For years, baseball has tried to grip the bat at the wrong end when it came to affirmative action hiring. The handle is at the bottom, not the top.

Baseball has spent 20 years responding to charges of racism with talent searches for a black John McGraw or an ethnic Branch Rickey. Come up with one brilliant manager or successful team builder, and all the flap will die down -- that was the idea. Come on, Frank Robinson, win a pennant so everybody will shut up for a decade. Those tend to be the assumptions behind public debate when those who control a sport care more about quelling furor than changing institution-wide behavior.

Until this year, nobody in baseball spotted the real problem, or at least wanted to draw attention to it. Baseball did not have enough black assistant ticket managers or female marketing directors. It didn't have enough Hispanic traveling secretaries or Jewish minor league scouts. For the hundred invisible jobs on every club (which had nothing to do with having played major league ball), somebody's nephew got picked.

Or, when a hands-on baseball job opened, the white utility infielder who hung around telling jokes -- the little guy everybody felt comfortable with -- got to manage in A ball. And he became Sparky Anderson.

Now, because of Peter Ueberroth, Al Campanis and Jesse Jackson, baseball is being forced to adopt a plausible stance toward institutional racism and other biases. Only the future will tell whether the sport can keep its eye on the ball over the long haul. When racism gets in the woodwork, one fumigation isn't enough.

There's nothing wrong with hiring qualified members of minorities for conspicuous, symbolic jobs. The hiring of Robinson as first black manager and Hank Aaron as first black personell director may have had an element of tokenism about them in their inception. But if Aaron had built the Braves into a winning dynasty, it wouldn't have hurt equal opportunity hiring.

Such flashy "solutions," however, do not address the problem, only the perception of the problem. Institutional reform, like institutional abuse, comes into being a bit and piece at a time.

Last month the Dodgers hired John Roseboro, who'd been running a public relations firm in Beverly Hills, as a minor league catching instructor. Roseboro, 54, says he wants to end up in a major league front office but that, for now, he's just happy to be back in baseball. "I've been out too long." He had been out because he saw no sensible reason for a competent person with a minority complexion to stay in baseball. Why embitter yourself?

Recently the Tigers hired a new comptroller. He's a CPA whose only sports experience was four years of doggedly riding the bench for the University of Michigan's powerhouse football team. Michael Wilson, 25, is black.

Reggie Jackson says that, when he retires, he might like to be part owner of a franchise; and the Oakland A's seem warm to the idea.

Don Baylor of the Red Sox is so highly regarded that when he quits playing, teams will line up to include him in their corporate fast track. "If he has an interest, he can pretty well chart his course," says Ueberroth.

The Phillies already have implemented an affirmative action hiring plan for minorities. And Orioles owner Edward Bennett Williams has said he was embarrassed to discover that his front office only had one black employe, and that 14 teams have no minority personnel at all.

Signs like these give a hint of hope that racism will be a diminishing demon in the sport before this decade's over. Ueberroth, Campanis and Jesse Jackson are an odd trio to have played key roles in making the time ripe for reform.

Last winter, Ueberroth dreamed up a campaign to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball's color line. Who ever heard of a 40th anniversary? The whole idea was an excuse for the commissioner to spend a year raising consciousness about the dearth of women and minorities in baseball.

This spring, Dodgers vice president Campanis stuck his career in his mouth on "Nightline." In five minutes, he gave a synopsis of the buzz words used in management to rationalize discriminatory hiring patterns. Campanis didn't even realize it because, after a lifetime in board rooms, he spoke the language of his world without ever questioning the assumptions behind those words. He was fired for the crime of accidentally saying in public what many of his peers said in private -- that "blacks might not have some of the necessities to be managers and general managers."

Now, this summer, with the stage set, Jackson gave himself a leading role. The civil rights activist threatened pickets and law suits. His ultimatum to baseball: come up with a plan for hiring minorities in management by July 4. Or else.

To the surprise of some, Ueberroth and Jackson have held hands ever since. "We have a history," said Ueberroth, who solicited Jackson's ideas on the Olympics and spoke in Memphis to Jackson's Operation PUSH before he became commissioner. In fact, both are "lateral thinkers" -- men who love to go entirely outside the existing discussion to find solutions.

This week, Ueberroth announced that every team in baseball would have an affirmative action plan within 30 days. The Washington firm represented by Clifford Alexander (Lyndon Johnson's chief civil rights officer) would evaluate the plans.

Jackson gave his tentative benediction: "Owners are making up for lost time. The movement that has begun to take place is impressive."

The breadth of that movement, not its PR impact, is what is potentially impressive. Whereas Bowie Kuhn always pushed for a black manager or general manager, Ueberroth is pushing for everything else. "We want to identify a pool of {qualified minority} people who can be reached for openings when they arrive," Ueberroth said last week. "There are about 120 full-time jobs per franchise. In each category, whether we're talking about a team that needs an accountant, a lawyer or a stenographer, we want to be able to identify women and members of minorities who can be considered for that job."

That's to help the Tigers find a Michael Wilson.

"We are also trying to identify all former {minority group} big league players and find out where they are and what they are doing," added Ueberroth. "That started last winter, and we've done most of the work. We want to find out about their availability {to reenter baseball} and their talents. Some may be vice presidents of banks. Let's look in our own back yard first and find out who's there."

That's to help the Dodgers get reacquainted with John Roseboro.

"The media focus hasn't hurt, and Jesse hasn't hurt. He's been instructive in discussions, not destructive," said Ueberroth. "Anything that happens in baseball is going to be magnified many times its natural size. So, if we do this successfully, we can shed light on a problem that still affects many parts of society besides baseball . . .

"This is not a liberal speaking. This is a conservative. But nobody could be proud of the performances we see in plenty of sectors of this country. Jesse pointed out the other day that of 240 baseball beat writers, four were black. Of 675 Princeton professors, seven were black. Black freshman enrollments at Harvard are down 30 percent."

Some may suspect that Ueberroth and Jackson have gotten just a mite cozy -- even orchestrated the last few weeks for their mutual benefit -- and that they might lose interest in the subject once the scope of their grand ideas has gotten full exposure.

Ueberroth adamantly disagrees. "I would rather not have had the subject put in the spotlight. Then, this winter, we could have said, 'There has been real progress based on good will.' Now, we in baseball will not be given very much credit. I wish it weren't so. But so be it . . . We have a chance to turn a negative into a positive."

Ueberroth and Jackson only cross swords on one key point. The hiring of black managers and general managers soon. Some think the reason no manager has been fired this season is because of pressure that his replacement be black.

"Jesse can say, 'Frank Robinson and Joe Morgan, Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson' all he wants, but that doesn't mean one of them should get the next job," says Ueberroth. "If you run a team, your responsibility is to hire the man who can win games for you. I would encourage teams not to feel the pressure.

"But if, in a year, we have 50 more blacks and Hispanics coaching in the majors and minors, then those people are going to be in the pipeline when jobs open in the future."

Baseball has been led astray for a generation by debates about black managers. Make all the lists of Bob Watsons, Bill Robinsons and Willie Stargells you want and it still doesn't attack baseball's most basic problem: everywhere you look outside the foul lines, the game is 99 percent white.

Those affirmative action plans that teams will draw up in the next month will constitute baseball's first attempt to address racism across the board. Next year at this time, baseball may be judged by a new kind of scorecard. Instead of focusing only on zero for 26 (managers) and zero for 26 (general managers), we can look at the whole game. At the moment, the count in baseball's front officies is 17 minority members of 879 jobs. Expand that to all 3,000 jobs on the entire baseball payroll and the ratio would be nearly as shocking.

One year from now, will Ueberroth, Jackson, the nation's fans and the sporting media still be as fascinated with studying the details of the racial box score as they are today?

Solving problems is often one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration. Baseball has finally had its key insight. Now it must start to sweat. Until the game finds a black group sales director in St. Louis and an Hispanic vice president of stadium operations in Houston -- until all those invisible jobs (which have nothing to doing with hitting a ball) are filled fairly and without bias -- baseball will never have an atmosphere in which black managers and black general managers can rise naturally and equitably to the top.