I recently came across an old picture of me and one-time Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent, who was holding court with a number of reporters in January 1992 prior to a Baseball Alumni Team fundraiser.
The questions that night centered on why Major League Baseball was refusing to accept a Japanese businessman’s money to buy the Seattle Mariners.
Jeff Smulyan had purchased the Seattle ballclub in 1989 and within two years realized he could not afford to own the team. He reached a deal to sell the franchise to Hiroshi Yamauchi, who was the president of the Kyoto, Japan-based Nintendo Company.
Yamauchi was willing to put up about $60 million but the barons of Major League Baseball put on their best xenophobic face and tried to say no to Yamauchi. The league supposedly had some rule that prohibited owners from outside of the United States and Canada In this rule book, which apparently never existed, Canadians were good.
Vincent was doing his best song and dance routine that night to explain why someone from Japan with the means and a company with American headquarters in the Seattle-area should be barred from Major League Baseball ownership.
The franchise was sold in 1992 to The Baseball Club of Seattle, LP. Major League Baseball took Yamauchi’s money but he had no control of the franchise despite putting up about 50 percent of the sales price. As late as 1992, Major League Baseball was far from inclusive.
Today, the Mariners current website lists its Board of Directors, including John Ellis (chairman), Minoru Arakawa, Chris Larson, Howard Lincoln, John McCaw, Frank Shrontz and Craig Watjen. In 2013, there is still no mention of Yamauchi.
Charles Wang, who was born in China, owns the New York Islanders in the National Hockey League. The NBA has Russian Mikhail Prokhorov, who owns the Brooklyn Nets. The National Football League unanimously approved Pakistan-born Shahid Khan as the Jacksonville Jaguars owner in 2011.
Major League Baseball is again late to the dance.
In 1947, Major League Baseball was third in line among major sports to end segregation.
The National Basketball League, which played the best caliber basketball in the early 1940s, employed blacks. The National Football League, along with the All American Football Conference, had blacks on the field.
Apparently, as part of the agreement that brought the Cleveland Rams to Los Angeles in 1946, the team had to employ black players. Paul Brown with the newly formed Cleveland Browns signed black players with no fanfare.
But Major League Baseball is about to go through a feel good period with the release of the Warner Brothers movie “42.” It tells the story of Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey signing of Jackie Robinson to end the never-in-writing-yet-formal agreement among baseball’s 16 teams to bar black players.
Baseball Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner was never impressed with Rickey’s “bold and courageous” stand. Kiner was a United States Navy pilot during World War II and had a much different view of Rickey and the elimination of the color barrier.
“I don’t think Branch Rickey should get the credit,” said Kiner many years later. “There was a movement at the time that they where going to bring black players into the game. He jumped the gun and got Jackie Robinson.
“But the reason for Branch Rickey obtaining and bringing black players in was economical. He didn’t have to pay the black players any money to sign them and they were bought from the Negro Leagues at that time and Robinson was the choice. Rickey was the man who picked Robinson and that was a brilliant choice.”
Teams could get black players on the cheap because black players were just grateful to get the chance.
“It was just another part of the change over of baseball. It had to happen sooner or later,” Kiner said. “It was really an aftermath of World War II where the black players, or as they were called in those days, the Negroes, fought for our side. They had to be recognized.”
Robinson signed with Brooklyn in 1946 and spent a year in the minor leagues playing with the Montreal Royals that year. He made his big league debut in 1947. Tom Yawkey’s Boston Red Sox franchise did not have a black player on its roster until 1959.
How did Major League Baseball view black players? That’s hard to judge. Some organizations welcomed black players, although there seemed to be a quota on the number of black players in the 1950s and into the 1960s.
Then there was the Al Campanis’s appearance on ABC’s “Nightline” in 1987 that raised many eyebrows.
The Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager went on TV April 6, 1987, to discuss the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier. When asked whether there was “still that much prejudice in baseball today?” Campanis responded, “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 or perhaps a general manager.” Campanis was out of a job two days later.
At the time, Yamauchi was trying to buy the Seattle Mariners, Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott was waxing eloquently about how her use of the “N-word was a joke,” but she also described “the rise of Adolf Hitler as being initially good for Germany.” She sold the Reds in 1998 but her legacy remains tainted by her public comments.
Major League Baseball today has embraced globalization. Players come from all over the world to play for its 29 United States and one Canadian team. There is a world tournament that is played every four years.
Would baseball accept non-American/non-Canadian ownership today? Has Major League Baseball advanced since Yamauchi?
Baseball barons celebrate Jackie Robinson’s entry into the Major Leagues every April. They now have a movie to inject even more interest in the Robinson and Rickey legend and the eradication of the understood fence that kept blacks out of Major League Baseball uniforms from 1888 until 1947.
But does Major League Baseball truly celebrate diversity? That question may not be answered until the next non-American or non-Canadian wants to buy a big league club.
Evan Weiner, the winner of the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award, is an author, radio-TV commentator and sports columnist. His latest e-book, “America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century” is available at www.smashwords.com, iTunes, nook, kobo, Sony reader and Diesel. Weiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.