White needs to step out front to win fight over hiring equality

October 10, 1991|By Stan Hochman | Stan Hochman,Knight-Ridder

PHILADELPHIA -- The Supreme Court had its first black justice before big-league baseball hired its first black manager.

And now, Congress is considering another black for the highest court in the land while baseball front offices are as white and stiff and stale as 10-day-old Cream of Wheat.

What a country! A black man has a better shot at sitting there, wearing a stark black robe, interpreting the Constitution, than at standing in a third base coach's box, wearing knickers, relaying the hit-and-run sign to some millionaire with sawdust for brains.

The Angels hired Whitey Herzog as vice president and director of player personnel and told him he didn't even have to move to California to do the job, he could do it by FAX or phone from his Florida fishing camp or the golf course.

Whitey Herzog. He had the complexion for the connection as did Al Harazin with the Mets and Jerry Walker with the Tigers and Dan Duquette with the Expos and John Hart with the Indians.

And Herk Robinson with the Royals and John Schuerholz with the Braves and Joe McIlvaine with the Padres and Gene Michael with the Yankees.

All of them, whiter than rice.

It wasn't until the new franchises, the Colorado Rockies, hired Bob Gebhard, and the Florida Marlins picked Dave Dombrowski that National League president Bill White stepped out of his bunker and growled his disappointment.

"I am disappointed in the two new franchises," White said the other day. "They had the opportunity . . . and they still have that opportunity."

He thought he had an understanding with the owner in Denver, where the population is 30 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic, that minorities would be represented in the front office.

He thinks he has that same understanding with the owner in Miami, where the percentages are even higher.

Why deal behind the scenes? Why not speak out for truth and justice?

"When people leave, we tend to hire people we know . . . or people we're comfortable with," White said. "In baseball, there's very little experimenting with new ideas. It's a very conservative business."

Like a plantation. Whiter than cotton. With black field hands and white owners hiring white bosses who hire white assistants.

How else can you explain why seven of the last eight big-league managers and the last 12 general managers hired have all been white?

When will it change?

"You hope," White said, "that somebody comes along like Mike Burke [former president of the Yankees], who said, 'Bill, you're gonna broadcast the Yankee games' and I was there for 18 years.

"And then the search committee came to me, at the last minute, and said, 'Bill, we want you to run the National League.'

"If I come in here and do one helluva job, does that not show people that a former broadcaster, a former player, who happens to be black, can do the job? Isn't that saying something?"

What they're saying about White is that he's a phantom, invisible, that you can't always work behind the scenes, that sometimes you have to step out front in the harsh glare of the spotlight.

The criticism pelts off his broad back the way the rain used to splatter off the tin roofs of the southern ballparks when he was a young, lonely black playing minor-league ball before hostile bigots.

He wanted to bring a kinder, gentler atmosphere to the game and he has failed. The umpires are more arrogant, more confrontational.

The players are left wondering about his curious rulings, inconsistent fines and suspensions that he refuses to explain.

The minority hiring issue gives White an opportunity to silence the critics of his reign as National League president.

He ought to know by now that the owners can't be trusted to keep promises. He does know that the owners, many of them self-made men, refuse to be bullied, even if the cause is just.

White has prepared a list of blacks and Hispanics eager to work in baseball when their playing days are over.

He bristles at the myth there are no black candidates, that there is resistance to working up the ladder.

"Nobody wants to manage in Class A," White said bluntly. "But let them offer a contract to manage in Class A to everyone, white, black, yellow, green.

"The network has gathered a list of blacks and Hispanics eager to work in baseball. The owners know they can call me and get that list.

"Self-made men don't like to be pushed. Very few of our owners were born with silver spoons in their mouths.

"They believe anybody should be able to do it. They don't believe in preferential treatment."

Is Don Baylor asking for preferential treatment? John Roseboro? How about equal opportunity? A fair chance?

Perhaps he will quit waltzing behind the scenes, clutching that list of minority talent in his hands.

"I believe [Marlins owner] Wayne Huizenga when he told me," White said, "he's going to make sure he interviews and hires qualified minority people."

There, it's on the record, something to be weighed, to be measured, in the long and bitter struggle for equality.

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