WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Bart Giamatti may be baseball's new commissioner and Bobby Brown and Bill White its two league presidents, but it is Henry Aaron, still hammerin' after all these years, who remains its unofficial conscience.
At the risk of angering friends and colleagues, Aaron would like to remind America, and its national pastime, that many a qualified black still waits in the on-deck circle for an equal chance at one of baseball's plum front-office or on-field coaching positions.
And while he is at it, Aaron, a Hall of Famer beginning his 13th year as the Atlanta Braves' director of player development, would like to mention that White's recent appointment as National League president and Frank Robinson's return to the dugout as the Baltimore Orioles' manager, do not exactly constitute a wholesale change of attitude among major league baseball's 26 owners.
If they did, Aaron would not have had the following conversation with an owner not long ago:
Aaron: "What's so hard about hiring a black for a front-office job?"
Owner: "Because if we hire one, we can't fire one. If we do, we'll have the NAACP on us and everyone else."
True story, said Aaron, shaking his head.
One other thing: For those same owners and any of their general managers who rely on the predictably upbeat 1988 Major League Baseball Annual Report for an accurate portrayal of minority hiring deficiencies--don't bother, Aaron said.
According to Aaron, outgoing Commissioner Peter Ueberroth was more interested in seeing black in the game's ledger than in seeing blacks in the front office. Ueberroth might have elevated the game to a near-billion dollar industry, but he "didn't do as much as he should have done as far as minorities (are concerned)," Aaron said.
He also said that minority specialists Clifford Alexander and Janet Hill, both retained by major league baseball, did not help matters when, at a meeting less than two years ago, they told Aaron and NAACP president Benjamin Hooks little about the league's plans to improve baseball's minority hiring practices.
"(Alexander) would not tell us one thing about what direction (baseball) was going," Aaron says. "He said he didn't owe us anything, (that) he didn't owe Ben Hooks anything and that the only people he was working for was baseball.
"That's not right," Aaron said. "That's not the right approach to take."
Aaron would know. Since 1976, the year owner Ted Turner of the Braves put him in charge of the team's minor league system, Aaron has found himself a member of an all-too-exclusive club consisting of the few blacks who actually wield some power in baseball's hierarchy.
Robinson and White belong, of course, as do Bob Watson, newly named assistant general manager of the Houston Astros; Tommy Hawkins, the Dodgers' vice president of communications, and Calvin Hill, Baltimore Oriole vice president in charge of administrative personnel, to name the other most prominent members.
But for the most part, the disparity between blacks and whites in meaningful executive or on-field positions is a glaring one. The authors of the 1988 report admitted that much when they wrote: "Baseball has made impressive efforts (in minority hiring) but much work remains to be done."
Impressive? Zero percent of baseball's ownership is black. Zero percent of baseball's general managers are black. Only 3.8% of the major league managers--thank you, Frank--are black.
Of the approximately 500 major league and minor league managing and coaching jobs available in 1988, about 5.8%--29 positions--were held by blacks.
Says Aaron: "It's been totally a racist situation to keep blacks from getting into the managerial portion of baseball."
As for front-office positions, the report showed that minorities were hired for 33% of all 542 new "baseball jobs" that became available during the previous year. The number has since grown to 39%, as has baseball's "minority base"--from 3% to 10%.
Only one problem: What constitutes a baseball job? Does it include both a senior vice president in charge of finance and administration, as well as an executive chef? A controller, as well as a mail coordinator?
In short, is a "baseball job" a substantive, impact position, or a clever way to pad the minority total?
According to the Commissioner's office, a master list that details each team's minority front-office and on-field managing and coaching hires is not yet available. Nor are there figures available that determine how many of those 180 minorities are black.
Still, you don't always need numbers to understand how baseball has responded to April 6, 1987--the evening Al Campanis met Ted Koppel.
By the time the "Nightline" camera lights had cooled, Campanis' career as a Dodger executive was over. He had blurted out that blacks might not have the necessities to run a baseball organization.
Protests and indignation soon followed, and baseball, like the creaking old man it sometimes is, took steps--baby steps, it turns out--to address the problem.