As a barometer of his capacity to spearhead efforts to rebuild Los Angeles in the wake of the South Los Angeles uprising, a great deal has been made of Peter Ueberroth's handling of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. His performance as commissioner of major league baseball in the post-Al Campanis era is even more pertinent. (Campanis, the Dodgers' general manager, was fired in 1987 for remarks about blacks in sports.)
In spirit, Ueberroth is the quintessential public servant. Citizen Ueberroth's word and handshake are as good as an ironclad contract. His skin is thick enough to take the heat of public issues and controversy, and he has a highly contagious can-do attitude that enables him to inspire as well as guide.
As baseball commissioner, he did all in his power to move the league toward greater equity relative to the hiring of minorities and women. Largely because of his efforts and the climate that he set, baseball appointed the major leagues' first black president and their first black director of umpire development. Coaches, managers and front-office executives like Cito Gaston, Calvin Hill, Hal McRae and Dusty Baker. Minorities and women were also hired for entry-level front-office positions in unprecedented, though far from representative, numbers.
Still, for the most part, baseball's race and gender problems persist, but not because Ueberroth failed. The entire baseball community failed. As commissioner, Ueberroth could not compel narrowly focused and sometimes bigoted owners and general managers to consider competent minorities and women as job candidates as a matter of course. Neither could he halt the interminable bickering, back-stabbing and obstructionist behavior of some black business interests who perceived opportunities on which to capitalize, legitimately or not. Ueberroth could not command former black and Latino players to come together in organized pursuit of mutual interests. And he could not persuade the sports media to take the long view of his efforts, rather than behaving oftentimes as if a century of racial and gender inequity could be revised in one or two seasons.
The measure of what Ueberroth brought to the struggle for greater racial and gender equity in the front offices of baseball is evident not only by the changes that he brought about but also by the fact that there has been virtually no effort and even less progress toward front-office racial and gender equity in major league baseball since he left.
The challenges of Rebuild L.A. in many ways parallel those that Ueberroth faced in the commissioner's office. And, in my opinion, no more capable individual could have been appointed to guide the task. I was, therefore, somewhat dismayed to hear and read of a rising chorus, crossing a spectrum of interests, decrying Ueberroth's appointment to head Rebuild L.A. on grounds that, as one person put it, "Ueberroth does not belong to the community, does not comprehend the problems of the community, and therefore he can't hope to solve those problems."
It is clear from the thrust and context of their various statements that the people protesting Ueberroth's appointment had particular definitions and visions of the community and its boundaries in mind. For the African-American quoted above, it is the black community. For a Latino shopkeeper whose business was burned out and looted, the community is the barrio. For the white furniture-store owners who have now lost business in both the L.A. uprising and the Watts rebellion 27 years ago, the community is made up of the areas in which their businesses were located. For a Korean liquor store owner, the community is Koreatown and the immediate neighborhood in South-Central where her liquor store was located.
In fact, the Los Angeles uprising has demonstrated nothing so much as narrowness and provincialism of our accustomed concepts of "community," a term that we, more frequently than not, use when we really mean "my community as I define it." The isolated and insulated racial or ethnic enclave and the neatly compartmentalized community of economic, political or other social interests are simply no longer sustainable in our ever more diverse urban centers. And there is no escaping the situation by moving to the suburbs. According to 1990 census data, suburban America is rapidly catching up to our urban centers in terms of the extent and impact of diversity.