When former Los Angeles Dodgers official Al Campanis mentioned on national TV four years ago that blacks lacked the "necessities" to run baseball teams, Tom Spencer was racing toward his second pennant.
Yes, Tom Spencer, an obscure ex-major-leaguer, guided Geneva the Class A New York-Penn League to the 1987 title. Spencer played 29 games in the major leagues, hitting .185 with the Chicago White Sox in 1978. After two years as a minor-league coach for the Houston Astros, he began the first of his six seasons managing in the minors with Class A Asheville and won the 1984 South Atlantic League title in his second season.
From there he went to Class AA Pittsfield in the Chicago Cubs organization, where, below him in Class A, was current Cubs manager Jim Essian. Spencer, 40, now a coach with the New York Mets, forces himself to laugh.
"Right now, all they're looking for when it comes to possibly getting a black manager is a name," Spencer said, "and I'm not in that category. I keep hearing baseball people say that blacks haven't worked themselves up through the ranks to become managers. Hey, this is my 22nd year in baseball. I've done a lot of things in the game, and I haven't gotten a call to be a major-league manager yet."
He has plenty of company. Only five blacks have received such a call -- and they all are familiar names.
"As a black person in baseball, you can't win in these situations," said Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, fired this season by the Baltimore Orioles. "If they hire you to manage as a black who was a superstar, they'll eventually fire you and say that you can't manage because you can't relate to the average player. But when it comes to those in the game wanting to hire marginal players to manage, that only seems to apply to whites."
Robinson became the first black manager in 1975 with Cleveland (three years after Jackie Robinson's plea to see a black manager "before I die" went unheeded).
Baseball officials seldom consider low-profile blacks with big-league coaching or minor-league managerial experience, but are willing to hire whites with similar backgrounds.
Greg Riddoch, 45, spent his playing career in the minors. He was hired by the Padres last year after eight seasons as a minor-league manager.
Tom Trebelhorn, 43, another lifetime minor-leaguer, was named the Brewers' manager in 1986 after six seasons as a minor-league manager.
Tom Runnells, 35, who played parts of two major-league seasons, spent three seasons as a manager in the minors and slightly more than a season as a coach with Montreal before being promoted this year.
John Oates, 45, a journeyman catcher, became the Orioles manager after Robinson was fired this year. Oates managed only three seasons in the minors and none in the majors.
Mike Hargrove, 41, a solid but unheralded first baseman, was named at Cleveland after 1 1/2 years as a coach and three as a minor-league manager.
Essian, 40, another journeyman catcher, replaced Don Zimmer after managing five seasons in the minors.
"I'm not taking anything from them, but where did the Tom Trebelhorns and Tom Kellys come from?" said Dodgers executive Don Newcombe, referring to the Milwaukee and Minnesota managers. "Where did they get the right to manage?"
Dodgers vice president Fred Claire says there's no double standard.
"It's just a matter of all of us trying to get more and more blacks into our overall operations," Claire said. "I've just congratulated Jerry Royster, who is managing our Class A team in Vero Beach. They won the first half of their season in the Florida State League.
"We've always had high regards for Jerry. As a result, when we were looking for somebody to take over our rookie league team [in Kissimmee, Fla.] in 1989, he was high on our list. We were happy he accepted the job."
Royster, 38, was a utility infielder in the majors for 16 years,
including 10 with the Atlanta Braves. He confirmed Claire's trust by taking Kissimmee to a division title in his debut.
Chris Chambliss, 41, was Royster's teammate on the Braves. And, like Royster, Chambliss is black. And, like Royster, Chambliss is trying to reach the majors as a manager. After managing the Detroit Tigers' Class AA team at London, Ontario, last year, Chambliss took the Braves' Class AA Greenville team to a first-half division title.