Al Campanis had his moment on television talking about blacks in baseball, but we still hear a litany of excuses for such blatantly racist remarks by a top sports executive.
The irony wasn't lost that Campanis actually played with Jackie Robinson in the same Dodger organization which broke the color barrier 40 years earlier and was a guest on the show in part to pay tribute to his former teammate.
Campanis has been dismissed by the Dodgers and the 1987 baseball season continues on course. There are likely to be numerous commemorations of Robinson's first game in the big leagues, with commentators paying tribute to his immense courage. It will be repeated many times how much the integration of sport has helped us as a nation to bring about equality.
A little earlier than we anticipated, Campanis forced us to examine the realities of racism. By stating that blacks lacked the "necessities" to be managers and front-office leaders, he gave those ready to be honest about racism in sport the opening they needed.
In some ways, it seems the road is as long today as it was when Robinson opened America's eyes to injustice. Before Campanis, we thought in sports, at least, the mission had been completed. But all we really need to do though is look around to see how far we still have to go.
Blacks in Sport: 1987 Style
Major league baseball is 25% black (including black Latin American players), the NFL is 54% black and the NBA is 75% black. Blacks and whites in each sport earn a million dollars a year or more. A few earn in excess of $2 million. Blacks coach in the NBA, college basketball and college football. There are blacks receiving college educations as a result of sports. Blacks are Olympic superstars and recognized as heroes for representing their country: think of Evelyn Ashford, Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses. Rafer Johnson carried the Olympic torch. Before Al Campanis, many were ready to see these numbers and proclaim sports the great equalizer. But Campanis' remarks caused some to scratch the surface. Once we got below the surface what we discovered was very discomforting.
Black Athletes in College
We see black athletes on every campus. Some college basketball games resemble a match between Senegal and Ghana. Yet, according to Harry Edwards, one of the nation's most outspoken critics of sport, only 10% of athletic scholarships go to blacks.
Blacks in the revenue sports carry and pay for the predominantly white sports. Worse still, the graduation rate for black athletes in the major programs is 20%. In other words, eight of 10 do not graduate; less than 1 percent play in the pros. Where do the rest go?
Like many white athletes who face similar--if less frequent--exploitation, they appear in the sports pages as former stars in trouble with the law. More than 100 athletes have been in such trouble since Dec. 1.
At least those who graduate to the pros would appear to have it made. With average salaries more than $400,000 in the NBA and major league baseball and in excess of $200,000 in the NFL, pros are rich. Discrimination seems at an end and their fame secure.
Before the Campanis revelations, these black pros might even strive for coaching or front-office jobs. Their talent lifted them to the top and their lives are set.
Even though Campanis said blacks might not be qualified to become coaches or executives, Wayne Embry and Elgin Baylor are general managers in the NBA. John Thompson won the NCAA championship at Georgetown in the same year K.C. Jones led the Celtics to the NBA title. Bill Russell followed his fabulous career with an NBA coaching job, broadcasting and now is coaching again. Dave Bing is a wealthy entrepreneur in Detroit and former NFL star Willie Davis runs a business empire on the West Coast. Many others, of course, could be cited.
Major League Baseball
Still, an increasingly vocal group close to sport says we haven't come as far as we think in the pros. The racial factor is alive and well in major league baseball. How is it that in 1987 only 17 of 879 front-office jobs are held by blacks? If 25% of the players are black, then how can 1.9% of management be black?
If Campanis' attitude is shared by other executives--even if in more subtle ways--where does it come from? If blacks are accepted as players, then why not as managers and in the front office?
An analysis of the positions blacks play on the field may provide some answers. When a study was made of the characteristics managers at the college and pro levels were seeking in players at different positions, this was the breakdown:
Pitchers, catchers, second base, shortstop and third base: ability to think, make decisions, be team leaders.
Of the major league pitchers, 88% are white, 5% black American and 7% Latin. The catching position is even more pronounced with 91% of them white, no black Americans and 9% Latin. The percentage of white American third basemen is 85%, for second basemen it is 63% and for shortstops it is 54%.
Thus, the "thinking positions," central to the game itself, are dominated by whites. Only at second base do blacks, with 25%, match their percentage in the majors.
The same managers and coaches describe characteristics they are looking for in outfielders and first basemen as speed and reactive ability. At these positions, 40% of outfielders are white, 48% black American and 12% Latin. At first base, the figures are 67, 29 and 4%, respectively.
A staggering 82% of all blacks playing offensive positions in the majors play either first base or outfield. Only 40% of all whites play in those spots.
Perhaps it can be assumed blacks are self-selected out of the decision-making jobs by their playing primarily non-decision-making positions.
But blacks also face other obstacles. To make a reputation, it is necessary to stay in the game a long time. For blacks that means almost exclusively on the field, yet they charge that marginal black players are not given the same opportunity to stay around as are whites. Using 1986 rosters and statistics, these charges are supported.
A performance chart shows that twice as many black baseball players as whites had career averages greater than .281 (32% vs. 15%); 47% were above .270 vs. only 30% of whites. On the other hand, almost three times as many whites as blacks had career averages below .241 (28 vs. 10%).
The difference was even more pronounced among pitchers, where few blacks compete.
By percentage, nearly four times as many black pitchers as white had ERAs below 3.00 (40% vs. 11%) while twice as many whites as blacks had ERAs above 4.00 (27% vs. 13%). You simply had to be better to stay around if you were black. If your stay was shorter, and positional segregation kept you out of decision-making positions, then chances of advancing through management are slimmer. That seems to be the case in major-league baseball.
As Commissioner Peter Ueberroth noted, major league baseball has few black executives and not even many in lesser front-office jobs. The commissioner has pledged to change this.
Campanis may indeed have reflected more than a unique view of those in power in baseball. But in an ironic sense, we owe him a debt of gratitude for forcing us to look hard at racism in sport.
The tragic realities of many black athletes who lose educational opportunities while trying to beat the 10,000-to-1 odds of making it to the pros can't be obscured by the great fortune of a relative handful of stars. Except for the few, sports has never been the "way out" management and the media wanted us to think it was.