Thursday, February 3, 2011

This Day in Black Sports History: February 3, 1989

On April 15, 1987, the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier, former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis sparked heated controversy when Nightline’s Ted Koppel asked him why black managers and general managers were virtually nonexistent in Major League Baseball.

Campanis’ reply was that blacks “may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps, a general manager.”

Campanis, a former teammate of Robinson, would continue to dig his own grave with remarks such as blacks are often poor swimmers “because they don’t have the buoyancy.”

Not surprisingly, a protest erupted on the morning following the interview and Campanis would resign his position two days later.

Bill White would hear much worse as a 19-year-old first baseman playing in the farm system for the New York Giants, when the Jim Crow laws were alive and well in the Deep South.

"In every one of those cities, I was called words I had never even heard before..." White once said as he recalled the verbal abuse and blatant injustices he was subjected to during the spring of 1952.

From being called “alligator,” “black cat” or “nigger” to "Having to sit on that bus while the other guys went in and ate...not being able to go into a gas station to use the bathroom, not being able to stay in a decent hotel," this was the world White woke up to on a daily basis during his formative years in baseball.

But White would endure and persevere to break into the big leagues in May of 1956, where he would go on to play for the New York/San Francisco Giants (1956, 1958), St. Louis Cardinals (1959-1965, 1969) and Philadelphia Phillies (1966, 1968).

In his 14-year career, White hit .286 with 202 home runs and 870 RBIs in 1,673 games. White was also one of the top defensive first basemen of his era, garnering five All-Star selections while winning seven consecutive Gold Glove Awards in the process.

Following the conclusion of his playing days, White would make his mark in broadcasting, becoming the first African-American to broadcast in the National Hockey League, when he called several games for the Philadelphia Flyers, as well as the first African-American to regularly do play-by-play for a major league sports team (New York Yankees) in a distinguished 17-year career.

As a broadcaster, White is famously known for his call of former Yankees shortstop Bucky Dent’s two-out, three-run home run against the Boston Red Sox that propelled the Bronx Bombers to victory in a one-game playoff to decide the American League East.

“Deep to left! Yastrzemski will not get it–it's a home run! A three-run home run for Bucky Dent and the Yankees now lead it by a score of three to two!"

However, on February 3, 1989, less than two years after Al Campanis’ inflammatory remarks, the crowning achievement of White’s baseball career came when he was named president of the National League, thus becoming the first African-American to head a major professional sports league and the highest-ranking African-American official in the history of professional sports.

Peter O'Malley, chairman of the search committee and owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, remarked to the New York Times: "Bill White was selected because he was the best man for the job. He was the only man who was offered the job and, fortunately, he was the only man who accepted. Race was not a factor."

White served as the National League president from 1989-1994, where his main goal was to follow in the tradition of Jackie Robinson.

"I've been in the game since 1952," White told the Boston Globe after the election. "It wasn't integrated. When I came into baseball, spring training wasn't integrated. The country wasn't integrated. I think we've both come along. I'm here now, and there have been quite a few improvements in hiring at certain levels.

I feel that will continue, and the people here feel the same way...I've told people the most important thing that has happened in baseball history was Jackie Robinson getting a chance to play. It gave a lot of people before who had no hope a lot of hope."

"If I can set an example for the 28 owners [they might] say 'Hey, White did a good job. I'm going to try somebody else of color,'" White added during his presidency, noting he believed Campanis' 1987 comment "reflects the opinion of much of baseball."

Thankfully, and hopefully, Bill White has changed some of those opinions for the better.

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