The legacy of Robinson and Aaron
Cooperstown, N.Y. — The struggle for black equality in baseball, from its earliest beginnings on the fields to today's fight for more representation at the managerial and front-office levels, was easily the dominant theme at this year's Hall of Fame ceremonies.
The feats of the new inductees were duly chronicled, of course, starting with Travis Jackson's outstanding career with the old New York Giants and Happy Chandler's many contributions as commissioner and continuing through the fiery brilliance of Frank Robinson and the all-time home-run hitting exploits of Hank Aaron. But the focus kept coming back to the civil-rights battles in which most members of this ''Class of 1982'' were and still are so deeply involved.
''I cannot close without giving thanks to Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and the players of the old Negro League for the sacrifices they made and the things they had to put up with to make it easier for today's black players,'' Frank Robinson said in his acceptance speech. ''They opened the doors. And if those doors hadn't been opened then they would have stayed closed for a long time.''
Aaron also invoked the name of Jackie Robinson, who broke the game's infamous ''color line'' in 1947.
''In Mobile, Ala., where I grew up, black people didn't pay much attention to major league ball in those days,'' he recalls, in a post-ceremony interview. ''But once Jackie was accepted, everybody was suddenly listening to the games. It gave all black people a hope.''
It is fitting, then, that the 1982 festivities included the official issuance here by the US postal service of a commemorative stamp honoring Jackie Robinson for his pioneering efforts. And equally so that one of this year's inductees was Chandler, who as commissioner in 1947 had the courage and strong principles to go against the will of most of the baseball establishment of that time.
Chandler recalled that in January of that year the 16 major league club owners voted 15 to 1 in opposition to the idea and that sometime later Branch Rickey, general manager of the old Brooklyn Dodgers, came to him to seek his support anyway.
''I said to Mr. Rickey, 'I'm going to meet my Maker some day, and if he asks me why I didn't let that man play ball and I say it was because he was black, I don't think that will be an acceptable answer,' '' the former commissioner explained. ''I said, 'Bring him in. I'll approve the contract.' ''
The rest of course is history, but integration hardly occurred overnight. There was great resistance, and it was nearly a decade before the last big league club had at least one black player. Both Aaron and Frank Robinson, in fact, recalled times in their early careers when they faced racial abuse such as having to eat and sleep separately from their white teammates.
And even some two decades later, Aaron was to feel the sting again as he closed in on Babe Ruth's record of 714 home runs. The Babe was such a beloved figure that any player chasing one of his marks was going to be the ''bad guy'' to some nostalgia-struck fans. But there's no doubt that some of those rooting against Aaron in 1973 and '74 were doing so because of his color - as some of the mail he got amply demonstrated.
Hank prefers to forget all that now, pointing out that he got a great deal more positive mail from both white and black fans. And indeed, those days seem far removed at this point as far as the playing field is concerned. Performance concerns are all that matter, as in Aaron's .305 lifetime batting average, his major-league record 755 home runs and 2,295 runs batted in, and his numerous all-time highs. The same goes for Frank Robinson's all-around ability, his 586 home runs, his feat of being the only player ever named MVP of both major leagues, and the determination that helped him lead five teams to pennants.
But if the struggle on the field is pretty well won, the one in the managerial and front-office sectors is just beginning - and it's hardly a coincidence that these same two playing greats are in the forefront of this fight too.
Robinson became the game's first black manager at Cleveland in 1975 and is the current pilot of the San Francisco Giants. Aaron moved right from the playing field into the front office of the Atlanta Braves, where he serves as vice-president and director of player development. ''These are areas in which the game has improved, but I'd like to see a little more done,'' Aaron said. ''We need more blacks in the front office and as managers. If given a chance, I think we can hold our own in both fields.''
Robinson was even more forceful on the subject.
''There's room for a lot of improvement. We're headed in the right direction, but I think baseball is dragging its feet. They say there aren't enough blacks with experience, but if they're not hired how are they going to get it? There are qualified and capable blacks, and I think in time you'll see more progress.''
Aaron and Robinson, both elected by the Baseball Writer's Association of America last January in their first year of eligibility, were big attractions. Jackson, the slick-fielding, hard-hitting shortstop of those Giant powerhouses of the 1920s and '30s, was chosen by the Old Timers Committee, which considers players from earlier eras who missed out on elections by writers. Chandler, who served as commissioner from 1945 to 1951 and helped launch the player pension plan as well as negotiate baseball's first TV contract, was this year's electee in the nonplayer category.