By Maria Wilhelm
April 27, 1987 12:00 PM

It was a moment of transcendent irony. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s arrival in major league baseball, Los Angeles Dodger Vice President Al Campanis had been invited to be a guest on ABC’s Nightline. All went well until host Ted Koppel asked him why there were so few blacks in baseball management. “I truly believe they may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or perhaps a general manager,” the 70-year-old Campanis replied. Judging by the clamor that followed, the shocking thing was not that a baseball executive should hold such views, but that he should have the witless audacity to express them aloud. Two days later Campanis paid the price and was forced to resign. But the questions that his comments raised would not be stilled. Why, in a sport in which more than 25 percent of major league players are black, is there just one black—Hank Aaron of the Atlanta Braves—In a significant front-office job? Why have there been just three black managers, and why are there none today? Correspondent Maria Wilhelm spoke with one of the three, Frank Robinson, 51, a former Most Valuable Player in both Major Leagues and now the bench coach for the Baltimore Orioles.

Were you surprised by Al Campanis’ comments about blacks in baseball?

No. Baseball has been hiding this ugly prejudice for years—that blacks aren’t smart enough to be managers or third-base coaches or part of the front office. There’s a belief that they’re fine when it comes to the physical part of the game, but if it involves brains they just can’t handle it. Al Campanis made people finally understand what goes on behind closed doors—that there is racism in baseball.

Is there racial tension on the field?

Not among the players. We couldn’t function on the diamond or live together eight months out of the year if there was. But that doesn’t mean there is equality. As a black, you find you have to be two or three times better than a white even to play. And when it comes to front-office jobs, management believes you’ll never be as good.

Why haven’t blacks been able to break the management color barrier?

Because we haven’t been in the position either to do the hiring or to say, “Hire me or else.” Blacks haven’t put pressure on baseball. So baseball says, “If we don’t have to give you a job, we won’t.” Part of this is our fault. You talk to some black players and they say, “I’m a happy man. I’m making a good living. Why should I stick my neck out?” You talk to people outside the game, and they say, “I don’t want to be bothered.”

Why don’t more black players speak out?

Speaking up could be damaging. Someone will get buried. The ownership might think, “He’s mouthing off. Who needs him?” I won’t say that today they could blackball a great player. But they could make it tough for him. At the end of his career, he might not get to play those extra years if they feel he’s a troublemaker.

How have you gotten as far as you have?

By being an outstanding player over a number of years for one thing. But also by being vocal about the fact that I wanted to manage when I was through playing. Then I tried to eliminate some of the excuses baseball offers. The biggest excuse you hear is that blacks aren’t willing to go to the minor leagues and prepare themselves to manage in the majors. So during the years I was still playing I would go to Puerto Rico in the winter and manage. When the day came, I had the experience without having to go to the minor leagues for four or five years and then wait for an opportunity. Still there’s a double standard. Some whites, like Pete Rose, Joe Torre and Ted Williams, never had to go to the minors. They’ve gone right into big league jobs.

What are some of the other excuses you’ve heard?

One of my favorites is that blacks just aren’t applying for management positions. I’ve never seen baseball advertise for a job, and I’ve never heard of whites applying for a job. I mean there’s an old boy network, and it’s lily white. The people upstairs also say white players won’t play for a black manager and fans won’t come to the ballpark. If the players are on a good team, they don’t care who they’re playing for. And if a team is playing well, the fans don’t care who’s managing. If the team plays poorly, they’re going to holler for his scalp, whether it’s black or white.

Are some baseball teams more progressive than others?

I don’t see any. On the 26 Major League ball clubs, there’s isn’t one black third-base coach. There’s one Latino, Ozzie Virgil, in Seattle, but no blacks. And that’s because the third-base coach is the manager’s first lieutenant. If they put a black at third base, the next step is manager. Owners say “No way.” The ball clubs are dragging their feet.

How does that make you feel?

Not good. Young people say sports figures are their idols, and we have to conduct ourselves in such a manner that young people really can look up to us and model themselves after us. If we continue to allow this sort of racism to exist, we don’t deserve to be idolized.

Who are the outstanding black candidates for managerial and front-office jobs?

I think former second baseman Joe Morgan, now a businessman and part-time baseball commentator, would make an excellent manager or general manager. Bill White, who broadcasts for the Yankees, would make an excellent general manager, and coaches like Willie Stargell of the Braves, Bill Robinson of the Mets and Elrod Hendricks of the Orioles would all be excellent managers. Still you don’t really know who’ll be good until they’re given the opportunity.

Do you hope to manage again?

Yes, one day I’d like to manage again, but that’s not my burning desire. I had two opportunities, with the Cleveland Indians and the San Francisco Giants. I’ve been there, and there are other people who deserve a chance. If I did manage again, I’d be more selective in the ball club I work with. I don’t want to get into a losing situation, as I did with Cleveland and San Francisco. People ask, “Why did he take those ball clubs?” Well, somebody had to make the moves, someone had to break down the barrier and I keep a black man visible.

Will Campanis’ remarks speed progress toward racial equality?

First I should say that Campanis is a decent man. I’m sorry he’s had to take the heat for something for which baseball is responsible. But his statements are the most significant thing that has happened for blacks in baseball for a long, long time. People are shocked. They ask, “Is that the way it really is?” You bet.

If Jackie Robinson were alive and willing today, would the lords of baseball be likely to admit him to their ranks?

No. He was too controversial—too honest. He’d create too many problems by speaking up and speaking out. White management doesn’t like black people to speak their minds. They like you to be seen but not heard. And Jackie Robinson wouldn’t put himself in that position.