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Fans at center field huddle under blankets and jackets near a sign honoring baseball legend Jackie Robinson as rain falls before the roof can be closed in a baseball game between the Texas Rangers and Seattle Mariners, Saturday, April 14, 2007, in Seattle. Sunday Major League Baseball marks the 60th anniversary of the day Robinson broke the game's color barrier.
  • No, I don't believe it's prejudice. I truly believe that (blacks) may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, a general manager."

    -- Former Los Angeles Dodgers president and general manager Al Campanis, to Ted Koppel, on the April 6, 1987, edition of "Nightline."

    Kenny Williams can still hear the words. Inside the privileged circle that is professional baseball, it seems everybody did.

    Thus, perhaps, the reason Chicago White Sox general manager seems annoyed when yet another question about society and prejudice is directed to him. The night that Al Campanis opened his mouth and stuck his foot in it was a seminal moment in the sociological examination of race in this country, and certainly, Williams says, there are far more qualified candidates than he to answer.

    Williams is a baseball man, nothing else.

    And yet, it's really not as simple as that. Williams is also an African-American man. He is the builder of a World Series winner. He is a man atop his profession. He is, in other words, everything that Campanis implied a black man could not be.

    So it is, Williams says, that he has become the "designated black man," a moniker that seems to sum up perfectly the tricky nature of race and prejudice and baseball and progress.

    Which may be why, annoyed as he seems to be, Williams answers.

    "I'll try to put it the best way I can," he says. "Simply put, we have too many prejudices in our society in general. Sure, race is a part of it, but it's not the only element. And until we start to educate and teach our kids from very early on, the progress is going to be slower than any of us would like."

    Progress comes slowly

    Progress is the central theme throughout Major League Baseball today. The sport is celebrating the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, a landmark event in American history that integrated the national pastime.

    Less noted, however, is the 20th anniversary of Campanis' remarks. And that omission seems ironic, because in retrospect, Campanis' views seemed to draw a line of demarcation in baseball's attempt to bring diversity to its upper ranks.

    Whether the sport has succeeded in that attempt remains a hot-button topic.

    "It absolutely has," says Jimmie Lee Solomon, an African-American who has worked for MLB since 1991 and is now its executive vice president of baseball operations. "Back when Mr. Campanis made his comments, there were only about 2 percent minorities working in the front office of our industry. Now, it's about 25 percent. That progress speaks for itself."

    Indeed, baseball's front offices seemingly have never been more open. According to a study by the University of Central Florida's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, baseball earned a B+ for its diversity in 2006. Moreover, six of its 30 managers -- 20 percent -- are people of color, as were 16 percent of its coaches.

    And unlike in 1987, baseball can boast general managers of African-American (Williams) and Hispanic (the Mets' Omar Minaya) descent, both of whom are considered among the best in the game.

    Nevertheless, the fact that Williams and Minaya stand out as unique figures within the industry proves just how far baseball still has to go, others say.

    "Baseball today, in my opinion, is as bad as it's ever been, as far as getting minorities in high positions," says former A's pitcher Dave Stewart, a one-time executive who is now an agent. "An African-American won a World Series. That's great. But the bottom line is, that's old news. You still have only one African-American GM, still only one Hispanic GM. Ownership remains almost entirely white. So while I can appreciate what Kenny Williams and Omar Minaya have done ... if you ask me, what has baseball done? Not a gosh darn thing."

    Stewart's words may seem harsh, but he does have a point. Close to a decade into the 21st century, America's oldest sport is still awaiting its first African-American owner. Notable names such as Joe Morgan and Reggie Jackson have made attempts to join that fraternity in recent years -- potential owners must gain approval from existing ones -- only to be rebuffed.

    If not for Arte Moreno, a Mexican-American who purchased the Los Angeles Angels on May 15, 2003, baseball would remain an entirely white-owned corporation.

    Solomon says he was working at a law firm that represented MLB when Campanis made his statements and that he was deeply disturbed at the lack of opportunities awaiting minorities when he entered the game four years later.

    Now, he says, the opportunities are there. It's a small step, he says, but not an insignificant one.

    "What you want to see is diversity across the board in the sport," he says. "Anytime you try to invoke change, it takes awhile. You can do things quickly, and have them not stick. Or you can take your time and work it into the fabric, so it not only sticks but becomes prosperous and vibrant. That's what we're trying to do."

    Pipeline drying up?

    Is baseball succeeding? In a way, that question leads back to Williams, the man whose name always seems to be attached, erroneously, to the clause, "the only African-American GM to win a World Series." Williams was not the first; Bob Watson, the GM for the 1996 New York Yankees, was.

    "I think it's a shame," Williams says of the tag. "To put a label on it and to think I'm the only one is not what we should be striving for. And as worried as I am about that today, I'm even more worried about it tomorrow."

    Williams is not alone in his concern. African-American participation in baseball is at a record low, and that leads to a concern that the pipeline to the executive offices may dry up as well.

    Solomon says baseball is addressing that issue, and he points to the number of programs set up to help increase African-American participation in the sport.

    Programs set up to help all minorities move up the executive food chain, however, are scarce.

    "We've got to set programs that will encourage minorities to consider baseball even beyond a playing career," says Billy Owens, the A's director of player personnel. "Whether it's player-development opportunities, scouting or personnel decisions, baseball has to attract minorities toward that path. The way you (integrate) your front offices is not by requiring certain numbers but by being able to find enough quality guys to fill them."

    To hear others, however, the problem is not in developing quality candidates. It is, instead, getting those candidates a chance to make decisions. Williams' own player personnel director, David Wilder, has been a player, scout, personnel director and assistant general manager.

    "He's done everything but be a GM," Williams says. "But when a GM job comes open, does he get a call? Two guys that played (in Oakland), Dave Stewart and Shooty Babitt, both know the game, are perfectly qualified. They just need a chance."

    Stewart, for his part, got fed up with waiting. An assistant GM for the Toronto Blue Jays from 1999-2001, Stewart left the game shortly after Toronto selected J.P. Ricciardi as Gord Ash's successor after the '01 season.

    "I left the game because baseball had used the same practice it has always used, which is, I'm gonna hire the people I'm comfortable with rather than the best person to do the job," Stewart says. "It's been that way since the beginning, and my guess is that it'll be that way 20 years from now."

    Irony of Campanis

    Then again, 20 years is a long time. The aftereffects of Campanis' words, now two decades in the past, demonstrate that as well as anything.

    "The ramifications of that statement ... brought a lot of things to light," says Owens, then a sophomore in high school. "It put the ignorance that existed out there for everyone to see. It forced baseball to examine itself."

    That it was Campanis who shed the light on it might've been the most tragic irony of all. Campanis was close to Robinson when they played in the minor leagues together, and both Stewart and Baker, each of whom cut their teeth in the Dodgers organization, have spoken glowingly of their former boss.

    "I said it then, I'll say it now. I never saw Al to be a racist," Stewart said. "It definitely was a racist comment, but I've never taken Al to be that. I still don't think that today."

    The comment, though, ruined Campanis' career. He resigned two days after the interview, after a national outcry ensued.

    "Dad didn't care if a player had green hair and a purple face if he could hit the ball or pitch it," Campanis' son George said upon Al's death in 1998. "Everyone who knew him knew he didn't have a prejudiced bone in his body. ... He just misused some words."

    Misused or not, they live in infamy. And as the barometer for progress.

    Contact Rick Hurd at rhurd@cctimes.com.