Fifty-one years ago, columnist Jimmy Powers of the New York Daily News wrote that, if blacks could improve our U.S. Olympic teams, our college football programs and our international boxers, then maybe it was way past time baseball broke its color line. If Jesse Owens, Fritz Pollard and Joe Louis were good enough, then maybe the Giants should sign Satchel Paige and the Dodgers ought to pursue Marty Dihigo.

Among the "steam-heated envelopes" that Powers received in his vast bag of hate mail was a telegram from Edward Brannick, a New York Giants executive. It read: "So you want the National League to play in blackface eh stop mammy please stop." Brannick didn't even think twice about signing his name and club affiliation to his racist slur. Powers answered in print: "Go jump off the Triboro Bridge, Massa. Don't stop."

Unlike Al Campanis of the Los Angeles Dodgers this season, Brannick did not get fired. So, maybe we've seen some progress in baseball after all.

Each week it seems we see further indications that, a generation behind schedule, baseball is finally attempting to rectify its ingrained racism -- its semiconscious willingness to leave a lily-white old-boy network in place to perpetuate itself. Baseball's problem in recent times has not been overt racism like Brannick's, but unconscious bias like Campanis'. When a job opens, somehow all the names that pop to mind to fill it happen to be white. Why bother to search?

On Monday, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who has distinguished himself in this area as much as in all others combined, met with several non-white players to do a little networking of a new kind. Whites seem to have no trouble figuring out which former utility infielder would make a good minor league manager or front office rookie. Yet those same qualities are overlooked in blacks and Latins. Ueberroth wants that changed.

So, with the help of his new adviser in such matters -- Harry Edwards -- the commissioner is determined to come up with the names of qualified non-whites (both former players and nonathletes) who can hold management jobs. Soon, the sport won't be able to use ignorance as its excuse. If baseball's statistics on minority hiring practices remain abysmal, then we'll know the real reason: systematic racial prejudice. Then watch the lawsuits and picketing.

Bowie Kuhn never figured out this crucial conceptual step. He always jumped to the pulpit to preach about hiring black managers. Ultimately, he learned you can't strong-arm an owner into signing a manager or general manager whom he doesn't really love. It's too big a job. The net result in the Kuhn years -- little racial progress at the top and nothing whatsoever at the grass roots level.

Ueberroth, even before the Campanis crisis, saw both the problem and the potential beginning of a solution. The search for more minority coaches and club officials was under way before the infamous "Nightline" show. Campanis accidentally gave the process a gigantic push with his comment that blacks might not have "some of the necessities."

Since then, everything has worked in baseball's favor. Jesse Jackson saw a chance to do good and get air time. He warned of boycotts and the like, secure in the knowledge he'd probably never have to carry out his threats. He knew because he knew Ueberroth; they're old friends. The deck was stacked for once. The inside man wanted Jesse in, too.

A scriptwriter couldn't have concocted a neater scenario than what happened next. Ueberroth could go to 26 owners and say, "Ohmygosh, Jesse's at the door. Who knows what he might do? Luckily, I've got an idea. It just might work." Then he offered up exactly the solution he and Jackson would want -- an affirmative action hiring plan for each major league team which would ensure that the clubs comply with the laws of the land. Not asking a lot. Except that baseball tends to get special laws.

Baseball's new hiring plans are now written in indelible ink. The lists -- for jobs from Group Sales to Assistant to the Marketing Director -- are well on the way to completion. Now, the final ingredient is time.

But not too much.

Whenever baseball pleads that it's being rushed and pressured, we should shoot our pistols at somebody's feet.

Jackie Robinson didn't reach the majors until a decade after Owens thwarted Hitler at the Berlin Olympics and Louis was heavyweight champion. Even today, baseball's record on hirings is worse than pro football's -- which is lousy. Never worry about The Grand Old Game getting ahead of itself. Look at the Campanis incident. Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley was all ready to forgive and forget, after a hand slap, until everybody in North America, led by Ueberroth, jumped on Campanis' head.

In recent weeks Campanis has gotten his fair share of sympathy. Yes, he was a 70-year-old man speaking off the cuff late at night on a subject that wasn't part of his banquet circuit repertoire. And he went on TV, as a last-minute fill-in, intending to praise Robinson. Still, baseball's belated push toward rudimentary levels of fair employment will probably always be known as the Campanis Crusade. These are the early and easy days. Baseball is so far behind many American businesses in this arena that it should be a cinch to find qualified minority members for many jobs. A team that says this first wave of hirings is too tough is almost certainly fibbing.

The national pastime is on notice. As it should be. Hopefully, our watch will not weary after one year or at the end of Ueberroth's term. Long-term improvement is the real key. Every summer the commissioner gives a state-of-baseball speech at the all-star break. Whoever that commissioner is, he should report publicly on baseball's hiring progress each year -- probably for the rest of this century. In light of baseball's failures for 50 years and more, if he does not track this issue, we should demand to know why.