Worcester Crimson Sox proprietor Larry Lucchino life story at Polar Park

WORCESTER — He went to law school with Hillary Rodham before she added the Clinton, played basketball with Bill Bradley and for Bob Cousy, reinvented the art of building ballparks, dated Maria Shriver, helped the Red Sox end an 86-year World Series drought, worked on the Watergate hearings, survived two bouts with cancer and chaired the Jimmy Fund.

Oh, and one more thing about Larry Lucchino.

When he was going to school in Pittsburgh, he was the Cal Ripken of students, never missing a day of class from kindergarten through seventh grade. One day during the streak, everything was called off because of snow and Lucchino walked to his school just to make sure it really wasn’t open.

So here is Lucchino in his 76th year, on the threshold of ending a different streak, Worcester’s 117 years without Triple-A baseball.

This city was never really a secret to Lucchino, chairman and principal owner of the Worcester Red Sox.

His mentor was Edward Bennett Williams, the legendary lawyer — arguably the greatest of his era. Williams went to Holy Cross and remained closely connected to the school as benefactor, supporter and trustee throughout his life. Williams would take Lucchino up to Worcester with him to watch Gordie Lockbaum play football.

Lucchino’s baseball résumé includes stops in Baltimore, San Diego, Boston, Pawtucket and now Worcester. Along the way, Lucchino has stepped on some toes. Some detractors might say it was more like an amputation. Along that way, however, Lucchino has created a sense of loyalty among those who have worked for him and with, and that says something.

Worcester Red Sox President Dr. Charles Steinberg greets principal owner and chairman Larry Lucchino at the announcement of the creation of the WooSox Foundation last January.

Roots in Pittsburgh

WooSox President Dr. Charles Steinberg is one of those loyalists.

“A high school classmate of his, Chuck Cohen, who I met at an Orioles dream week,” Steinberg recalled, “once said to me that Larry Lucchino is the toughest softie you’ll ever meet. It’s just that his passion comes through a narrow tube.”

It is fair to say that passion has its roots in Pittsburgh. That turned out to be a break for Worcester.

“Worcester is a city I’ve become very fond of,” Lucchino said, “because of the kind of city it is. It’s a polyglot, like Pittsburgh, but Pittsburgh is writ larger than Worcester.” Worcester has also historically been industrial and blue-collar, just like the place where Lucchino grew up. 

His roots are working-class, he said, but his dad, Dominic “Poochie” Lucchino, was not a steelworker. He owned a bar, owned a grocery store and clerked for a judge. Larry Lucchino, however, did work in a steel mill as a summer job, the famous 100 Inch Plate Mill.

“They used to call me the Princeton kid there,” Lucchino remembered. “Somebody would yell, ‘Hey, get that Princeton kid over here.’ ”

Both of Lucchino’s parents were good athletes, his mother perhaps the better of the two.

“My father was a sandlot football player and a good golfer,” Lucchino recalled. “My mother was a great athlete.” Rose Lucchino was the Stasia Czernicki of Pittsburgh, an excellent bowler — although at tenpins — and a star shortstop on a women’s softball team.

The Lucchinos were a family of four, including older brother Frank, who also went into law and became a judge. They lived in the Greenfield section of Pittsburgh, not far from Schenley Park. That’s where the Pirates played at Forbes Field and Lucchino grew up as a fan, both of the Pirates and the ballpark. He remembers very well what he was doing on Oct. 13, 1960, when Bill Mazeroski homered over the left-field fence into Schenley Park to beat the Yankees in Game 7 of the 1960 World Series.

“I was coming home from high school,” he said, “and had one of those little transistor radios pressed against my ear, was walking home and when Mazeroski homered I started screaming my ass off.”

Larry Lucchino surveys Polar Park from the stands in February.

Basketball before baseball

Lucchino excelled in both baseball and basketball at Taylor Allderdice High in Pittsburgh. He went from there to Princeton, where he chose basketball as his sport, sensing that the program was a budding dynasty. 

Lucchino was a schoolboy when he first met Cousy at the latter’s Camp Graylag in Pittsfield, New Hampshire. Lucchino still refers to Cousy as “the GOAT point guard” and holds fond and vivid memories of attending the basketball camp.

“I was a camper, a counselor and an instructor,” Lucchino said. “He was the coach of the All-Camp team and I played point guard, so he was a lifetime hero of mine. I treasure the picture I have of us together at his camp when I was 13, maybe 14.”

Maybe if the Worcester team in the Polar Park negotiations had known about the Cousy connection early on, the whole thing might have gotten done in no time at all.

“Larry loves Bob Cousy,” City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said. “When he speaks about him, it’s like in hushed tones.”

“Yes, Larry Lucchino was a Graylagger,” Cousy said, “but I didn’t really remember that until about 10 years ago. I’m a supporter of Dana-Farber so I get invited to their annual dinner, and Larry was the honoree one night. I knew of his association with the Red Sox and later that night, he came over and introduced himself and said he had been a Graylagger for three years, and did I remember him?

“I was embarrassed that I didn’t, but we ran a bunch of kids through it over the years. I am pleased to say that I’m reminded of it now on almost a monthly basis.”

Lucchino did not consult with Cousy ahead of time on the PawSox move but checked in with him after the deal was done.

“He told me something I’ve never forgotten,” Lucchino said, “that he had lived in Worcester for 70 years and nothing has been more exciting than the issue of Triple-A baseball moving here and building a ballpark.”

Lucchino as a basketball player at Princeton

Point guard at Princeton

With his high school and Camp Graylag experience behind him, Lucchino headed for Princeton, where he was an off-the-bench point guard for three seasons. Lucchino was a sophomore in 1964-65 when the Tigers, coached by Butch van Breda Kolff and captained by future U.S. Sen. Bradley, beat Penn State, North Carolina State and Providence College to advance to the NCAA Final Four where they were eliminated by Michigan in the semifinals.

Next was Yale Law School and studying with future Secretary of State Clinton, among others. From there, Lucchino applied for work with Williams’ law firm in Washington, D.C.

Williams was, at the time, running the Washington Redskins but that’s not why Lucchino was looking to work for him. Pro sports was not on the to-do list.

“The move into sports was completely unintended,” Lucchino said. “I wanted to go to that firm because it was a great firm, and it was an honor to get an offer to go there. It was a litigating practice and I was very interested in that. Edward Bennett Williams was a mythical figure, but I certainly didn’t think it would lead to a career in professional sports. He first approached me about a Redskins piece of litigation and told me, ‘You played sports in college. You can figure these guys out.’ ”

Williams bought the Orioles in August 1979 and assigned Lucchino to help run the franchise, all the while keeping him on the Redskins job. Steinberg preceded Lucchino in Baltimore, having begun as an intern keeping statistics for manager Earl Weaver.

When it came time to build a new ballpark, Lucchino met up with architect Janet Marie Smith. She, Steinberg and Lucchino have worked together ever since. At face value, it is an incongruous partnership — an architect, a dentist and an attorney, but they have collaborated in Baltimore, San Diego, Boston and now Worcester.

“Larry Lucchino is Earl Weaver in a suit,” Steinberg said. “Earl protected his players. He would tell them — ‘You can hit 3-run homers, or win 20 games, but I can’t do that. Let me get thrown out of the game.’ Larry is not just loyal, he is ferociously loyal to his employees, his friends. He will do anything within the rules to win. He’ll master the rules to win, or to get a ballpark done, to win a World Series, to invent new ways to be active in the community.”

Janet Marie Smith and Larry Lucchino at McCoy Stadium.

Stuff of legends

The story of Smith’s hiring to work on Camden Yards has been the stuff of legends but has evolved over the years, according to her.

The standard version is that Lucchino had her in for an interview and at one point asked her, “What league has the DH?” Insulted, she was ready to storm out of Lucchino’s office and put this whole ballpark thing behind her.

“I don’t think I was that sharp,” she said. “I think I said the question insults me, but I think I said it playfully. In some terms, I thought it was a fair question. We had spent a half day together talking about Camden Yards’ future, the features he wanted to see.

“When I hear it in the retelling, I don’t think the question was meant to be insulting. It’s a funny vignette but it did not truly insult me. I think it was part of his testing to see if the relationship would work. I think Larry wanted to be able to rely on me but didn’t want me to be fragile.”

When Williams bought the Orioles, the prevailing opinion in Baltimore was that he would move the team to Washington. Instead, with Lucchino leading the way, the O’s established an even stronger presence with Camden Yards a major part of that.

The Orioles needed a new place to play, for sure, as quaint a place as Memorial Stadium was. The assumption was that the city would build a facility that could house two sports — baseball and another NFL team to replace the Colts — probably out along the Beltway.

“I remember asking Larry if we’d get a new stadium,” Steinberg said, “and he replied that, ‘No, we’re gonna get two new stadiums, one for baseball and one for football, and the one for baseball will be a ballpark, not a stadium.’ ”

Steinberg told his boss that he was crazy, a bold if not career-friendly move.

“He shook his finger at me and told me, ‘You’ll see. You’ll see. A ballpark is asymmetrical, not big. We want to go downtown. Ballparks belong downtown. They’re part of the city.’

“He was right on every count and I was wrong on every count.”

Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez, Worcester Red Sox owner Larry Lucchino and NESN analyst Jerry Remy during a celebration at Worcester City Hall in 2018.

Ballpark, not a stadium

Steinberg was not the only doubter.

Lucchino had to do a lot of convincing along the way and had to be inventive. Before one meeting with a Maryland state group, he got a bunch of brochures for the Yugo, the St. Louis Browns of automobiles, and put a brochure on everybody’s seat.

When the “What the h…. is this” responses started, Lucchino said, “We don’t drive Yugos and we don’t want to play in a Yugo.”

Oriole Park at Camden Yards, a ballpark, not a stadium, opened in 1992 and Major League Baseball was never the same.

The Baltimore ballpark marked the first collaboration of Lucchino and Smith, and worked wonderfully even if they did seem like an odd couple.

“What Larry contributes,” Smith said, “is an idea of what he wants to see happen. That’s not always architectural, although in the case of Camden Yards it certainly was. In Worcester, it was less about the architectural form and more about the behavior of the ballpark. He had a clear goal of what he wanted to accomplish and allowed the architectural form to follow that goal.”

Williams died in 1988, just 68. Peter Angelos bought the Orioles in 1993 and Lucchino went to San Diego in 1995 to revive the torpid Padres. He did, helping to build Petco Park as part of the deal although he had moved on to Boston by the time it opened.

John Henry, Tom Werner and Lucchino arrived in Boston for the 2002 season, taking over a franchise that had become mildewed under 70 years of Yawkey management. In their final seasons, the Yawkey folks had campaigned for a new ballpark. The arrival of Lucchino changed that vision.

On a flight back east to Boston, Steinberg asked Lucchino if the Sox would build a new Fenway Park.

“Have you learned nothing?” Lucchino replied. “You don’t destroy the Mona Lisa, you preserve the Mona Lisa.”

Larry Lucchino and his wife, Stacey, in the Worcester Red Sox clubhouse.

Settled down in Boston

With the move to Boston, Lucchino settled down. He was in his mid-50s when he married Stacey Johnson and they are headed for their 20th anniversary. It was his first marriage, her second, and he is a stepfather to her son, Davis, and daughter, Blair. Home is now Chestnut Hill, in a Super Bowl neighborhood that includes Robert Kraft and used to include Tom Brady.

After his day-to-day role with the Boston Red Sox ended in 2015, Lucchino headed up a group that bought the Pawtucket Red Sox. McCoy Stadium would not do as a long-term home. The team’s first priority was to stay in Rhode Island, but a Providence ballpark proposal was shot down and talks to stay in Pawtucket went nowhere.

In 2017, the PawSox began listening to other offers. Springfield had expressed interest, as well as Worcester, but Springfield Mayor Dominic Sarno sounded skeptical.

“Lucchino begins with an ‘L’ and leverage begins with an ‘L,’ ” Sarno said, and he was not alone with his feelings.

However, Lucchino didn’t really want to move the team out of Rhode Island and that state’s leaders assumed he wouldn’t dare, anyway. It was a fatal mistake. After the PawSox agreement to only negotiate with Rhode Island ended on July 1, 2017, the talks with Worcester began in earnest.

They were not just leverage, and they were not easy.

Lucchino had been doing this kind of thing for decades, and doing it well, but it has never been a one-way street, according to Smith.

“He’s always looking to make things better,” she said, “not make things tougher, but make them better and the better is for the greater good. People hear the words ‘tough negotiator’ and they always think it’s self-interest, but in Larry’s case he’s pushing for something better.

“There’s a strong streak of altruism that runs through his projects.”

Augustus was part of a process that stretched on for hours, then days, then weeks, then months. There were times, right up until the final day, when it looked like the deal had fallen apart.

Then President and CEO of the Boston Red Sox Larry Lucchino holds the World Series trophy in 2013.

Tough negotiator

“He is a tough negotiator, period,” Augustus said, “but he is also very much a perfectionist. He is very particular about things — in a document, are the pages numbered right? Is that figure $2,400,360 or $2,400,350? That’s why he’s been so successful. He wants to be precise. His words are very thoughtfully chosen, not just off the cuff.

“I really respect Larry and I do like him. We’ve had some really tough negotiating and some really tough problems, but he and I have never had a harsh word between us.”

Lucchino spent almost his whole life trying to win, be it playing high school and college sports or running a major league sports team. Things are different these days. Everybody would like the Worcester Red Sox to win, but that’s not why they are here.

“I’m still a very competitive guy, but I have adjusted to that,” Lucchino said. “I’ve been at it for a few years, since I left the Red Sox at end of the 2015 season, and it’s not just adjusting my expectations, but adjusting those of the people working for Worcester Red Sox.

“Our job is not necessarily to win but help the parent team win. We’re really proud, for example, that when Boston won the World Series in 2018, I think it was 35 of 44 players who played at one time or another for the PawSox.”

Forbes Field was the second concrete-and-steel ballpark ever built. It opened in 1909 and closed in the summer of 1970. After Frank Lucchino got his driver’s license, he and Larry would drive over to the field and see the late innings of games for free, after the gates were opened to let paying fans out. 

Lucchino believes that the bases-loaded double, or triple, is the most exciting hit in baseball. Thus, he has brought a little bit of Forbes Field to every ballpark he has built, and that will include Polar Park. He has also brought a little bit of Pittsburgh to everything he has done, and that has turned out to work perfectly for Worcester.

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