It's the image,fair or foul

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

March 10, 1992|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

I have lost count of the number of people who have told me over the years that the Baltimore Orioles are one of the most racist teams in major league baseball.

These people offer no smoking guns: They talk about a black player here who was traded abruptly or a black player there who was sent down to the major leagues without a "fair" tryout.

They talk about various slights and snubs to black players, about hostile fans and critical radio talk show hosts.

There was the time, some years ago, when I talked a couple of my buddies into going to a game with me. Years have passed and they still tease me about the fact that the Orioles played "Thank God I'm a Country Boy" during the seventh-inning stretch.

There's nothing wrong with "Thank God I'm a Country Boy." It's TC fun song.

But there is a subliminal process at work here. "Country" gets equated with redneck which gets equated with bigotry which results in the message, "We don't want you here."

My friends have never been back.

All of this is anecdotal stuff. Circumstantial evidence.

And a lot of it is unfair: A handful of fans boo former Orioles first baseman Eddie Murray and the club gets labeled "racist." A talk show host, with no connection to the club, mouths off about a black player yet it stigmatizes the organization.

Not too long ago, the Orioles had fewer minority players in either the major or minor leagues than any other team in baseball.

On the other hand, the Orioles also are one of the very few major league clubs ever to hire a black manager. And when Frank Robinson ran the team, the Orioles had more black coaches than anyone else. Robinson now is in the front office. So is Calvin Hill, the former running back for the Dallas Cowboys.

So, I don't know.

We can go back and forth on this forever -- poking at tea leaves, trying to find hidden motives in random events. As I said, there is no smoking gun and there is evidence to suggest the racist tag is unfair.

But racism isn't really the problem here. If people believe a thing is real, it becomes real in its consequences.

Therefore, the Orioles have a public relations problem, regardless of how they secretly feel.

I believe this is the point Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, D-City, was trying to make when he lost his temper with the Orioles last week.

Rawlings, chairman of the House subcommittee that oversees construction of the new stadium at Camden Yards, said the club failed to respond to suggestions he had made to involve the black community in Opening Day festivities.

"It's a reflection of their lack of awareness that this Baltimore Oriole team is located in the city of Baltimore and the city is more than 60 percent African-American," said Rawlings to a reporter last Monday.

In their defense, Oriole officials pointed to the things they have done, particularly the team's history of charitable work in inner city schools. But I need hardly mention that not all blacks are charity cases.

The fact is, they have not made an effective effort to reach out to the black community.

Relatively few blacks go to ballgames. Few black kids wear Orioles caps. The race issue sometimes taints the club's relationship with its players.

I, for one, do not buy the oft-repeated notion that blacks don't come out because they find baseball too slow. That smacks of a David Duke quote to the effect that blacks are more "primitive," "elemental" and "passionate" in their tastes.

I believe the team simply erred. They neglected part of their market for too long and now they find their reputation is suffering for it. Blacks feel the team wrote them off and now they have written off the team.

They are much like the Red Sox and the Celtics, Boston's baseball and basketball teams, whose reputations for racism often belie the facts.

This year, of course, the Orioles are riding high. They just strong-armed the state to build them a $105 million baseball-only stadium at a prime location. Attendance is expected to top the 3 million mark for the first time in team history.

They may feel that they don't need to make a special effort to attract black fans.

But a bad reputation is like an error during a ballgame. It almost always comes back to haunt you later.

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