Columns

Even after Jackie, progress comes slowly

Trent Frayne April 28 1997
Columns

Even after Jackie, progress comes slowly

Trent Frayne April 28 1997

Even after Jackie, progress comes slowly

Columns

Sports Watch

Trent Frayne

The near-hysteria that accompanied Tiger Woods around the Augusta National golf course at the Masters tournament the other Sunday afternoon was faintly remindful of the appearance of Jackie Robinson in a major-league baseball uniform half a century ago. Then, as now, there was the notion that a statement was being made whose ramifications reached beyond a mere game. Robinson, starting for the old Brooklyn Dodgers following a magnificent minor-league season in Montreal, was the first black to play in the modern major leagues. Doing that, he opened the gate for hundreds of black guys to play beside white guys.

Similarly, Woods and his marvelous swing attained a new status not just for black golfers but for everybody who plays the game. “He elevated the sport to a new sociological plateau,” Pulitzer Prizewinning columnist Dave Anderson wrote in The New York Times the day after Woods’s record-shattering Masters win. Still, if a feeling is abroad that golf and society are apt to change noticeably in the wake of the Tiger’s triumph, there is Robinson’s baseball lesson to illustrate how ponderously change moves.

For a fact, black players are everywhere in the big leagues, but in the upper echelons of the 28 teams there are only four black managers. And two of those are running Canada’s teams—Montreal’s Felipe Alou, 62 next month, from the Dominican Republic, and Toronto’s Clarence (Cito) Gaston, 53 last month, from San Antonio, Tex. (Dusty Baker at San Francisco and Don Baylor at Denver are the others.) Only one other black man is in charge of anything significant on big-league ball clubs, the general manager of the New York Yankees, Bob Watson.

Gaston, of course, was the first black manager to be a World Series winner, with the Blue Jays in 1992. Cito spent 11 years as a big-league outfielder for Atlanta and San Diego. He is a lanky, unruffled man, usually calm and soft-spoken, though last week he said he gets little credit for the team’s success but blame for the recent decline. He suggested criticism by three newsmen was racially motivated. As a young player, he spent two seasons with Austin in the Texas League. It was there that he ran into a modest segment of the unconscionable abuse Jackie Robinson suffered. Occasionally, Cito will talk about prejudice back then, a full 17 years after Jackie Robinson broke the barrier.

He remembers, without a trace of bitterness, that black players weren’t allowed in motels where the white players stayed and that the drinking fountains in restaurants still had signs over them that said “Colored only” and ‘White only.”

‘There were three of us black guys on the Austin ball club,” he told me. “There was Jose Cruz and this guy Samuel Manuel and me. When we’d get to a town like El Paso or Arlington, the three of us had to go out in the country and find a black motel. Black

It’s hard to see how the magic of Tiger Woods can change anything apart from the name atop the leader board

guys couldn’t sit in dining-rooms with white guys, either.”

Cito chuckled, thinking back. “Sometimes the white guys would have to stand and wait in a crowded restaurant but we’d be served right away in a half-empty black one. So one of our white guys, Joe Saturni, always came and ate with us.”

He’d hear racial slurs from the stands and from rival players. His stomach often turned when he heard the cursing. Still, he stayed in control of his outward emotions. How come? “My mom always said there wasn’t too much a person could do about it so sometimes the best thing is to walk off, just to close your ears to it,” Cito said.

Robinson, an intense young athlete at UCLA, closed his mouth, if not his ears, as part of a restriction placed on him by Branch Rickey, the Dodger executive who signed him for the Montreal farm team in 1946. Even there he encountered hostility from teammates and the Royals manager, Clay Hopper, who had pleaded with Rickey not to force him to run a ball club with a black man on it.

It is a curious footnote that Robinson’s teammate in Montreal was AÍ Campanis, who thereby had ample opportunity to witness Robinson’s intelligence and discipline. Yet 40 years later, Campanis as a Dodger executive told a network TV interviewer, Ted Koppel, that the reason there were so few black executives in baseball was that “they don’t have the necessities”—a statement that cost him his own job.

Robinson was a sensational player, winning the batting title and leading the Royals to a Little World Series victory over Louisville. Pitchers threw at him and he was spiked frequently at second base. Elevated to the Dodgers, he continued to bear indignities and injury, enduring death threats, racial epithets, resentful teammates and even a threatened boycott by ball players. Enos Slaughter, a Cardinal outfielder, slid far from the base path to slash at Robinson’s ankle with his spikes. Once, helping to ease the abuse, shortstop Pee Wee Reese stepped across second base and laid his arm across Robinson’s shoulders. The gesture stilled the rising tumult and became a sort of symbol of unity, at least on the ball field.

With change so slow, it’s hard to see how the magic of the appealing young Eldrick (Tiger) Woods can change anything apart from the name atop the leader board. Kids from crowded black neighborhoods aren’t overnight going to find the space to play golf, nor are the private clubs suddenly opening their gates and waving ambitious black lads through.

Accordingly, Tiger’s matchless Masters is mostly a lovely blip on the sports scene, an aberration similar to that of Arthur Ashe’s impact on tennis following his Wimbledon win in 1975. Black guys are still rare birds on the men’s tennis tour, and the same goes for young black golfers. In either game, as in baseball, time moves with the blinding speed of an iceberg. Not much different, you might say, than in corporate boardrooms.