Skip to main content

"We have a serious problem that isn't going away"

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.

We all know that big league baseball has no black manager. The Mariners' Ozzie Virgil, a Dominican, and the Royals' Jose Martinez, a Cuban, are the only nonwhite third base coaches. There isn't a black trainer in baseball. There isn't a black American League umpire, and Dr. Brown says there are only six in the minors. I always go to the park early, and frequently enter through the main offices before making my way down to the clubhouse. Though others might not notice it, it strikes me that almost all the receptionists are white. Because many assistant general managers and general managers never played professional ball, we needn't limit ourselves to ex-players for those jobs. Could there not be a black man who went to Harvard or USC or Minnesota who is qualified to become a vice-president in charge of finances? Isn't there a black from Missouri or Stanford or Columbia who could hand in a rèsumè that would get him hired in baseball in a public relations capacity?

It's not only management that is at fault, either. Although some 25% of the players on the field are black, there isn't a black in the Players Association office.

As I say this, I try to put it in perspective. How many FORTUNE 500 CEOs are black? None, probably. How many network anchors and national magazine writers are black? Too few. I worked for ABC for 11 or 12 years. In all that time, I hosted one show, a drag race. I thought I did a good job, but no one asked me to host a network show again.

There are just a dozen non-Latin black pitchers in the majors, and the only black catchers are Darrell Miller, Floyd Rayford and Lloyd McClendon. You hear this and ask, Isn't this the black-quarterback syndrome all over again? Aren't blacks smart enough to be starting pitchers or to run games as catchers? The subtle message is that we have genetic talent, but we're just not intelligent. People have told me I have a gifted body. They always say that to black athletes. If I were white, they would say I was good because I was a diligent worker. How many times have you heard, "Reggie Jackson speaks well—for a black man"? Not "Reggie Jackson speaks well, period."

You notice other little things. For instance, you notice where your locker is, whom you're next to. I've been with teams that put all the blacks in one area. Naturally I noticed it, and when I was with the Yankees I said something about it. The clubhouse man there, the late Pete Sheehy, was one of the sweetest people I'd ever met, but the fact is, the blacks were separated from the whites.

I wish blacks tried harder to stay clean from drugs. I wish everyone stayed clean, but when blacks get caught and are embarrassed publicly, it hurts our entire cause. Whites seem to slide by. They don't carry the drug stigma as long. If blacks are involved in a drug story, it's almost like, "So what else is new?" If whites are involved, people act surprised. And white players are more quickly forgiven.

People have asked me if I could have done what Jackie Robinson did, gone through what he went through. I think I could have. When I was with Birmingham in 1967, I knew I couldn't go anywhere, because a black just lived where he belonged. People hollered "nigger" and "black boy" out of the stands, and I didn't say anything back because I knew I couldn't win. I didn't go out at night because I knew I couldn't.

I was raised in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, a town with very few black families. My neighborhood was predominantly Jewish, and though there wasn't a lot of prejudice, some parents wouldn't let me play with their kids. Maybe because of my mixed background—I have black, Spanish, Indian, Irish, German and Jewish blood—there was very little room for prejudice in my family. I occasionally was called a "half-breed." At times I felt I didn't know where I came from. I had problems with that. I was black, but I wasn't always accepted among blacks, and I sure wasn't white. I would say I wasn't accepted in the black community until I was past 30. That's when I began speaking out, and it became obvious from whence I came, and black people appreciated it.

That doesn't mean I didn't experience being black, because I did. When I was 13 or 14 years old, I played for a Pennsylvania all-star team against a team from Fort Lauderdale. Our coach didn't let me participate in the three games for fear there would be trouble if I slid hard into second base or got hit by a pitch. Even though I was the best player on the team, and my whole family was in the stands, I was allowed only one at bat. I was so afraid to swing, I looked at three straight strikes. I lived two miles from the park, and I walked home, crying. Every step of the way, I said to myself, "I'm going to be a big leaguer, I'm going to be a big leaguer." I walked home in my shower shoes, with my spikes slung over my shoulder. I remember it so well. I was wearing a GREATER GLENSIDE jersey, with GGYC letters on my sleeve and the number 18 on my back. "I'm going to be a big leaguer, I'm going to be a big leaguer."

At Arizona State I encountered another form of prejudice. My football coach there, Frank Kush, told me that the Sun Angels boosters were upset because I was dating a Mexican girl, and that I should be careful. It was the first time I had heard that Mexicans weren't white, and it didn't matter that my name is Reginald Martinez Jackson. In fact, her family wasn't too crazy about me, either. In 1966 I was on the Arizona State baseball team when Bobby Winkles called me in and said, "I want to tell you that you're probably not going to be the number one draft choice in the country, even though you're head and shoulders ahead of everyone in ability." I asked him why, because it was a prestige thing to me. "Because you're dating a white girl," Winkles told me. I asked him how he knew. He said he'd heard it from the Mets. "They think it might cause some problems in the minors," Winkles said.

So the Mets took Steve Chilcott, and I went to the A's. I went to their farm club in Lewiston, Idaho. There I got hit in the head by a pitch and was taken to a local hospital. But they wouldn't admit me because I was black. Our minor league pitching coach, Bill Posedel, called Charlie Finley, and Finley got me out of there. I was in Modesto the next day.

The following year I was in Birmingham, sleeping on the couch in an apartment shared by Joe Rudi and Dave Duncan. That lasted for about three weeks before they were threatened with eviction because a black was staying there. They were both going to move somewhere else, but instead I went to a hotel downtown. There were other problems which John McNamara, the manager at the time, tried to keep from me and the other blacks on the team. Because restaurants didn't want to serve us, we would either eat on the bus or we wouldn't eat at all—until we got to a place that would take us. McNamara wouldn't allow separate dining.

It was while I was in Birmingham that I met Bear Bryant. His son was the general manager of the ball club. Bryant told me I was "the kind of nigger boy" they needed to show the people in his state that we would be good athletes and be good for his school. He said it as a compliment. He said it with his arm around me. Whenever he came to New York, he always made it a point to come see me, and I enjoyed visiting with him. He meant no harm. That's the way it was.

Blacks have long known that they aren't supposed to speak out. But I'm someone with opinions. I don't fall in all the time and say, "Yes, sir." Other blacks and Latins know to keep their mouths shut. Look what happened with Tommy Harper and the Red Sox. It bothered the young blacks in their organization that members of the Red Sox were getting cards to a whites-only club. Harper said so and was fired. He was a militant, or so they thought. I've heard of other blacks who were shunted off because management thought they were "militant." Frank Robinson was perceived to be a tough manager to work with. Well, let me tell you, Dick Williams, the best manager I've ever played for, is no day at the beach, either.

I think that when a black player doesn't play he is considered a malingerer, as if he isn't actually hurt. That has always been an undercurrent, and at times it's even joked about. White guys kiddingly have said, "Come on, man, you're black, you know you can't be hurt." It may be intended as a joke, but the truth surfaces.

Fifteen years ago I heard black players discuss baseball's closed-door policies with bitterness. They accepted the fact that they would not have the same opportunities after they retired as white players. We can't accept it anymore, though. There are a number of blacks qualified to manage, and they're not just former superstars. If Blue Jay coach Cito Gaston, Mets coach Bill Robinson, Padre coach Deacon Jones, or Tommie Reynolds, who is managing in the Oakland system, gets a shot to manage a big league club, it will have a tremendous positive impact. Each one of them has paid his dues. He won't be seen as someone who was appointed because of his name, but as someone who got the job through hard work. Everyone will be more comfortable.

What can be done? To begin with, instead of complaining, blacks should continually mention the people who are qualified for high baseball positions—former players like Don Buford, Elrod Hendricks, Rod Carew, Joe Morgan, Vada Pinson. People should point out that Alfredo Griffin is a brilliant baseball man. If he were white, people would be talking about how bright he is and what great instincts he has. He must stay in the game.

I believe Peter Ueberroth is sincere in his efforts to find qualified minority candidates for management positions. I'm not saying we should force open the door and push blacks through regardless of their qualifications. But I'm talking about definitive—not affirmative—action that will break down the walls and effect real change. I'm not talking about a quota system, but an honest effort to seek out and hire the best blacks available for top jobs in baseball.

I would like to help bring about those changes. I'd like to do this as a part owner with special input in the operation of the club. Oh, I'd like to own a club myself, but I don't have Levi Strauss's or Seagram's money. It's like when I went to see T. Boone Pickens this winter for some financial advice. To join his club you need $50 million or you can't play. I may be a BMOC in baseball, but in that league I have to sit back and be a fan.

So I need a situation in which I'm invited to put up money for five or six years and buy 10 to 15 percent. But the money is probably the easiest thing to work out. People in the front office must be willing to give me a certain amount of power. I think I know a little bit about what goes into a winning ball club, what kind of chemistry it takes. I'm sure that in spring training I'm going to want to be on the field in uniform as an instructor. But I want to be involved with making decisions, and if it doesn't happen, fine, I'll go make my money in real estate and stocks.

If I get the opportunity, I'll bring in some qualified people. I don't want to go in and start firing people. Jobs will open in time. One of the things Gene Mauch and Sparky Anderson have explained to me is that people tend to hire people they're comfortable with, people they've hung out with. As a black in the front office, I would hire qualified people whom I have known, and I've known as many blacks as I've known whites. I'd want a Bob Gibson on my staff. I'd want Tommie Reynolds. I'd want Catfish Hunter, Joe Morgan, Rick Burleson, Elrod Hendricks, Bob Watson, Joe Rudi, Felipe Alou, Jim Lefebvre, Dave Winfield, Jerry Narron, Bob Boone, Alfredo Griffin. Don Baylor could manage for me in a Minnesota minute. The number one qualification for on-field personnel is being a good citizen. And all the guys I've mentioned are outstanding citizens.

I used to sit and wonder what happened to so many qualified people who vanished from baseball. Where's Gates Brown now? Where's Earl Wilson? Where's Billy Bruton? Where's Gene Baker? Where's Al Jackson? Where's Tommy Harper? Where's Donn Clendenon? Where's Jimmy Wynn? Where's Tommy Davis? Where's Bob Veale? Where's Rod Carew? Where's Paul Blair? Where's Ed Charles? Where's Chris Chambliss? Where's John Roseboro? Where's Luis Tiant? Where's Al Cowens? Where's Larry Hisle, the nicest guy in the world? Where's Bob Gibson? For goodness sake, Bob Gibson! I hear people say that George Scott doesn't speak well. Well, I've heard general managers who didn't speak all that well.

I want to stay in the game and help answer those questions for the next generation. I don't want anybody asking, "Where's Reggie Jackson?" My friend and business manager Gary Walker once asked me, "What are you going to give your fellow man? God's going to want to know what you did for humanity." This is one way I can show the man upstairs that I give a damn.

I've worked hard, I've been a good citizen, and I've had a great career. I still get a lot of enjoyment out of the game. Baseball means a lot to me. I don't want anyone running down the game to me, because baseball is special. But it's not perfect, and it hasn't been entirely fair to the black man.

Because of the unfortunate things Mr. Campanis said, the time has come to break down the wall between whites and blacks. The time has come to say we have a problem and to address it. Together.





Baseball has no black managers above the level of Reynolds (left), who runs Oakland's Class A farm club in Modesto.



Frank Robinson (top), the first black manager in the majors, was fired twice; Met coach Bill Robinson is a managerial candidate.



[See caption above.]



If Reggie was doing the hiring, his staff would include capable men like Burleson (top), Baylor (center) and Gibson.



[See caption above.]



[See caption above.]



One of baseball's great power hitters would like to become one of the game's power brokers after his final October as a player.