Some blacks are left cold by fever pitch of Orioles' new home

John Steadman

June 29, 1992|By John Steadman

Wondering why the black community feels left out of the euphoria and money-making associated with the new $265 million baseball park the state built and paid for with public monies, specifically to accommodate the Orioles, has become a matter of serious concern. Perception may not always be important, but in this case the subject could become a lingering racial issue that needs to be addressed post-haste.

Black Baltimore needs to explain to the white ownership of the Orioles what it wants because, obviously, the message is either being misunderstood or not getting through. A page one story in the weekend editions of the Baltimore Afro-American carried a headline that reads: "Orioles Striking Out. Black Group Planning to Pressure Orioles."

Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, (D-40th) commenting on the new park, is quoted as saying, "Our dollars helped build it and the bottom line is you don't see us there. In terms of economic development and attendance at the games, blacks in the city are not sharing in the pie."

The name Oriole Park may be a turnoff for blacks since it historically represented a place, going back 50 years, when it was located on 29th Street and served as home to the minor-league Orioles, where segregated seating prevailed. Blacks never felt comfortable there since the only accommodations were restricted to the first base pavilion.

Oriole Park, thus, was something less than a popular connotation for black baseball fans in Baltimore. Does the feeling still exist? Do the Orioles regret going back in time and linking what was an old, unpopular name, Oriole Park, to their modern facility?

As an organization, the Orioles have endeavored to stamp out any and all accusations of bias. Their civil rights record shows they have had a black manager, black coaches and two black vice presidents in Frank Robinson and Calvin Hill, plus black players in the major-league lineup and in the farm system. There is, most emphatically, equal opportunity.

This is the second time Rawlings has gone public with his unhappiness. It happened before the season started. A subsequent story related the Orioles and Maryland Stadium Authority, with much trumpeting, were going to give away 300 tickets in luxury locations. The immediate reaction was that it was a momentous move until it turned out the 300 seats were not for every game but spread out over the remainder of the season.

Rawlings, in his initial protest, said the Morgan State University choir should perform as part of the pre-game ceremonies. This was done numerous times in the past. Maybe Rawlings wasn't paying attention. But on Opening Day, the choir was there again in all its vocal splendor.

The Orioles, since the franchise was returned to the American League in 1954, have expressed disappointment that more blacks weren't in the audience. But did they ever take a gate count? Sam Lacy, sports editor of the Afro-American, once wondered if major-league baseball scanned the stands with field glasses to check on the skin pigments of the audience.

We remember vividly attending a meeting of Orioles officials and black sportsmen at a Pennsylvania Avenue club owned by Charley Burns. The late Orioles manager/general manager Paul Richards was there to address the matter of why black fans felt unwelcome at Memorial Stadium and what the team could do to rectify the situation.

A question was asked if Richards harbored any anti-black feeling? And his answer, as vivid then as it is now, was, "If you think I'm prejudiced then I suggest you check with Cornelius Johnson, Robert Boyd or Orestes Minoso," he said. (Richards frequently used formal first names rather than the more popular Connie, Bob or Minnie.)

Richards, the record showed, was popular with black players. Then he was asked, "Why do you always put the black players in the outfield?" His reply, "If they are outfielders that's where they play." It was a long session of give and take and, in the end, Richards received a generous ovation from what was a 99 9/10ths percent black audience.

Now almost four decades have passed and the Orioles are still concerned about making black fans feel comfortable. Dr. Anne Amery of the Coalition of 100 Black Women says the team's efforts in this regard have been "barely impactive."

Larry Lucchino, Orioles president, told the Afro-American he was "well aware" of the issues. "Can we do more? You always can. And we'll do that absolutely," Lucchino said.

It's a subject that needs to be dealt with head-on and resolved for the benefit of all.

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