Baseball and race

April 02, 1993

When the new baseball season opens Monday there will be, as usual, proportionately more black and brown faces on the playing field than in the stands or in the clubs' front offices. The Rev. Jesse Jackson and a group of supporters will demonstrate outside Camden Yards to protest what they consider racism in major league baseball. The choice of the Orioles' new ballpark illustrates the complexity of an issue that exists in shades of gray but is usually depicted in stark black and white.

Plainly there are examples of racism in baseball. Many baseball organizations have overwhelmingly white staffs off the field. This is as true of run-of-the-mill sales and clerical jobs as of high-paying jobs in the executive suites. There appears to be a dearth of minority businesses in the lucrative sidelines of selling food, drink and souvenirs to fans inside and outside the ballparks. And there are no minority owners.

In some respects this is a debate between those who see the glass as half full and those who think it's half empty. Some baseball organizations, notably including the Orioles, have been moving to remedy what they acknowledge is residual discrimination. How quickly the clubs are moving varies widely. Their efforts seem to move in fits and starts, gaining speed only in reaction to incidents such as Marge Schott's ugly stereotyping. The Orioles have been selected for Monday's demonstration because President Clinton is throwing out the first ball here, not because they are laggards. They are already adopting many of the programs Mr. Jackson espouses, though not to his satisfaction.

Why single out major league baseball for anti-discrimination demonstrations when there are so many grave problems afflicting minorities? Although it is not the most popular of major sports, baseball has a special place in our society. It is the national pastime, codified by an exemption from the anti-trust laws that govern other professional sports. As such it has a special obligation to reach out vigorously to those who feel excluded from the fruits of the game. The example it sets would influence other segments of our society -- not just in sports -- and would provide hope for minorities shut out of other national institutions.

Finally there is the message from the black community in the stands. There will be few minorities there, Monday and each game thereafter, in a metropolitan area with many who could afford to attend. Blacks in particular feel alienated from baseball. That may not look like a major problem, especially to a ball club that is well on its way to another sellout season. But the day could come when the national pastime needs all the friends it can find. It's not too soon to start recruiting them.

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