By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

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  • I look forward. Occasionally, I look back to see how far we've all come, although looking back flies in the face of Satchel Paige's axiom: "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you."

    Cute saying, or ominous warning?

    Both, probably. Depends on how you look back at it. Satch was a big-league pitcher all his life, but in a segregated league for most of it. He didn't pitch in a completely big league until he was well over 40 years old, back in 1948, when he went 6-1 for the World Champion Cleveland Indians.

    Satchel Paige
    Satchel Paige, before he joined the major leagues late in his career.

    Now did Satchel gain on big league baseball? Or did it gain from him?

    Over 50 years later, I've come to think, and believe, that the final frontier in the American sporting republic is Total Ownership. I don't mean to say "minority" ownership. I look forward to the day when "minority" ownership returns to its pure, Econ 101 meaning -- when it refers only to someone who owns a portion of any given team that is less than a 50-percent stake.

    As human beings, homo sapiens, people, we all are individual, discrete. We all have our own talents, hopes, dreams, rights and responsibilities under law and the U.S. Constitution, none of which should be rescinded or restrained except by our own individual talents, our conduct, and work ethic.

    Total Ownership means everyone who participates in a meaningful percentage in a labor force is involved at all other levels, including majority individual team ownership, under the industry umbrella of Sports In America. Why is this important? That's our destination.

    First, the journey.

    ***

    When I began in sports journalism back in the late '70s as an off-shoot of the greater, growing industry of Sports In America, the landscape was different than it is today. I was considered by some to be a second-wave pioneer; to others, a nuisance. Luckily, I was oblivious to this history and currency, and it did not hinder me en route to later understanding. This was due to the good graces of the caretakers of The Oakland Tribune.

    This might seem ironic, since I was a child of the Southern style of racial segregation and no doubt was nave on certain levels because of it; and The Oakland Tribune had been historically a conservative, if not stiffly arch-conservative, newspaper. But such is the stuff, value and utter nonsense of most political affiliations. They really mean nothing -- not to an individual life -- unless they happen to stunt it. They help people get elected, or become rich, by espousing certain popular views. They move units. But they don't stop life.

    And life is progress. People who stand still are lost. Being blissfully ignorant of these and most other facts did not hinder me at all from applying for work as a copyboy. Neither, in the end, did it keep me from getting hired, nor did it taint the tuna fish sandwiches I brought from the small cantina across 13th Street for the lunch of Joe Knowland, heir to The Oakland Tribune.

    Mostly, I showed up, and kept showing up. The caretaker editors of The Oakland Tribune, though they may have argued the wisdom of their decision, decided my good outweighed my bad. The Tribune was a small metropolitan daily which happened to cover five pro teams, three of which were stationed within a five-mile drive of the newspaper offices -- the Oakland A's and San Francisco Giants, the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers, and the Golden State Warriors -- as well as Stanford, Cal, St. Mary's, Santa Clara, San Jose State and USF college sports teams.

    Jack McKeon
    Long before Jack McKeon won the World Series with the Marlins, he wasn't real happy with something Ralph wrote.

    There were a number of editors who helped me go from fetching tuna sandwiches to eating them. I recall the names even today: Roy Grimm and Fred Dickey; and the sports editors, George Ross, and then Bob Valli. They were all "white," -- and all men, actually -- and, to a man, they were all encouraging. Mr. Ross pointed out articles in The Atlantic Monthly or Sports Illustrated, saying, "This is you," and telling me about James Beckwourth, an 18th-century frontiersman of African, European and indigenous blood who found the pass through the Sierras. George said Beckwourth might make a good story for me one day.

    Or he'd just tell me of his fondness for the amazing abilities of Willie Mays, and also of his understanding of Mays, though many of Ross's contemporaries had a lesser opinion of Mays's persona. He was a noted sourpuss (see Bonds, Barry, and Williams, Ted, etc.). These editors helped give me what one needs to progress. Often, that is perspective.

    All this, because I had been allowed to write a story about Julius Erving joining the 76ers for the merger of the ABA and the NBA. This was for the Trib's season-opening NBA package, the season after the Warriors won their first and only NBA title, in 1975.

    Bob Valli would today be seen by anti-affirmative types, black and white, as controversial, if not notorious. He liked me. Or, rather, he liked what I wrote. Simple as that. So he took me -- a tyro, this naf, with my small helmet of an afro and my sporadic facial hair and a wardrobe out of Levi-Strauss and some T-shirt factory -- and set me forth upon the sports world as a member of the Fourth Estate. After a suitable period cityside, covering the courthouse, night cophouse, city council meetings, retirement dinners, and bureaus, he brought me into Sports and sent me first to the New Oakland Boxing Club, and eventually to all the big-money fights in Vegas.

    He sent me to cover the Raiders, at first caddying for Tommy LaMarre, and then the 49ers. He sent me to cover USF basketball, Cal football, and Stanford, after John Elway arrived. He gave me the Giants' beat, where I became a card-carrying member of the BBWAA and learned the peculiar rhythms of 162 big-league games. He sent me on the road with the Oakland A's when Ron Bergman or Tom Weir needed a break. "Perilous Travels With Charlie" read the first headline after I wrote about a charter bus ride between Chicago and Milwaukee that occurred after the A's lost both ends of a double-dip on my first roadie. Jack McKeon was the manager, chief cook and bottle washer for that team. He said, "You can't write about that!" but Valli seemed happy that I had. Let it be said that Trader Jack didn't say, "You can't write!" He said, "You can't write about that!"

    Big difference.

    ***

    The game was changing. I was already part of it. And Charlie Finley, sitting with his arms imperiously crossed across his chest behind home plate at Comiskey Park and whistling "Camptown Races" past the graveyard as I interviewed him, could not stop the brave new world from progressing on. Behind two other editors named Henry Freeman and Bob Maynard, I ended up writing a column, as a columnist, about Finley's departure from baseball some three years later.

    Finley sold out to the Haas family, of Levi-Strauss ownership fame. They were a pleasant -- I almost want to say normal -- family: the father Walter, the son Wally, geeked as all get-out about this turn of events (the chance to own a team!) and the son-in-law Ron Eisenhardt, who I termed then and still think of now as "Iron Man." The Levi-Strauss company itself was no longer the singular beneficiary of my new wardrobe budget.

    Lenny Wilkens
    Lenny Wilkens, current coach of the Knicks, won an NBA championship coaching the Sonics.

    At this stage, in my memory, not only were black and brown and female and Latino and Asian sports journalists rare, there simply were no black general managers or player personnel directors in football, or baseball, or basketball; and damned few head coaches.

    It wasn't a question of having representative numbers. It was a question of having one number -- one who'd show how smart it was in the long run.

    I "covered" Al Attles of the Golden State Warriors, one of the first black head coaches. Actually, Al "covered" me, blessed me with decades of wisdom and knowledge. Al Attles was a gentleman of boundless good will and enthusiasm; he was glad to see me, happy to help me along my way in the craft. The Warriors won the NBA title in 1975 with Al as head coach. Following Bill Russell's title in 1969 as player-coach, Al was the second black man to coach a world title.

    Three years after that, Lenny Wilkens won one with the Sonics. Soft-spoken Bill Lucas briefly held a position of authority with the Atlanta Braves, a nebulous combination of personnel guru and GM without contract green-lighting powers. He died too young.

    NFL head coach or coordinator ... wasn't even a consideration. Frank Robinson became the Cleveland Indians bench manager during the mid-'70s. On June 30, 1978, Larry Doby became the second black baseball manager, taking over the White Sox at the behest of a progressive owner named Bill Veeck -- the same progressive owner who'd also hired both Doby and Paige in the first place back in 1948, once the reasonableness and profitability of that process had been initiated by Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey under the aegis of Happy Chandler, commissioner of baseball.

    I recently had dinner in the company of Bud Selig, who has continued a progressive tradition in his term as commissioner. History will remember him better than his current notices, moreso if the team his family owns, the Milwaukee Brewers, sells to an African-American majority ownership interest.

    That is not necessarily up to him, but to the marketplace. Still, that transaction would join the Hispanic/Latino majority ownership of the Anaheim Angels as occurring on his watch as commissioner; and would make baseball the organizational model of full participation at all levels within the industry -- except player agents.

    Throughout the early days of my own career, I got some interesting reactions to my own modest yet undeniable place in the Sports in America spectrum -- reactions that do not go well here. By the time I got to SI in 1982, reactions were sometimes tempered by the clout of the organization I represented. I was Ralph Wiley of Sports Illustrated. Big difference. Whatever negative reaction might have been, whatever joke might have been told, was held in abeyance, caught in the throat of the person being dragged into the future.

    Didn't make much sense to joke about someone who could then cut you a new one in print. In fact, I might not have been able to do that, or have even been inclined to do that; but that didn't stop the possibility.

    Possibility is what's important, not the day-to-day fact of life at a magazine, or a network, or a pro team, or a league. Day-to-day sausage-making is not always a pretty sight. Progress is not a pretty sight at first, although some of the vistas are breathtaking. I know I've often thought of James Beckwourth during these years.

    In time, people in and out of the industry got used to me being here, part of the growth of the fabric of my part of the industry, and of the industry itself. I did several things within it, things you might say hadn't been done before. Some might not have liked it. Some of them do not like it still -- maybe even you; or, if not you, then someone you know. But all these people within the range of even my limited influence know that their scope has been broadened. If they don't know this, at least they're easy to spot.

    Dr. Martin Luther King
    What would Dr. Martin Luther King think of the current state of Sports In America?

    All this has been my long-winded way of making the point that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. made long ago: If you integrate Education, and Media, everything else will follow. People doing the things they have the passion and capacity to do will no longer be seen as strange, or deviant, or somehow lessening the quality of production or society. In fact, production increases due to increased competition and ingenuity -- unless you think it was an accident that SI won four or five Magazine of the Year awards during my time there, or that Raghib Ismail made out like a bandit and ushered in the area of NFL-style free agency, limited though it be.

    Not that I was responsible for all of this. But I was part of the process. So new things were invented. New processes and ideas and access points were unveiled. This is the essence of progress.

    The delivery of information has gotten better, and data itself is more in-depth, complete, intuitive, entertaining. The games have gotten faster; the athletes bigger, stronger and faster; the industry itself has become a giant, and not simply "the toy factory." FAO Schwarz might be going out of business, but the NFL is in no danger of that. And despite their problems, neither is the NBA, NHL or MLB. And I happen to believe this is no accident. The trick is not to stagnate.

    Sports has become America's next great pseudo-manufacturing base. What is it that we make better than everybody? Spectacle.

    Everything has gotten better in my 25 years in sports, at least along these social and production lines. Except this: total ownership. That filters down to everything -- to the attitudes of the labor force itself, which can see who has been shut out of the owners' suites, and which may somehow take that to mean a black coach is not to be respected as much as a white coach. There are 100 similar dilemmas that hide under the umbrella: What's Wrong With the Lack of Ownership Picture? That's the part of the picture that Sports World can, and must, address.

    ***

    To not progress in the area of individual team ownership, within the umbrella of all the leagues, would be hypocrisy. There have been fits and starts. In the NFL, Brown U. dropout Fritzie Pollard had a sort of deal with the Canton team where he player-coached. That didn't last long; it was a simple aberration. Nothing since, not so much as a head coach until maverick owner Al Davis (who leveraged his way into an NFL ownership position not through acquired wealth, but with acumen and the ability to make himself essential to a team and half the league) hired the first "black" head coach, modern era. This was Art Shell, and as recent as 1989.

    Ten years before that, Davis, for all his faults and litigious nature, had hired the first Hispanic-American NFL head coach, Tom Flores. Perhaps Davis understood, and was not bound by any unseemly -- indeed, ungodly and pernicious -- tenets of any exclusive Masters-like social Club.

    Art Shell
    Art Shell, leading the Raiders back in 1989.

    There is a long history of pro baseball ownership, notably in the Negro National League (founded 1920) of Rube Foster; but that history deserves its own telling. It petered out in the late '50s, with the final and complete integration of the big leagues.

    In hindsight, merging the Kansas City Monarchs and Homestead Grays into the league along with select players might have been a good idea. But I suppose you have to crawl before you walk and sit, and I suppose you have to be noticed and appreciated before you are asked to dance.

    There was a brief ownership position by African-Americans of the Denver Nuggets in the '80s; didn't last long because the GM of said team, who happened not to be African-American, signed a player on his way out to a massive contract. Peter Bynoe, the minority owner, then tried to talk to this player and his reps about re-doing the contract. They nearly fell down laughing. Nothing bad ever happened to the general manager in question, at least not relative to that ill-advised contract. At any rate, the minority owner decided this was a good time to get out. Nothing wrong with that. None of this has any real permanence, in terms of individuals. Owners, like coaches and players, will come and go in the end; things progress.

    Once everybody is in the tent, at all levels of competition, the reality changes. It can be as simple as a joke that goes from being laughed at because it's so "true" to being unacceptable because it's so stupid. Not only do certain jokes become unacceptable, but also certain automatic whining about a perceived lack of opportunity or racism become unacceptable, too. The industry becomes what the on-field reality of sports always claimed to be: a true meritocracy.

    That's a fitting legacy for Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, for Bill Veeck and Larry Doby. Hell, for that matter, for Bob Valli and Ralph Wiley. And more, too many to list -- you and somebody you know, maybe, someone who helped you realize your legacy: a legacy that all of us, man, woman, black, white, brown, share in the panorama of American sports. Not in some distant future, but here, and now.

    Ralph Wiley has written articles for Sports Illustrated, Premiere, GQ, and National Geographic, and many national newspapers. He was one of the original NFL Insiders on NBC. His many books include "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir," "Why Black People Tend To Shout," "By Any Means Necessary: The Trials and Tribulations of the Making of Malcolm X" with Spike Lee, "Dark Witness," "Best Seat in the House" with Spike Lee, "Born to Play" with Eric Davis, and "Growing Up King" with Dexter Scott King and the children of Martin Luther King Jr. He contributes to many ESPN productions, and bats cleanup on a weekly basis for Page 2.




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    Ralph
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    GAINING ON A LEGACY