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Mike Downey

Grand Old Game Still Has a Shutout on Its Hands

December 09, 1987|Mike Downey

Nice to see so many new faces at major league baseball's winter meetings, making small talk, courting free agents, swinging deals . . . except, wait a minute here . . . take a look at those faces . . . they sure do look familiar, don't they?

There is something we recognize about these people, isn't there? Something we seem to have seen before?

Oh, now we see it.

They sure are white faces, aren't they?

That's it. That's what we recognize. Another convention of the Loyal Order of Caucasian Persuasion, convening this very week in downtown Dallas. Hear ye, hear ye. This meeting of the white guys who run the game of baseball will now come to order. All those with pale faces, please answer your name when it's called.

A few weeks before, they had another meeting of baseball figures in Dallas, one in which nearly all of the faces were black.

Present at that particular symposium were a number of former big-league heroes, Frank Robinson and Willie Stargell and others of their ilk, huddled with a couple of lower-level executives who had at least stuck one foot inside baseball's White Curtain, and even a couple of wives who wanted to express their feelings about what it had been like seeing their famous husbands ignored by the muckamucks who occupied baseball's front offices.

Out of this forum came a united front known as the Baseball Network, one that concluded that if minorities are to make any progress in their mission to drag baseball into the 20th Century sometime before we enter the 21st Century, the time had come for them to get organized themselves, rather than wait for their white brothers to get their consciousnesses raised. A wait like that, after all, could leave every black adult's head gray at the temples.

When the one-time general manager of the Dodgers put his foot in his mouth on late-night television last April, enough hubbub resulted to convince black Americans that something would be done to repair the damage that had been done.

And not something eventually. Something immediately. Within weeks, it was presumed, this situation would be rectified. Minority representation would swell.

Yeah, sure. There are nine general managers who are attending this week's winter swap meet for the first time, and not one of them is black or Latin. There are five managers who will be running their clubs--Cleveland, Chicago Cubs, Kansas City, New York Yankees, Philadelphia--at spring training who were not in charge at last year's camp, and every one of them is as white as a rosin bag.

Since the Al Campanis affair, baseball's minority representation at its three most spotlighted levels --owner, general manager, manager--is at zero. Or maybe we ought to make that less than zero. At least when the Cleveland Indians went to work last spring, their manager was Pat Corrales, a man of Latin heritage. Now minorities have lost even him; they have lost ground since Mr. Campanis either spoke or misspoke his mind.

The longest step Commissioner Peter Ueberroth took to approach this problem was to engage Harry Edwards, an educator and activist of considerable resource, to look into things. Not a bad move.

Yet, one of the first attempts Edwards made to understand the situation and remedy it did not sit particularly well with some of the very people he wished to assist, as when a questionnaire he dispensed sought out background information as personal as: "How much money did your parents make?"

Frank Robinson, Curt Flood and others figured out that the time had come to do more than just complain about their lot, or study its psychological origins. They appreciated what Ueberroth and Edwards theoretically were trying to accomplish, but wondered if a couple of guys who never played an inning of major league baseball could truly understand what they were going through.

They feared that individual cases were not going to receive due attention from people who mailed to Hall-of-Fame-caliber athletes a questionnaire that began with the remarkably impersonal: "Dear Ex-Major Leaguer . . . "

What men like Robinson, Stargell and Flood wanted to discuss was what they could do to interrupt the old-boy networking in baseball, at least long enough to assure that minority candidates would get an interview. Robinson kept reading his own name in the newspapers, about all the jobs he was supposed to be up for, and thought that might have been splendid, if only somebody in power at one of those baseball franchises had bothered to arrange for an actual interview with him.

And so, the gentlemen--and a couple of ladies--of the Baseball Network sat back and waited, waited for the firings and resignations that are part of any baseball season, whether they come in mid-summer, when the team still has a chance, or in October, when the team has once again missed out on all of the World Series' excitement.

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