Just 12 months after the Boston Red Sox baseball team ended a drought of epic proportions, the Chicago White Sox are in turn scenting their first World Series appearance since their so-called “Black Sox” predecessors accepted bribes to throw the 1919 series – still the most infamous chapter in the annals of American sport. In manager Ozzie Guillen they boast another history maker with a nose for notoriety.

One of the finest fielders of the 1980s but dogged by injury, Guillen is no common or garden manager, personality hidden behind a curtain of clichés, platitudes and truisms. Characterised by Sports Illustrated as “outspoken, unconventional and often politically incorrect”, his disdain for caution is all the more remarkable given that this is not only his first season in the job but that he is the first Venezuelan to manage in the major leagues. In fact, should the White Sox defeat the Los Angeles Angels in the American League Championship Series, and then beat either the Houston Astros or St Louis Cardinals, the National League duellists, he would be only the second non-white manager, and the first of Hispanic origin, to win the World Series.

Soon after his appointment by the White Sox, Guillen laid down a marker, drawing almost as much scorn as admiration for imposing a $500 fine on any player not present, correct and in full voice for the national anthem. “If you’re not from this country, you should respect the anthem even more than Americans because you should feel pleased you’re here,” reasoned Guillen, whose office wall is draped with both the American and Venezuelan flags. “And if you’re from this country, you should have respect for people who are dying for it.”

The fact that the Bush administration has supported two attempted coups against President Hugo Chávez reveals less about Guillen’s mindset than that he hopes to obtain US citizenship by the end of the year.

Guillen is one of only five “minority” – African-American or Hispanic – managers employed by the major leagues’ 30 franchises. That said, if “minority” is a strictly comparative word, so is “only”: no season has ever seen more. Progress is being made but sluggishly and, seemingly, with reluctance.

On the field a different story emerges, as it has done ever since 1947 when Jackie Robinson struck a telling blow for the growing civil rights movement by breaking the major leagues’ multilateral, if wholly unofficial, colour bar with the Brooklyn Dodgers. “Don’t you think they’re gonna take over baseball in 10 years?” one grateful but fearful Dodger asked a reporter. “They can run faster. They’ll run us white guys out of the game.”

It hasn’t happened yet, and probably never will, such is the hold baseball still exerts on the American psyche, but such paranoia was not unfounded. Throughout the 1950s, in Robinson’s inspirational wake, the annual Most Valuable Player awards became a
virtual black monopoly. These days, African-American and, increasingly, Hispanic players dominate the National and American Leagues to an even more conspicuous extent.

The highest-paid practitioner is Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees; the most prodigious home-run hitter is Barry Bonds; the best all-round player is the Cardinals’ Albert Pujols; the pitchers with the most regular-season wins this year were Dontrelle Willis and Bartolo Colón. Indeed, eight of the dozen main categories of achievement were headed by African-Americans or Hispanics. Fast forward to the World Classic in Puerto Rico next March, baseball’s inaugural World Cup: many think Cuba, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic are as likely to win as Team USA.

This contrast between perceptions of playing and managing abilities was most ably and controversially summed up in 1987, when Al Campanis, the Los Angeles Dodgers’ head of personnel, said in a television interview that while black players illuminated the game, they lacked the desire or the “necessities” to manage. He was promptly fired (albeit briefly) but the scars have yet to heal.

Post-Robinson, it took almost 30 years for the first non-Caucasian
manager to arrive; coincidentally, the trailblazer was another lavishly gifted Robinson, Frank, his cause enhanced by his standing as the only man ever to win a Most Valuable Player award in both leagues. He has been in and out of jobs ever since and is now at club number four, the Washington Nationals, who have made such a splendid impression in their maiden campaign. He is, however, one of just three black managers to serve more than one franchise. Aside from Dusty Baker and Cito Gaston – who in 1992 became the first African-American to manage a World Series champion – long tenures are unheard of.

As recently as 2001, Ebony, a leading African-American magazine, could note that there were “only four blacks” in managerial roles, two of them, Jerry Manuel (White Sox) and Don Baylor (Cubs), in Chicago, once described as the planet’s most segregated city. “It would be more significant,” Manuel told Ebony, “if the black community would come out and enjoy what’s happening at the ballpark.”

In fairness, notwithstanding the sickening abuse that dogged Hank Aaron’s successful pursuit of Babe Ruth’s all-time home-run record in 1974, nor the sport’s shameless racism during the first half of the 20th century – even Jackie Robinson’s team-mates did their utmost to make him feel unwelcome – baseball is less culpable in this respect than America’s other top sports. There are even fewer black head coaches in gridiron and basketball.

By even starker comparison, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of black managers who have been employed by the 92 English league soccer clubs, even though some 30 per cent of the workforce are now non-white. Should this imbalance persist 10 years on, by when the first generation of Anglo-Caribbean players will have hung up their shinpads, heads should be hung in shame.

Judging by the blogs on the subject, many Americans declare the “race card” an irrelevance. Why the fuss about baseball? How many non-white executives call the shots in Hollywood? Or broadcasting? Thanks to Jackie Robinson and his disciples, though, baseball has a reputation for inclusivity. It has set the right sort of example for more than half a century. People expect greater enlightenment.

In the words of Don Baylor, who claims to have personally “integrated” his secondary school in Texas and thus knows a fair deal about the struggle for acceptance: “When minority hiring is no longer news, we’ll know that we have made some major steps.”

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