Acree's journey an integral part of Braves lore

Acree's journey an integral part of Braves lore

ATLANTA -- Long before he became the best man in Bobby Cox's wedding and the guy whose initials adorned every baseball that Hank Aaron hit over an outfield wall during his chase toward Babe Ruth's home run record, Bill Acree was just a high school student who was willing to work on the Braves' grounds crew in order to have a little spending money.

Over the five decades that have followed, Acree has assumed countless other tasks and established himself as one of the most influential and respected employees the Braves organization has known. His surly facade and biting wit stand as just two of the characteristics that have drawn admiration from the many members of the baseball world who have known him as much more than the guy in charge of the Braves' clubhouse and travel.

"Bill has had a remarkable facility and capability of understanding individuals on an individual basis, but also always presenting the fact that, 'This is the Atlanta Braves and this is how we do it,'" Braves president John Schuerholz said. "If there have been adjustments that needed to be made, the player knew that many of those adjustments were going to be theirs to make to acclimate to our Braves clubhouse environment, which in large part was managed by Bill, in concert with whoever our manager was."

Acree was a member of the grounds crew during the Braves' inaugural year (1966) in Atlanta, and as he now prepares to experience his 50th season with the club, he will serve as an advisor to those who are now in charge of the many traveling, clubhouse and equipment needs that he managed since reluctantly accepting the role of visiting clubhouse manager when he was just 18 years old.

Acree's journey has certainly been much more entertaining and enriching than he could have ever imagined when he and longtime Atlanta sports broadcaster Chuck Dowdle were among the eight Briarcliff High School football players who jumped at the opportunity to become part of the first grounds crew the Braves employed.

"I didn't even have my license yet," Acree said. "I was literally underage by a couple weeks."

After seeing his initial $1.50 per hour salary jump to $1.75 by the end of the 1966 season, Acree continued to make enough of an impression that he was given the responsibility of managing the visitors clubhouse in 1968.

Over the course of the next five seasons, Acree added equipment manager and home clubhouse manager to his responsibilities. By the time the 1973 season arrived, he was moved into the home clubhouse on an exclusive basis at the behest of Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, who served as Atlanta's manager from 1972-74. In 1981, Acree added to his responsibilities by becoming the club's traveling secretary -- a role he maintained until he began easing into semi-retirement this year.

One of Acree's responsibilities during Aaron's chase toward Ruth's home run record was to mark the baseballs for authentication purposes. He did so by adorning a small sticker located near the seams with his initials "BA", which would only visible under certain light.

"It was really fun, but it was stressful because of what [Aaron] was going through," Acree said. "It was so hard on him."

Acree also has vivid memories of the tough times Cox experienced during his first stint as Atlanta's manager (1978-81). It was not unusual during those early years for the young manager to react to a losing streak by instructing Acree to either schedule an early morning workout at a visiting park or simply ignore the responsibility to clean the uniforms.

"He'd say, 'If the guys play like [garbage], I want them to look like [garbage],'" Acree remembered with a smile.

The Braves compiled 12 losing seasons and made just two postseason appearances during Acree's first 20 seasons with the club. But everything began to chance once Cox left his role as Toronto's manager to become Atlanta's general manager after the 1985 season. During his five seasons in this role, Cox began reshaping the club's future by improving both the talent level and culture that existed in the farm system.

"His GM years were fun," Acree said. "We were [terrible]. I don't know how he did it. He did have some horrible ulcer problems that I don't think ever became public. He was working so hard and trying to do so much. He cared so much that it was just eating him alive."

Cox obviously reaped the fruits of his labor when he began his second stint as Atlanta's manager midway through the 1990 season and began the run during which the Braves won 14 consecutive division titles, five National League pennants and one World Series title.

"That went by fast," Acree said. "It got to the point where you loved being in the postseason, but it was a 10-month year, instead of a nine-month year. We did it year after year after year. But I'd never trade it for anything in the world."

Acree has had far too many great experiences to wonder how his life might have been different had he not spent a heavy majority of it with the Braves. Four decades later, he can't help but laugh about the night Davey Johnson and Mike Lum exchanged punches in their Philadelphia motel room. When Mathews, who was the club's manager at the time, knocked on the door to intervene, Johnson mistakenly punched him and then jumped over the second floor balcony.

When Johnson was seen the next day at Veterans Stadium, he, like Lum and Mathews, was wearing sunglasses over a black eye.

"Everybody looked like the Blues Brothers," Acree said as this memory elicited another of his customary smirks.

Acree was present for the birth of the Atlanta Braves and the twilight of Aaron's career. He had the pleasure to work with two Hall of Fame managers -- Cox and Joe Torre -- and watch the likes of Dale Murphy, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Chipper Jones evolve from prospects to legends.

These countless experiences have been priceless. But would Acree have actually stuck around for this 50th season had his job not been enriched by the tremendous success the Braves had once Cox and Schuerholz began cultivating the club's future?

"Maybe," Acree said. "Baseball is my life, but it wouldn't have been nearly as fun."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.