Bart Giamatti may be baseball's new commissioner and Bobby Brown and Bill White its two league presidents, but it is Henry Aaron, still hammerin' after all these years, who remains its unofficial conscience.
At the risk of angering friends and colleagues, Aaron would like to remind America, and its national pastime, that many a qualified black still waits in the on-deck circle for an equal chance at one of baseball's plum front-office or on-field coaching positions.
And while he is at it, Aaron, a Hall of Famer beginning his 13th year as the Atlanta Braves' director of player development, would like to mention that White's recent appointment as National League president and Frank Robinson's return to the dugout as the Baltimore Orioles' manager, do not exactly constitute a wholesale change of attitude among major league baseball's 26 owners.
If they did, Aaron would not have had the following conversation with an owner not long ago:
Aaron: "What's so hard about hiring a black for a front-office job?"
Owner: "Because if we hire one, we can't fire one. If we do, we'll have the NAACP on us and everyone else."
True story, said Aaron, shaking his head.
One other thing: For those same owners and any of their general managers who rely on the predictably upbeat 1988 Major League Baseball Annual Report for an accurate portrayal of minority hiring deficiencies--don't bother, Aaron said.
According to Aaron, outgoing Commissioner Peter Ueberroth was more interested in seeing black in the game's ledger than in seeing blacks in the front office. Ueberroth might have elevated the game to a near-billion dollar industry, but he "didn't do as much as he should have done as far as minorities (are concerned)," Aaron said.
He also said that minority specialists Clifford Alexander and Janet Hill, both retained by major league baseball, did not help matters when, at a meeting less than two years ago, they told Aaron and NAACP president Benjamin Hooks little about the league's plans to improve baseball's minority hiring practices.
"(Alexander) would not tell us one thing about what direction (baseball) was going," Aaron says. "He said he didn't owe us anything, (that) he didn't owe Ben Hooks anything and that the only people he was working for was baseball.
"That's not right," Aaron said. "That's not the right approach to take."
Aaron would know. Since 1976, the year owner Ted Turner of the Braves put him in charge of the team's minor league system, Aaron has found himself a member of an all-too-exclusive club consisting of the few blacks who actually wield some power in baseball's hierarchy.
Robinson and White belong, of course, as do Bob Watson, newly named assistant general manager of the Houston Astros; Tommy Hawkins, the Dodgers' vice president of communications, and Calvin Hill, Baltimore Oriole vice president in charge of administrative personnel, to name the other most prominent members.
But for the most part, the disparity between blacks and whites in meaningful executive or on-field positions is a glaring one. The authors of the 1988 report admitted that much when they wrote: "Baseball has made impressive efforts (in minority hiring) but much work remains to be done."
Impressive? Zero percent of baseball's ownership is black. Zero percent of baseball's general managers are black. Only 3.8% of the major league managers--thank you, Frank--are black.
Of the approximately 500 major league and minor league managing and coaching jobs available in 1988, about 5.8%--29 positions--were held by blacks.
Says Aaron: "It's been totally a racist situation to keep blacks from getting into the managerial portion of baseball."
As for front-office positions, the report showed that minorities were hired for 33% of all 542 new "baseball jobs" that became available during the previous year. The number has since grown to 39%, as has baseball's "minority base"--from 3% to 10%.
Only one problem: What constitutes a baseball job? Does it include both a senior vice president in charge of finance and administration, as well as an executive chef? A controller, as well as a mail coordinator?
In short, is a "baseball job" a substantive, impact position, or a clever way to pad the minority total?
According to the Commissioner's office, a master list that details each team's minority front-office and on-field managing and coaching hires is not yet available. Nor are there figures available that determine how many of those 180 minorities are black.
Still, you don't always need numbers to understand how baseball has responded to April 6, 1987--the evening Al Campanis met Ted Koppel.
By the time the "Nightline" camera lights had cooled, Campanis' career as a Dodger executive was over. He had blurted out that blacks might not have the necessities to run a baseball organization.
Protests and indignation soon followed, and baseball, like the creaking old man it sometimes is, took steps--baby steps, it turns out--to address the problem.
Two years later, baseball continues to take those delicate steps, as if it were afraid to fall. But if nothing else, the movement, however small, is forward.
"I have to believe progress is being made, just by the fact that I'm sitting here," said Watson, whose spring training office overlooks one of the fields at the Astros' facility in Kissimmee, Fla. "I believe that the minority situation is definitely being addressed. It's not going as fast as everyone wants it to go, but you have to remember that (baseball) is a small community and that the turnover is not going to be that great."
Watson considers himself a realist. He remembers when minorities never considered pursuing, say, a general manager's position.
"Those were areas we felt weren't obtainable," he said.
Now, Watson says, the outlook has changed, partly because of Campanis' startling on-screen statements and partly because minorities are doing a better job of preparing themselves for openings.
"You can't just step off the playing field and say, 'Here I am, take me,' " Watson said.
Watson, a former player with the Astros and New York Yankees, served his coaching apprenticeship with the Oakland Athletics. Sandy Alderson, the vice president of baseball operations, involved Watson in player evaluations and trade talks, to say nothing of the four winter meetings he had Watson attend, an unusual trip for a team's hitting instructor. The experience helped Watson become assistant general manager with the Astros.
But even Watson admits that his training was the result of ambition and an organization that cared. Not everyone is so fortunate.
"I would have to say, with my limited knowledge, that the A's are the exception to the rule," he said. "They are the forerunners."
This isn't exactly a news flash for baseball's general managers. They, too, say that the game needs a greater influx of minorities.
"I think what has happened a little bit is that people have a tendency not to investigate the entire pool of people available," said Pat Gillick of the Toronto Blue Jays.
And this from Angel vice president Mike Port: "I think it is something that, a) needs to be addressed, and b), is being addressed. (The Angels) have not addressed it, bottom line, satisfactorily . . . not to the extent that other clubs have."
Or, as Tom Grieve of the Texas Rangers put it: "I don't think baseball has gotten to the point it needs to get to."
Grieve will get little argument from those blacks and other minorities who say that a "good ol' boy" network prevents qualified candidates from making their way into the system. Rather than choose the best person available, members of the network often choose people with whom they feel most comfortable.
"I think it will always exist," Watson said. "You're going to have a tendency to hire your friends."
Said Aaron: "If you don't believe it, look around. It's been that way for years. And it's still that way right now."
Grieve agreed. Too many times, he said, he has seen instances of friends hiring friends.
"I don't think there's any question, in many cases, there's been a good ol' boy situation," he said.
Not everyone agrees, though. To General Manager Lou Gorman of the Boston Red Sox and Hank Peters, president of the Cleveland Indians, such management style went out with wool uniforms.
"It's long over," Gorman said. "You cannot exist today with the quote, 'good ol' boys' network. You can't bring somebody in the game just because you played with them once in Kokomo, Ind. If you do that, they're going to lose you your job."
"(It existed) in another era," Peters said of the network.
Well then, asked Aaron, how is that Pete Rose was hired as the Cincinnati Reds' manager without spending a single day as a minor league field boss? Or Lou Pinella as a New York Yankee manager?
An argument could even be made over Grieve's decision to hire good friend Bobby Valentine as the Ranger manager in 1985. Valentine, however, had experience as a minor league instructor and major league coach before joining the Rangers.
And nothing personal, Aaron said, but why is that Rose, Pinella, even Ted Williams, can get jobs as major league managers, "but if it's a black (who is interested), the first thing they say is that they don't have the experience?"
To this end, the potential managing talents of such former players as Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, Larry Doby and Billy Williams were wasted, Aaron said.
Add to that list former Dodger infielder Nate Oliver.
Among the rites of spring observed by Oliver was a letter-writing campaign to assorted major league general managers, minor league directors and personnel men.
The correspondence was brief and pointed.
Consider my resume, give me a chance, Oliver would write . . . and write . . . and write.
And each year, as long ago as 1975, Oliver would receive a single reply.
"Here I am, sitting on the outside, and I see the A's are hiring so-and-so, the Angels are hiring so-and-so, the Dodgers are hiring so-and-so," Oliver said. "Then I see my form letter, saying there's not going to be any movement.
"Had (teams) been straight with me (rather than) deliberately, blatantly lie . . . " he said. "People were just lying through their teeth. You become very cynical over the course of the years."
Last year, when he least expected it, the Angels offered a minor league coaching job to Oliver, citing his previous work as a minor league manager for a co-op team in Reno. Co-op teams, said Billy Bavasi, the Angels' director of minor league operations, are perhaps the most difficult to manage because they include players from various franchises.
"We're not looking at Nate as anything to fulfill our minority quota," Bavasi says. "I think that would be the biggest insult I could pay him. He's here because he did some tough work in a tough situation."
Oliver, who will begin the season as a Rookie League manager for the Angels' Mesa (Ariz.) team, was gratified by the offer.
But he also was stunned and, most of all, confused.
Why, he wondered, had it taken 14 years? How could every team in the major leagues not recognize his credentials or, worse yet, his desire?
Oliver, 48, has a theory, and it's as simple as black and white: Oliver is black; most everyone getting hired was white.
Was Oliver's long, frustrating wait related to his minority status?
"Yes, I'd have to say that," he said.
Not that it's easy once a black makes his or her way into an organization's power structure. Aaron said that only in the last two years has he been recognized as the one who is in charge of his department.
"When I was hired for the job, people thought I was just window dressing," he said. "They didn't know the responsibility I had and it was my responsibility.
"There are people who still don't believe (that) Bill White is National League president," he said. "And I guarantee that there's going to be some people who feel, in order to get a decision made, they have to go over Bill White's head and deal with somebody else. That's one of the things I had to contend with. Although my title was farm director, somehow they still thought they could go over my head."
Maybe a partial answer is to do what Watson and Hawkins have done.
Said Watson: "I look at it this way: I represent, first, Bob Watson. Secondly, I represent my family. Third, major league baseball. And then I represent being a minority.
"I'm not going to do anything to hurt those things. If I screw it up, I screw it up. I'll screw it up for Bob Watson and his family first, and then all those other people come way down at the other end of the spectrum."
Added Hawkins: "I'm sure people were looking over their shoulders for the ax to fall. I don't.
"I never worked as a token, never wanted to and didn't feel that I had to. I feel like I can put my resume with anybody's."
About those resumes. It seems that club officials everywhere, including Grieve, Gorman, Peters, Port and Preston Gomez of the Angels, John Schuerholz of the Kansas City Royals, Watson, Hawkins and Gillick, said that not enough applicants, minorities or otherwise, understand the in-house pecking order that exists within a team's management structure. Nor are there enough candidates, minorities or otherwise, who understand the concept of paying one's dues.
For example, like many teams, the Blue Jays hire from within their organization. If a coaching position becomes available in Toronto, someone from the team's triple-A staff in Syracuse, N.Y., would likely be considered first. There is a ripple effect felt through every level of the team's minor league system as someone takes a step forward, leaving, if all goes as planned, an entry-level position available.
But what occasionally happens, often with on-field openings, is that a candidate, usually a former player, becomes unwilling to start at the lowest level and accept typically modest salaries.
"Because a guy's been a great baseball player doesn't mean he can come in and be a great baseball executive," Gorman said.
An oft-repeated situation involves a former major league player who wants to stay in the game after retirement. He is offered a single-A or double-A coaching contract but, after hearing the salary, declines.
Gorman recalled the time he offered a former player a job as a minor league manager. The pay was $26,000. The former player asked, "Is that $26,000 a month?"
A Class-A manager can expect to earn $22,000-25,000, Gorman said. A double-A manager may make a little more, and a triple-A manager, if he is experienced, can earn about $38,000, maybe $40,000--tops.
To illustrate, Oliver said he is taking a $20,000 salary cut to leave his job as BART station manager in Oakland to join the Angels.
"I think that so many guys in the game, and not just minorities, want to start at the top and go from there," Gorman said. "When I got in the game 29 years ago, I went in with resume in hand and begged myself a job."
There is evidence that slowly the perceptions are changing, both by the people who do the hiring and by those who do the applying.
Grieve mentioned the rise of Ferguson Jenkins, a former pitcher with Hall of Fame credentials who began his second career as a Ranger minor league pitching coach.
Gorman singled out Elaine C. Weddington, who serves as the Red Sox's associate counsel.
Schuerholz talked about the recent hiring of John Mayberry as a Royal coach.
Of course, Gillick asked everyone to remember that Mayberry was hired away from the Blue Jays.
And Hawkins complimented the Dodger organization for its work in affirmative action.
But this is merely the beginning of a foundation, Grieve said. "You won't see a dramatic increase of minorities at upper levels until the most recent hires (move up through the system)," he said.
So progress tip-toes on, albeit, at a slower pace than people such as Aaron might like. Pessimist that he sometimes is, Aaron does not envision a black baseball commissioner any time soon, certainly not before the 21st Century.
"There's only so much you can hope for," he said.
Nor does he envision Bill White's tenure without controversy, some of it racially motivated.
And although Aaron said he feels good about the selection of Giamatti as baseball's new commissioner, he insisted that it will be the 26 owners who ultimately determine the fate of the minority initiative begun by Campanis on an April night two years ago.
As for turning the corner on baseball's hiring inequities, Aaron said the sport has not even reached the first curve, much less negotiated it.
"We still have a long, long way to go yet," he said.
DR, Michael R. Hall / Los Angeles Times