BASEBALL'S ENDURING COLOR LINE
Henry Aaron recently charged that no matter how well black baseball players perform, they ultimately get "shafted." He added that the men who run baseball "want to look at us [blacks] as monkeys." Those are hot words from a normally cool man but, unfortunately, they may be only slightly extravagant. Thirty-two years after Jackie Robinson broke the color line on the field, blacks have yet to win a secure place in baseball.
The situation is worse in baseball than in either football or basketball. Although the NFL has yet to hire its first black head coach, four blacks hold key front-office jobs with the league's clubs and there are eight blacks among the NFL's 100 officials. The NBA has two black coaches, Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens, each of whom runs his club's front-office operations. The NBA also numbers five blacks among its 27 referees and officials. By contrast, Aaron, the Atlanta Braves' director of player personnel, is the only black occupying an important front-office job with any big league club. Only one native American black, Johnny Lewis at Gastonia in the Class A Western Carolinas League, had a manager's job this season at any level of organized baseball. Eric Gregg was the only black among 60 full-time big league umpires; there were only six blacks among the 210 umpires in all of baseball.
Increasingly there is reason to be concerned even about the number of native American black players in baseball. Blacks make up roughly one-third of NFL and three-fourths of NBA rosters, yet the figure is barely 20% in baseball, and it appears to be declining. Jack Pastore, scouting administrator for the Phillies, notes that no more than 10% of the top prospects in recent amateur drafts have been black. If the decline were occurring because blacks were finding more favorable opportunities in banking, medicine and the like, there would be no reason for concern. Instead, it is taking place for other reasons, including the fact that some colleges have been cutting back on baseball scholarships, but not on those in football and basketball. As a result, blacks who might have played baseball are gravitating toward other sports.
Baseball people say that they would welcome "qualified" black club executives and umpires, to say nothing of players. But Monte Irvin, one of two blacks serving as assistants to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, warns that the game's higherups can't simply wait for blacks to fall into their laps. "We have to aggressively recruit and train them," Irvin says. "With the retirement of Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, black people aren't identifying with baseball the way they once did. It's going to take quite an effort to overcome the feeling among blacks that they aren't welcome."
Nowhere is that feeling more conspicuously reflected than at the gate. NBA Deputy Commissioner Simon Gourdine, who is black, estimates that blacks account for "close to 20%" of attendance at NBA games. Despite baseball's generally lower ticket prices, blacks, according to Irvin, now make up less than 1% of attendance at major league games, down from a high of 3% in the 1950s. Although social forces beyond baseball's control may be partly responsible for the decline, it is difficult to completely forget Twins owner Calvin Griffith's distressing statement last year that he had moved the Washington Senators to Minnesota because that state had "good, hardworking white people." Lest that somehow be perceived as the official policy of the major leagues as a whole, prompt action must be taken to assure black Americans that the national pastime is also their pastime.
Bing Crosby's 17-year-old son Nathaniel is attending the University of Miami on a golf scholarship. He was his dad's favorite golf partner and has run the Bing Crosby Pro-Am since the crooner's death two years ago, and now he drives a brown van, shares an apartment with Hurricane teammate John Pallot and says, "I'm just one guy on the golf team. I don't think any of the guys look at me as something special." Well, maybe they ought to. Competing two weeks ago in the 15-school Wolf Pack Classic at the University of Nevada in Reno, Nate Crosby placed ninth among 90 entrants, leading the Miami team by four strokes.
An NFL fan who in recent years has followed the sport mostly on television attended a Bears game in Chicago's Soldier Field the other day and noticed what seemed to be a much greater number of binoculars in the stands than he remembered from the old days. He also was struck by the fact that many fans were using their binoculars only when the Honey Bears, the Chicago cheerleaders, performed during time-outs. When play on the field resumed, the glasses were put away.
The scene in Chicago doesn't surprise Bob Gardner, a marketing consultant for Fujinon Optical Inc., a subsidiary of Japan's Fuji Photo/Film Company that sells a line of binoculars in the U.S. Gardner says that while exact figures are unavailable, there is no doubt that the NFL's introduction of cheerleaders has been a boon to the $100-million-a-year binocular industry in the U.S. Because 90% of all binoculars sold in this country are imported, people concerned about the nation's chronic trade deficit might conclude that NFL cheerleaders are having an adverse effect on the economy. But Gardner says, "Men with binoculars at pro football games have always used them to ogle attractive women, only in the past the women they looked at were in the crowd, not on the sidelines. Girl watching is very American."