AS the oldest team in major league baseball, the Cincinnati Reds (begun in 1869) traditionally have been accorded the honor of playing on Opening Day. That won't change this year, but the dishonor that surrounds the club's principal owner means she won't be allowed to sit behind the red, white, and blue bunting April 5 in the owner's field-level box.
Last week, baseball's ruling executive council sent Marge Schott to the showers, suspending her for one year and fining her $25,000 for racially insensitive remarks.
This was especially ironic, given that it occurred on the same day a freshly printed Jackie Robinson biography arrived in the office. The book ("Baseball's Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy") chronicles Robinson's experiences in breaking baseball's color line. That desegregation landmark happened in 1947, but as the Schott case illustrates, the final chapter in this "experiment" may not have been written.
After a two-month investigation, the council concluded that Mrs. Schott, who assumed control of the Reds in 1984, had used slurs demeaning to blacks, Jews, and Asians. These slights, said executive council president Bud Selig, "reflect the most base ... type of racial and ethnic stereotyping."
The issue came to light after former team controller Tim Sabo sued Mrs. Schott two years ago. He claimed that he was fired because he opposed her alleged policy of not hiring blacks, among other reasons. Court proceedings produced depositions from former employees who accused Schott of calling players "my million-dollar niggers," while in her own deposition she admitted to keeping a Nazi armband in her home.
This tempest left the other team owners in an awkward situation, partly because the ticklish disciplinary responsibility fell clearly to them since baseball is operating without a commissioner these days. Then, too, the Anita Hill factor may have been at work here. Baseball has a reputation as an old-boy network, so publicly rebuking a female colleague invited potential backlash.
In this case, though, the offenses were serious enough to squelch most of the suspicions of gender bias. Certainly a game that purports to be the national pastime must be equally concerned with racial prejudice.
Good business sense would dictate the same, since to win over new generations of fans, baseball may need to look more modern. The sport needs to do so, judging by sinking attendance figures (18 of 26 clubs reported declines last year). Vestiges of back-room prejudice may be a drag on the game's appeal.
The Reds, as it turns out, will be led on the field this year by Tony Perez, a popular Latino star from the franchise's glory years of the 1970s. Perez will join five other minority managers - a promising sign that the sport's hiring practices are opening up.
Not everyone is convinced that this show of diversity has many echoes, however. In fact, the Schott affair may have inspired Rev. Jesse Jackson to form a Rainbow Commission on Fairness in Athletics, which will watch and actively push for more minority hiring in pro and college circles. He has even talked of leading a boycott of selected major league games if progress is not evident.
Percentage-wise, little headway has been made since the 1987 furor over the indiscreet remarks of Los Angeles Dodger executive Al Campanis, who said on national TV that blacks might not have "necessities" to be managers or general managers in the majors. Since then, there has only been a 2 percent increase, to 17 percent, in the number of minority employees in front offices.
Baseball teams are not big organizations to begin with, and the number of job vacancies at any one time are likely limited. So it may be unrealistic to expect a quick sea change. Even so, the Reds lag strikingly behind, with almost no record of hiring blacks or Hispanics under Schott, although the club recently issued an equal-opportunity hiring plan. The organization is most diverse on the field, which is now basically off limits to her.
Schott expressed some contrition even before her suspension was handed down. If she abides by the sanctions, including completing multicultural training, she could be fully reinstated by Nov. 1. (To some that seems lenient; perhaps it was to keep her from bringing a lawsuit.) Baseball used strong language to reprimand her, and her full return to the game will come with a price - more public attention to her actions on minorities. That could extract the most desirable goal: reform.