Baseball's Got a Lot to Answer For


December 18, 1992|By JERRY BEMBRY | JERRY BEMBRY,Jerry Bembry is a sports reporter for The Sun.

For a minute, let's forget that Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott, after the trade of one of her African-American players, allegedly expressed pleasure in getting rid of that ''goddamned nigger.'' And for a minute, let's forget that she allegedly referred to two former players as her ''million dollar niggers'' on one occasion, and to others as ''Jew bastards'' on another.

Instead, let's think about a conference call in 1988 that apparently included Ms. Schott and other major league owners. If what Sharon Jones, a former employee of the Oakland #F Athletics, says is true, at one point during that conversation Ms. Schott remarked that ''I'd rather have a trained monkey working for me than a nigger.''

So what happened next? Did any of the owners of America's national pastime question Ms. Schott's remarks? Did anyone reprimand her? Or did the owners simply giggle a bit, brush aside the offensive remarks and move on to the next order of business?

Apparently the owners did nothing, because it took four years for those comments to come to light. If the quotes attributed to Ms. Schott are indeed accurate, the owners joining her on that 1988 conference call appear to have suffered a convenient case of memory loss, since no one can recall the incident.

That raises a question about whether assigning an executive committee to investigate Ms. Schott's behavior will be enough to rejuvenate baseball's tarnished image. Regardless of what the executive committee discovers, the problem really is much bigger than Marge Schott.

Perhaps such remarks among baseball owners are commonplace, considering the surprisingly subdued response to the Schott controversy. By allegedly making the remarks in a conversation that came just one year after former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis was fired for matter-of-factly telling a national television audience in 1987 that blacks ''lack the necessities'' to hold management positions, Ms. Schott apparently felt her fellow owners were comfortable with such expressions.

With attitudes like that, it's no wonder just 5 percent of baseball fans are African-American. Do these owners really care?

According to a report last week by the baseball commissioner's office, 17 percent of front-office positions on major-league teams are held by minorities. But the number may be misleading because ''front office positions'' includes secretaries and receptionists. There are no African-American general managers, and only a few blacks hold executive-level positions.

''Baseball has a long way to go,'' former commissioner Faye Vincent said during a television appearance last week when asked about minority hiring. ''I don't think there is much commitment from the owners. I think they are willing to recognize that it's probably the right thing to do but there isn't passion or commitment.''

Passion and commitment will only exist when major league baseball brings in qualified African-Americans at the management level, then treats them with respect. Bill White, the African-American president of the National League, has to wonder whether he has the respect of the owners who ousted Mr. Vincent. Mr. White has complained of being ''bitter and mad'' about the racism he has experienced in the course of doing his job.

''If I said what I really feel,'' Mr. White said in April, ''no one (black) would follow me into that chair.''

Now's the time for Mr. White to say what he really feels. That also goes for Mr. Vincent, who last week ducked the question of whether he had heard Ms. Schott make racial slurs. If baseball's ownership is made up of people who feel at ease talking about "million dollar niggers" and "Jew bastards" among themselves, the fans who fill the stands in order to pay baseball's outrageously inflated salaries ought to know it so that they can make informed decisions about how they spend their entertainment dollars.

Meanwhile baseball's executive committee apparently has come up with several "deals" for Ms. Schott, ranging from forcing her to sell her interest in the team to suspending her or fining her $250,000. Yet whatever action is taken won't address the racist attitudes that exist among the baseball hierarchy.

It's time for the kind of change that will eliminate the atmosphere in which Ms. Schott could feel perfectly at ease making racist comments. Since the Campanis incident, baseball has been trumpeting its efforts to include African-Americans in key positions. But in the five years since then, blacks have yet to win any jobs as owners, general managers or directors of player personnel.

Simply punishing Marge Schott is no panacea. The league must make an effort to create a work climate that doesn't exclude African Americans and an environment that is not tolerant of ''trained monkey'' and ''nigger'' remarks.

Until that's done, major league baseball should be ashamed of its "national pastime" moniker. Given the moral equivocation of baseball's "silent" owners over Ms. Schott's bigoted jibes, "national disgrace" would be more like it.

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