It was 40 years ago that baseball broke the color barrier by allowing Jackie Robinson to be placed on the Brooklyn Dodgers roster. Today blacks represent nearly 25 percent of the players in the major leagues, but this year's anniversary celebration hasn't gone off quite as smoothly as planned. Owners are facing the charge that, except on the playing field, they have done little to eliminate the racist attitudes that kept blacks out of the game in the first place. And pressure is growing from many quarters for baseball and other sports to implement minority hiring plans.
Already, in fact, baseball has taken steps in this direction. After the owners' summer meeting last month, commissioner Peter Ueberroth said each team would soon have an affirmative action program in place. A couple of weeks later University of California sociology professor Harry Edwards, a longtime black activist, joined Ueberroth's staff to help create a pool of black and Hispanic former players available for positions at all levels. Several teams have moved to hire black executives or staffers. And last week Ueberroth told the NAACP convention that baseball would surpass the other major sports in hiring blacks and other minority group members for high-level, off-the-field jobs.
For the present, though, the fact remains that, four decades after Robinson broke the ice, no black holds a higher front office position than Henry Aaron. The home run king is director of player development for the Atlanta Braves. There have been three black managers and one black general manger, but there are no blacks in either of these jobs right now.
The season opened with Al Campanis, Los Angeles Dodger vice-president for player personnel, earning an unfortunate place in baseball history by telling a national television audience that blacks may lack some of the ``necessities'' for management jobs. The black community's outrage did not end with the firing of the 70-year-old executive, who, ironically, was a former minor league teammate of Robinson's.
``The shock was that Campanis expressed so openly something that baseball has obviously not wanted to deal with,'' Robinson's daughter, Sharon, told the Monitor. ``Al Campanis became a vehicle to mobilize people into a national issue. He was the spark that lit a fire.''
Meanwhile, at a recent ``Fairness in Sports'' forum in Chicago, undeclared presidential candidate Jesse Jackson also addressed the issue.
``If Ronald Reagan can be president of the whole United States, then Hank Aaron can be commissioner of baseball,'' he said. ``Most front office personnel never played a major league game. We are challenging the barriers.''
The Rev. Mr. Jackson had met with representatives from 11 major league clubs before bringing together members of the national black leadership, retired black athletes, agents, and promoters at the headquarters of Operation PUSH (People United to Serve Humanity). The advocacy group was founded in 1971 by Jackson, who is now based in Washington, D.C., as president of the Rainbow Coalition.
One possibility Jackson suggested at that time was a boycott if baseball hadn't made some progress by July 4, but he later indicated he felt the game was indeed making an effort to move in the proper direction.
Boycott or not, however, the PUSH approach has its critics - even within the black community.
``PUSH should be talking about how to get more blacks to attend games,'' asserted John Reyes, a veteran sports columnist for the Chicago Defender, a black newspaper. ``That would soften up the owners more than by threatening a boycott. Besides, he'd need black players to accomplish that. And they aren't going to support anything that would go against their own interests.''
Indeed, many black players don't even like to talk publicly about the issue - expressing apprehension, rightly or wrongly, that they could face reprisals if they did.
Even the fact that a boycott had been considered was enough to make 1987 Hall of Fame electee Billy Williams shake his head. Yet Williams, one of a relative handful of black major league coaches, is hopeful the new dialogue might help people like himself be considered capable of managing a ball club.
``Jesse is fighting for something that black players all recognize but have been too busy performing to deal with,'' said Williams, a batting coach for 10 years, the last two with the Chicago Cubs. ``The biggest obstacle is not being put in a situation where we can learn. No one ever tells a black ballplayer, `This is how I became general manager.' I'll say baseball has changed when I see a Hank Aaron or a Reggie Jackson become assistant general manager so that they can be groomed for the general manager's job.''
``Baseball owners haven't been enthusiastic about giving blacks a chance so they can get the experience,'' agreed A.B. (Happy) Chandler, who as commissioner in 1947 ignored the owners' 15-1 vote and allowed Branch Rickey to put Robinson on the Brooklyn roster. ``But Jesse Jackson is pushing too hard. He can't change the mind of [an owner] who is rich and doesn't answer to anybody.''
The way Chandler sees it, Jackson or no Jackson, the owners will ``just keep fighting it out,'' until gradually someone comes along as Rickey did and opens the door wider.
The issue came up this year because Ueberroth chose to support the 40-year integration milestone - a proposal that had been made by Robinson's widow, Rachel, in her capacity as head of the Jackie Robinson Foundation.
Sharon Robinson doesn't believe he regrets the decision. ``Peter Ueberroth is for social reform,'' said Robinson, who serves as director of PUSH for Excellence, Operation PUSH's educational arm. ``He is committed to structural changes in the highest levels of baseball. There would be no better way to pay tribute to my father's memory. Some of his final words were about the need for baseball management to change its ways.''
Ironically, Campanis was the highest ranking baseball executive who spoke fluent Spanish, the language of choice for about one of every 10 players. He is revered in the Dominican Republic for building a pipeline to the Dodger farm system, and remembered in Puerto Rico for discovering Roberto Clemente.
Hispanics, who are also sometimes seen as facing discrimination, have been largely absent from the Jesse Jackson offensive.
Black leaders themselves are not united on an approach.
``PUSH wants accomplishments next week, but our concern is long-range development,'' said Ed McClellan, executive secretary of a Chicago NAACP branch. ``We first have to convince our talented young black athletes that black attorneys, accountants, and agents can represent them. They don't have to rely on the Caucasian world for those things.''
The 1987 season will surely be remembered for having brought focus to an old problem. ``If not for Al Campanis's derogatory remarks, reporters wouldn't be asking me if I want to be a manager,'' said New York Met first base coach Bill Robinson (no relation to Jackie). ``I'd like to. I hope to go down to winter ball this fall to Puerto Rice or Venezuela and get some managerial experience. Campanis opened a lot of eyes.''