With the baseball winter meetings due to convene next week in Dallas, it's an appropriate time to recall what Al Campanis said at the start of the season, and reflect on the progress that has been made since.
You'll remember on "Nightline," ironically commemorating the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's major league debut with the Dodgers, Campanis said he believed blacks "might not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager." Stuffing his feet further into his mouth, Campanis also said blacks "don't have buoyancy."
Campanis' remarks were generally decried as dumb, unfortunate, insensitive and evidence that institutional racism pervades professional baseball. Although Campanis apologized profusely, he was dismissed as a Dodgers vice president and left baseball disgraced and personally bewildered because he'd been Robinson's teammate in the minors and considered himself a staunch civil rights advocate.
Embarrassing as Campanis' comments were, they appeared to open a window of opportunity for baseball to correct its course. Jim (Mudcat) Grant said, "Maybe Al, in a backward way, did us a favor by bringing this out." Frank Robinson, the first black manager, said almost with relief, "I'm glad it's finally out in the open so we can address it." Edward Bennett Williams predicted, "Those comments were so embarrassing they'll be productive."
Back in April there were no black field managers or black GMs. The breeze that cleared the air of Campanis brought optimism that a breakthrough was at hand. Indeed, announcements at the winter meetings will indicate that baseball's infrastructure has made sizable gains in hiring minorities to fill serious roles. Yet the most visible leadership positions, the public trust positions, remain the province of cronyism.
Here we are in December. Five new field managers have been hired. Eight new GMs have been hired. None are black.
This is progress?
The Cleveland Indians fired Pat Corrales and replaced him with Doc Edwards, whoever he is. The Indians were last when Edwards took over, and last when the season ended. He was rehired.
The Kansas City Royals fired Billy Gardner. Hal McRae, who is black and has professed an interest in managing, was offered the job but declined when Kansas City wouldn't guarantee it beyond the rest of the season. John Wathan, a 37-year-old catcher in his first season as a minor league manager, took the job on an interim basis and was rehired.
The New York Yankees had an opening because Lou Piniella was reassigned to GM. In an inspired burst of creativity, George Steinbrenner brought back Billy Martin for a fifth term. This is a joke, right?
The Philadelphia Phillies fired John Felske, whom no one had heard of before they hired him, and replaced him with the retread Lee Elia, he of the sparkling 127-158 record as a major league manager. Can Elia swim? This is a joke, too, right?
The Chicago Cubs fired Gene Michael, replacing him on an interim basis with that blast from the past, 61-year-old Frank Lucchesi. After the season Jim Frey became GM and hired his grade school buddy, chaw-cheeked and bullet-headed Don Zimmer, to manage the Cubs. Don Zimmer. The gerbil himself. He hasn't had enough chances already? This is his fourth team. You talk about being recycled, Zimmer is the aluminum can of managing. I know this is a joke.
We're often told that baseball is searching for blacks who are qualified to be managers. Let me strongly suggest that managing a baseball team isn't rocket science. What makes John Wathan more qualified than Bill Robinson, Don Buford, Elrod Hendricks, Garry Maddox, Roy White, Vada Pinson or Don Baylor? Two teams at least have had the good sense to offer Joe Morgan managerial jobs. Really, if Lee Elia and Don Zimmer are qualified, who isn't?
As for the new general managers, somebody please tell me what qualified Piniella? Or Frey? If Roland Hemond was such a great GM, how come he won one division title in 16 years with the White Sox? History teaches us that to get one of these jobs it's not what you know, it's who.
The argument is often advanced that blacks have been unwilling to learn the craft by managing in the minors. But nobody asked Piniella, Jim Fregosi, Bobby Valentine or Pete Rose to manage in the minors. Larry Bowa, Gene Michael and Roger Craig did only one season in the minors. That's all you need, or did they take the Evelyn Wood course?
Right now the highest ranking black manager in the minors, Tommie Reynolds in the Oakland chain, is in Double-A. We don't know how many managerial candidates have been discouraged by the continual recyling of the Zimmers, the Elias and the John McNamaras. When somebody says blacks aren't willing to pay their dues, you might suggest that by having no black managers in Triple-A and no black third base coaches in the majors, baseball hasn't given blacks either role models or reason to believe they'll have upward mobility.
Obviously an entrenched old-boy network fills the openings. There isn't equality of opportunity in baseball management now. And there won't be until baseball looks for black managers the same way it looks for whites. The current black managerial candidates were mainly star players. But the best managers -- the Weavers, Herzogs, Lasordas, Andersons -- weren't stars at all. They were marginal players who couldn't conquer the game with their bodies, so they devoted themselves to mastering it with their minds. Equality will come when the black Lee Elia (career batting average .203 in 95 games) is hired, fired and hired again.