolis (Class AAA) in 1971 and 1972? (Imagine the hype if this had been done by Nick Senzel, Shed Long, or Taylor Trammell today?)

Who hit four home runs in a minor league game?

Who was traded for future Cincinnati Reds Hall of Famer Fred Norman in 1973?

And who was commissioned to do not one, but three portraits for the White House, and was the “official” artist for a Super Bowl?

If you answered Gene Locklear, you’re absolutely correct.

Gene Locklear was signed as a free agent by the Reds in 1969. He’s a Native American (Lumbee Indian Tribe) from North Carolina. He worked his way up the Reds farm system and had breakout years after reaching Three Rivers and Indianapolis. He was a left-handed hitter, 5’10” and 150 pounds. Locklear was an infielder when drafted but by 1972, future Hall of Famer Tony Perez was at first base for Cincinnati. Cincinnati moved him to the outfield.

He kept hitting and hitting but was labeled as a below average outfielder. Despite this, he made the Reds roster in 1973, and he was used primarily as a pinch hitter by Reds manager Sparky Anderson. Cincinnati general manager Bob Howsam liked Locklear’s bat, but questioned his glove.

Desperate for pitching and deep in the outfield at the minor league level, Howsam traded Locklear on June 12, 1973 to the San Diego Padres along with Mike Johnson and cash for pitcher Fred Norman. Next month , Norman will be inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame.

Locklear’s career never really panned out. He played with the Padres for four years, with 1975 being his high-water mark, playing 100 games and batting .321 for the season. But Locklear was traded to the Yankees in July 1976 (for the proverbial “player to be named later,” in this case Rick Sawyer). He finally retired after the 1977 season.

But don’t feel sorry for Gene. His post-baseball art career more than made up for his premature retirement from baseball. While working on a future article about Fred Norman’s induction into the Hall of Fame, I ran across Locklear’s name. I remembered it because I tracked his second batting title run through The Sporting News in 1972. (That was the only available venue back in those days). I wondered whatever happened to Gene when I found his art website, contacted him, and he agreed to an interview.

“I found out later that the Padres made the trade mostly for the money and not me,” said Locklear from his studio in El Cajon, California. “They needed the cash to pay Dave Winfield, who was their top draft pick that year. In ’73, the Padres were bad, from top to bottom. They wore the same uniforms on the road and at home; the only difference were the tops.”

Locklear was up against some tough competition with the Reds. He was competing with Foster, Ken Griffey, Richie Scheinblum, Ed Armbrister, and others for a spot on the roster. Howsam was quoted as saying, “Locklear has the potential to be a very fine hitter but he must improve in all other areas of play.”

Locklear made the Reds club out of spring training in 1973 but only appeared in games as a pinch hitter or a pinch runner for the first 26 games. “I didn’t impress Sparky Anderson,” said Gene. “Sparky had pretty much made up his mind. Sparky’s boys were Griffey and Danny Driessen. He loved those guys and I didn’t fit into his plans. Foster told me later that Sparky told him he’d be called up after I was traded.”

On Opening Day in 1973, Locklear made his debut and it was a tough one — as a pinch-hitter for Darrell Chaney, he struck out against Giants Hall of Famer Juan Marichal in the 9th inning of a 4-1 Reds loss.

Asked if he had any close friends from his brief time with the Reds, Locklear replied, “You know what the definition of a friend is? A friend is someone you keep in touch with. But it would probably be Pete Rose. I stayed at Pete’s house with his family for a while. But I called Pete about three weeks ago and he never called me back.”

Locklear ran into the same situation with the Padres that he had with the Reds. “Bobby Tolan had me blocked from playing for the Padres. Bobby had a big contract and I didn’t. So they were going to play Bobby. The Padres said I was a bad outfielder but if you look it up, my fielding average was right there with Tolan and Johnny Grubb and Winfield. I was right with them.

“I hated left field but I was never a bad outfielder and I held my own with other players.”

Another trade was on the horizon, however. “In 1975, I got into 100 games and batted .321 but I was traded to the Yankees the next year. I’m not saying there was prejudice back then, but in those years, you didn’t have to explain why this guy played and another guy didn’t. No sports media asked why either. That wouldn’t happen today.” That’s an accurate statement, given the current Jesse Winker situation.

“In my ten year career,” continued Locklear, “I was a regular player only one of those years and that was when I won the batting title in Indianapolis. Even after I won the first batting title in Class AA, I only had one at-bat during spring training the next year for the Reds. So I questioned why I wasn’t getting the opportunity to play and Sparky didn’t like that at all.”

Asked what he liked most about his baseball career, Gene replied, “Baseball taught me the business world. If it wasn’t for baseball, I’d still be in that little town in North Carolina. It also taught me camaraderie. You got to meet a variety of people from different backgrounds, and that in itself is very educational. It helped prepare me for my art career. But the best man in baseball I was around was George Scherger. He was a great coach for Sparky.”

After retiring from baseball, Locklear started painting and his career took off. He has been commissioned to do three paintings for the White House, for Presidents Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton. “The first one (“The Tobacco Farm”) was as a representative of North Carolina and the Community for Indian Affairs. I presented it to the Secretary of the Interior [Rogers Morton] and he was a good old country boy like me. That’s good because it was of landscape in North Carolina and an outhouse. But he laughed and loved it.”

“The third one (“Dallas Cowboys, Super Bowl Winners”) was of the Super Bowl when the Cowboys played the Buffalo Bills. It was a collage of the Cowboys and it was hung in the White House bowling alley and the entire team signed it. And the second was of President Reagan’s inauguration.”

“So I stay busy with art. I also do alumni things for the Padres. For a while I worked for TNT and did art work for them as well. I also worked for Ted Williams, for his card company. I did the inserts and worked with Ted on some things.”

“Funny thing about Ted Williams,” said Locklear, “We were together at his home in Florida and he was talking about hitting as usual. He yells at me, ‘Hey Locklear, listen to this. When I’m dead, I’m going to have my head froze and then put on another body and when I play baseball again, I’m going to be a righthanded hitter because my right hand was dominant. And then I’ll be the greatest righthanded hitter of all time, just like I was the greatest left handed hitter of all time. What do you say about that?’”

“So I talked about this theory and didn’t agree with him on that as rationally as I could. He didn’t like that. He said, ‘Nobody disagrees with Ted Williams’.”

I only spoke to Gene Locklear for 45 minutes. I could have talked to him for hours.

Locklear goes back home to North Carolina every July 4th. He hasn’t been back to Cincinnati since 1981. Told about Fred Norman’s upcoming induction into the Reds Hall of Fame, Locklear said, “Freddie was a great pitcher. You know, I contacted the Reds Hall of Fame about ten years ago I think, on some things I would like to do but I never heard back from them. The man I spoke to was very nice, very polite but I never got a call back from them.”

“I’d love to do a poster of Fred Norman,” said Locklear.

Think about it. A portrait of a Reds Hall of Famer from an artist that is not only a Reds alumni but the guy that was traded for him. That would be quite a unique collector’s item.

It’s just a guess, but I think quite a few Reds fans would love to purchase something like that autographed by Norman and Locklear. “I would think that as well,” said Locklear. “Like I said, I would love to do something like that.”

Most Reds fans feel the Reds Hall of Fame is the best team HOF in baseball. And if Gene Locklear’s art work is in the White House, surely a bit of room can be made into the Reds Hall of Fame for such a unique piece.

And while Gene Locklear considers himself a Padre after all these years, for a fleeting time he was a part of The Big Red Machine.

6 Responses

  1. gusnwally

    I sure remember Gene. I always thought he was going to break thru.I suppose his heritage is why I was always a fan. Around Lumberton N.C. the name Locklear is as common as Smith in most places.

  2. David

    I remember Gene with the Reds. A very nice, soft spoken man. I think he wasn’t fiery enough for Sparky. And he wasn’t a very good outfielder, didn’t run that well, but was a good line drive hitter. Somebody who deserved more a shot at playing in the majors than he ever got.

    Baseball was his life for a while, but his artwork was always something he talked about, even as a player. His painting is pretty good, he has a nice technique. That’s what endures for Gene.

    Thanks for remembering Gene. I knew who you were talking about as I began reading the article.

  3. JR

    It was great talking to him. I’m not an art critic but you’re correct in that he has a distinct style. Glad you remembered him.

  4. Dewey Roberts

    I lived in Winston-Salem as a kid and my barber was a cousin of Gene Locklear. He was very proud of Gene making it to the majors.

  5. Rich H

    That was a really enjoyable read, thanks John!