'We all need to wake up': Advocacy, activism are part of new Tigers coach Lombard's DNA
Detroit — There may not be a more fitting day to introduce — or reintroduce for fans of a more aged vintage — new Tigers bench coach George Lombard than on Martin Luther King Day. That's because the late Posy Lombard, a white woman from a wealthy New England family who became a legendary activist in the American civil rights movement, is his mother.
Posy Lombard, who was killed in a car accident at age 41, when George was 10, marched with Dr. King in 1963. She was a congressional intern. She went to civil rights seminars to hear Malcolm X. She was arrested in Montgomery, Ala., in 1965, for protesting the Bloody Sunday beatings in Selma. Later she was arrested twice for protesting racial injustice in Natchez, Miss., where she famously stared down members of the Ku Klux Klan that blocked her attempts at integrating a neighborhood playground. She helped affect positive change in the Deep South.
“Your mom was a bad-ass,” former Tiger David Price texted Lombard during the baseball shutdown last summer.
The mention of that text raised goosebumps on George Lombard’s arms Sunday during a Zoom interview.
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“Just being a difference-maker,” said Lombard, who spent the last five years going to three World Series and winning one with the Los Angeles Dodgers last October. “Jackie Robinson. Martin Luther King. My mom lived such a short life and impacted so many people.
“With my story coming out, it was just a chance to change some minds and to move so many people.”
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Lombard, though certainly aware of his mother’s history — his older brother and younger sister worked to obtain a thick file the FBI had on his Posy — had never made her story public, never made it part of his story.
Until COVID-19 happened. Until Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Black and George Floyd happened. Until Black Lives Matter happened.
“Here we are, 50 years later, and we’re still fighting the same fight,” he said. “Which is a bit embarrassing. We all need to wake up and understand what is happening.”
Lombard, who played for the Tigers in 2002, spent the early days of the pandemic researching his mother’s life. He knew he wanted to use her story as a base for his own advocacy efforts. He knew, as a big-league coach, he had a platform. It just wasn’t in his nature to jump up on that platform and speak to large groups.
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Especially about his childhood. Posy was raising the three children by herself. All of a sudden, she was gone and their father, Paul Williams, an autoworker who had been living elsewhere, was moving back in. Lombard remembers being in an Atlanta courtroom and a judge asking him if he wanted to keep the name Lombard or use their father’s name — Williams.
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“Those are tough questions to answer at a young age,” he said. “But I’m 45 now and I realize the decisions I’ve made throughout my life had a great deal to do with the way my mother raised us.”
Lombard, with the help of renowned mental skills trainer Lucas Jadin, gradually started bringing his and his mother’s story into the light. First a feature story in the Los Angeles Daily News. Then ESPN gave it a national ride. Within the clubhouse, Price was the first one Lombard opened up to about it.
“Pricey was great, he was the one who really pushed the story to the players,” Lombard said.
After taking part in a peaceful march for justice in Scottsdale this summer, Price, as reported in the ESPN story, texted Lombard: “George, I just wanted to let you know that my family and I did a peaceful protest in honor of your mom's name. I can't tell you how many shapes, sizes, colors, religions, ethnicities — however you identify, everybody was out there. We were together as one, and that's the way it needs to be."
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Lombard told ESPN, "I told my wife it was my greatest moment as a coach. I was almost in tears."
“It’s been the most emotional six months that I’ve had,” Lombard said on Sunday.
A Detroit memory
Culminating, of course, with a World Series championship with the Dodgers.
“I was part of five years in L.A. where we went to five playoffs and three World Series just to win one,” he said. “That’s just to explain the difficulty of winning at that level. It was eye-opening.”
The Tigers had gotten permission to interview Lombard for the open manager job earlier in the playoffs. And although Lombard made it clear that his sole focus at the time was on trying to win a ring with the Dodgers and he hadn’t had time to properly research the Tigers' job, he impressed both general manager Al Avila and assistant general manager David Chadd.
“David Chadd called me and said they had hired AJ Hinch, but would I have any interest in being a bench coach,” Lombard said. “They loved my interview. That came out of the blue because I pictured myself being with the Dodgers for many years.”
Having won a ring with the Dodgers, having managerial ambitions, with the mutual admiration and history he has with Hinch, and with Detroit a heck of a lot closer to his family in Georgia than Los Angeles — it ended up being an easy call to accept the Tigers’ job.
“I have so much gratitude for (Dodgers president) Andrew Friedman and (manager) Dave Roberts for giving me my first Major League coaching job,” Lombard said. “But they both pushed on me that it was important for me to get into a position where I could start making decisions and take on more responsibility.
“And with AJ, I think he’s going to be a great person for me to learn from and to teach me the Xs and Os of the game.”
Detroit is a trigger point of a lot of memories for Lombard, memories from his playing days. He was traded from the Braves to the Tigers on June 19, 2002. The Braves and Tigers happened to playing each other that day in Atlanta. He just walked from the home clubhouse to the visitor's clubhouse.
Lombard has the distinction of taking batting practice for both teams, first in a Braves uniform and then in a Tigers uniform, before the same game.
Later that summer, Lombard made his first visit to Boston as a big-leaguer. He hadn’t been back to New England since the summer his mother died. On July 7, with his mother’s family, his grandparents, in the stands, he clubbed a massive home run off pitcher Sun Woo-Kim in the third inning that cleared the wall in center field.
“That was unquestionably one of the highlights of my career," he said. "The ball hit off the cameraman’s leg. The trainer got the ball and his wife did a lot of artwork on it. I still have it.
“That was one proud moment for my grandfather, just to see the Lombard name all over the paper. Also, that was the summer Ted Williams died. I have a picture that ran in the Boston Globe of me batting against Pedro Martinez with the flag at half-mast in the background.”
Carrying the torch
And now, as best he can, in his own way, Lombard is carrying the torch of advocacy that his mother helped light 50 years ago.
“All of us see things,” he said. “There are things we’ve noticed over the last year or so, starting with COVID and the racial injustices. I hope it’s opened up our eyes to the way we should live our life.”
Lombard, above all else, wants to facilitate conversations about justice. He wants to create and sustain awareness. He does it by words and deeds. The cleats he wore last season bore the images of his mother on his left heel and civil rights leader John Lewis on his right.
“We can make a difference every day and it doesn’t have to be going out and marching for the civil rights movement,” he said. “It can be as simple as helping out one of your teammates, helping the community or just helping some kid.
“We have to be more educated on the subject. I need to be better. I need to teach and overcome some of the things we are going through today. We need to be more educated on that, and that’s what I take pride in doing.”
It’s also, from a leadership standpoint, about listening.
“Great leaders are great listeners,” he said. “That’s where it starts. Before we can open up our minds and hearts, we need to be better listeners. We all know that. But hearing it and reemphasizing it is important.”