Reggie Jackson came to the Kansas City Athletics from Birmingham 20 years ago. Some 570 home runs later, he is back with the Athletics for what he tells SPORTS ILLUSTRATED will be his final season. Jackson doesn't want to go out with the fanfare accorded such other notable retirees as Johnny Bench or Julius Erving. "All I want," he says, "is a wave in a couple of parks, a picture of Fenway signed by Mrs. Yawkey, tapes of Sherm Feller in Boston and Bob Sheppard in New York announcing my name and some memento of Yankee Stadium. That's all."
He does not want to leave baseball altogether, however. "I would like to give something back to the game," he says. "I can have some impact on the status of minorities in baseball, and that's what I plan on trying to do." For that reason, Jackson has consented to give SPORTS ILLUSTRATED his views on what he calls "our problem" and to offer some possible solutions. He developed his ideas in conversations with baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, American League president Dr. Bobby Brown, Oakland owner Walter Haas Jr., A's executives Roy Eisenhardt, Sandy Alderson and Wally Haas, A's manager Tony La Russa, Angels manager Gene Mauch and several players and coaches, as well as members of his immediate family. At a family barbecue in Oakland, and later at his home in the hills overlooking San Francisco Bay, Jackson related his thoughts to SI's Peter Gammons.
Al Campanis's statement about blacks lacking the "necessities" to be major league managers and general managers is the best thing to happen to minorities in baseball since Jackie Robinson. Campanis is not a bad man or a racist, but he made a stupid, irrational statement that brought the problem into a sharper focus than we could have ever asked for. We. I emphasize we, blacks and whites.
The problem isn't limited to baseball, of course. As a nation, we have our problem, a sociological problem. Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson were great men for spearheading and forcing the issue of equality, but except for a few people like the Reverend Jesse Jackson, the rest of us have sat back and done nothing. Black players are no different. The '70s came along, and most of us got our money, and we pulled off to the side and said, "I'm O.K., I've got mine."
I was "colored" until I was 14, a Negro until I was 21 and a black man ever since. In other words, I've lived through all the post-World War II stages of the black man's emergence into supposed freedom. Now that I'm about to retire as a player, having reaped significant economic benefit from baseball, I want to do my part through ownership and management.
Here we are at the end of the '80s, and we have a serious problem that isn't going away. If nothing happens in baseball and the situation stays the same, fingers will be pointed, and the game could get nasty. And if America itself doesn't change, we won't be the greatest nation in the world anymore. You'll see a "——you" approach in baseball. Clubs will be racked by selfishness and strong undercurrents of bitterness. Unless something is done, there will be even more reminders of inequality than there are today, and the bad feeling will only get worse. Management will hear, "To hell with you, I don't feel good today," or, "So what if I'm playing for myself. You're not going to take care of me. It's obvious. Look at the record."
Since Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey, very few baseball people have stepped forward and taken a strong position on this issue. Once in a while you hear from somebody like a Tommy Harper or a Henry Aaron or perhaps a Reggie Jackson, but they haven't had the impact because people haven't responded as they are responding in the wake of the Campanis affair. I don't like words like racist, bigotry and prejudice because they evoke hatred. They are negative words, and the more we can stay away from them, the better. We have to temper our conversations so we don't offend one another. Blacks need the white world. I don't believe blacks should be given anything. I'm saying there are blacks who are qualified to work as managers, general managers, coaches, accountants and p.r. people, and all I ask is that qualified blacks be hired to fill some of those jobs.
The problem exists because of the invisible wall between whites and blacks. Whites are afraid of blacks, and I think that's because the two races don't interact enough. I've never been a guy who liked forced busing. I always felt that if I had children here in Oakland, I wouldn't want them bused to San Jose. But now I'm starting to see things a little differently. Maybe it would be worthwhile if they were bused to a predominantly white school, so white kids could find out that black children can be wonderful people.
It seems that the darker a person's complexion, the more fear he produces in other people. I'm not sure why that is, but people darker than I am say they can sense the fear. I'm light, so it's easier for me to be accepted, but I still have problems. I have worked in a promotional capacity for several companies, and I've sometimes heard that one corporate official or another finds me hard to approach. But I think the problem is that they are afraid to tell me what they do or don't want me to do. I'm not a bigger name than some of the white athletes who also work with big companies and are considered approachable. If a black man doesn't smile or he doesn't joke, and if he presents himself as a serious person, he is looked upon as being rough or "militant." Now I don't think they see me as a militant, but I do think they feel I am tough to get along with. And I only hear what they are saying about me from afar. The same thing happens in baseball. If a black hitting instructor is let go because, say, he spends a lot of time at the racetrack, you can be almost certain that no one in the organization sat down with him and asked him to change. With a white hitting instructor who spends time at the track, they'd talk to him. Or they would probably joke about it.
Blacks have a responsibility to prove to people in power that they're qualified and that they want the good jobs. I want people to know I didn't hunt and fish all winter, that I was involved in the stock market and in real estate. I have an analytical head on my shoulders that can decipher P & L sheets and take me successfully into the business world when I retire. The biggest stumbling block blacks and whites have is their fear of approaching one another. Suspicions exist on both sides.