How MLB Stays White

The Milwaukee Brewers' rapid hiring of Craig Counsell raises a fresh round of questions about diversity in MLB and why it remains an unsolved problem.

|
May 7 2015, 1:35pm

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

When the Milwaukee Brewers hired Craig Counsell as the team's new manager on Monday, it hardly came as a surprise. Already a "special assistant" to the club's general manager, Counsell spent six of his 16 professional playing seasons in Milwaukee, was a fan favorite and attended high school in a nearby suburb. His father once worked for the Brewers' front office.

In fact, reports of Counsell's hiring were flying across Twitter within an hour of the team's Sunday dismissal of previous manager Ron Roenicke, who led Milwaukee to a Major League Baseball-worst 5-17 record in April. And none of that would be a problem, except for this: Milwaukee's seemingly non-existent managerial search means the club almost certainly violated the league's "Selig Rule," which mandates that teams consider minority candidates for all prominent front office positions, including manager.

Read More: Remembering the Worst Attended MLB Game of All-Time

Is Counsell the right man for the job? Time will tell. Is he someone the Brewers have pegged as a future skipper for some time? Sure looks that way. Does the team ultimately have the right to hire whomever it wants? Of course. That said, Milwaukee shouldn't be ignoring—or paying lip service to—a league rule designed to increase minority involvement in baseball, especially when that rule only exists because of the sport's lamentable track record of including Latinos and African-Americans among its decision-makers.

When MLB enacted the Selig Rule in 1999, just over three percent of the league's front office employees were women or minorities. The post-Selig Rule MLB has been much more diverse—over 20 percent of front office workers were women or minorities as of 2013. That's the good news, and real progress. The bad news? Those sorts of gains haven't been mirrored among managers and general managers.

Craig Counsell (right) at the announcement of his hiring. Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Fact: with Counsell replacing Roenicke, the number of white MLB managers remains steady at 28. Atlanta's Fredi Gonzalez is the only Latino manager in the game, and Seattle's Lloyd McClendon is the only African-American. These men are members of groups that make up 28.4 percent and 8.2 percent of the league's players, respectively. Meanwhile, Philadelphia's Ruben Amaro Jr., Arizona's Dave Stewart, and Los Angeles's Farhan Zaidi are the only minority GMs.

A lack of dugout and hot stove diversity doesn't mean MLB is full of black-hearted racists. But it does suggest that a long legacy of racism and segregation within baseball—and within America, for that matter—still works against qualified minority candidates. How so? Consider this: Counsell joins a group of recently retired white players who were hired as managers despite or no previous managing or coaching experience, a group that includes Detroit's Brad Ausmus, Tampa Bay's Kevin Cash, Minnesota's Paul Molitor, Washington's Matt Williams, St. Louis's Mike Matheny and Colorado's Walt Weiss.

Like Counsell, most of those men occupied "special adviser"-type roles in their respective organizations before being entrusted with lineup cards. They were placed on the track toward positions of power, sometimes before the ink had even dried on their retirement papers. By contrast, Black and Latino managers often must work through the various levels of the minor leagues before even receiving a big league job interview.

McClendon spent four years as hitting coach in Pittsburgh before his first managing job in 2000, and had a combined 17 years of coaching and managing experience on his resume when the Mariners hired him in 2013. There were two other African-American managers in MLB last season—Houston's Bo Porter and Texas's Ron Washington—and both had similar career trajectories. Porter spent his first two post-retirement years coaching in the minors before becoming a third-base coach with the Marlins in 2007, and served various bench roles in Arizona and Washington before Houston named him manager of a doomed, tanking 100-loss team in 2013. Washington spent five years coaching the New York Mets' minor leaguers and a decade manning various base-coaching jobs before Texas hired him as manager in 2007.

Why the discrepancies? Individual circumstances always play a role. On a macro level, however, it helps to understand baseball's past—and the culture the men making hiring decisions in today's game were steeped in. Dave Ritterpusch, Baltimore's scouting director from 1973 to 1976, talked about what drove baseball decisions in Kevin Kerrane's 1981 book on scouting, Dollar Sign on the Muscle. Discussing why Baltimore made what was then seen as a risky pick in future Hall of Fame first baseman Eddie Murray, Ritterpusch said, "I think most scouts, when they judge makeup, tend to value kids who remind them of themselves when they were players—and that's why you run into problems when white scouts look at black prospects." Ritterpusch then described how a number of white scouts—96 percent of the profession at the time, according to Kerrane—read Murray's calm, cool disposition as lazy and "lackadaisical," rather than in control.

As a result of these cultural biases, many of them unwitting, Murray fell to the third round of the 1973 MLB Draft. The Orioles eagerly snapped him up.

A statue of Eddie Murray outside Camden Yards. Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

Move forward to 1987. During an infamous interview on ABC's Nightline, Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis said of African-Americans in baseball, "It's just that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager." Campanis was swiftly fired by the Dodgers, but his comments raised the question of just how many people in baseball—and people with the power to make hiring and firing decisions, as Campanis did—agreed with his sentiments.

Campanis was remorseful, and it became clear his comments were more about ignorance than hatred. "It wasn't a simple case of Al being a bigot—to say he was just a bigot is simply wrong," Dr. Harry Edwards, a black sociologist and prominent activist who worked with MLB following Campanis's remarks, told ESPN's Outside the Lines in 2012. "People are more complex than that. To a certain extent, it was the culture Al was involved with. To a certain extent, it was a comfort within that culture. And at another level, it was a form of discourse he was embedded in."

Campanis spent his entire life embedded in that culture: he signed an amateur contract with the Dodgers as a 23-year-old in 1940, and worked for the organization until his Nightline gaffe 47 years later. It's hard to imagine that his bias against African-Americans with regards to managerial "necessities" was simply a stupid idea bouncing around in his head, and not something shared by his similarly-situated peers. A number of the interviews in Dollar Sign on the Muscle suggest Campanis wasn't an outsider, including one with former Orioles executive Jim McLaughlin, who notes that "at one time it was conventional wisdom that a black kid couldn't become a successful big-league pitcher because he wouldn't have any guts when he came to the mound."

Again, I want to be clear: there's no evidence that MLB teams are overtly racist. The sport is long removed from the bigoted era of owners like Tom Yawkey and Bob Carpenter, whose Red Sox and Phillies didn't integrate until over a decade after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. I don't believe that Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin was out to perpetuate racial injustice when he saw Counsell and thought, "this is my manager of the future," nor do I think that suspect motives were behind the Cardinals tabbing Matheny or the Rockies selecting Weiss. However, I do think that baseball's past influences its present; that the Campanis generation mentored the mentors of today's executives; and that a long history of lily-white front offices and baseball culture seeing minorities as second-rate minds has placed Latino and African-American managerial candidates at a systemic disadvantage. In baseball terms, they're looking at two strikes, while their white peers are starting on second base. That's the inequity the Selig Rule seeks to redress, and that's why following it to a "T"—even when you're absolutely, positively going to hire Craig Counsell anyway—is so important.

The Selig Rule, or similar policies like the NFL's Rooney Rule, don't guarantee immediate employment for minorities in positions of power. Nor should they. They're not intended to act as quotas. They're intended to open doors. To put a greater number of people on the managerial track. The Brewers could easily have brought in a Black or Latino candidate for an interview with no intention of hiring them over Counsell, and we would still be in the same situation, with 28 out of 30 managers being white. In baseball, as it is nearly everywhere else, people are going to hire their friends, hire the people they know, and hire people they have track records with. And that's okay. Baseball's history means those people are going to be overwhelmingly white. When followed and properly enforced, the Selig Rule means those same people will be a little less so.

Suppose you're a GM. Or a team owner. How do you get to know a minority candidate? Become friends? Develop a track record? It helps when said candidate is in the interview room, over and over, with multiple teams and decision-makers, gaining valuable exposure and experience. Consider new New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles, who went through six unsuccessful interviews with five different teams before landing the Jets job. John Wooten of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, a group monitoring the NFL's minority hiring practices, said of Bowles's winding path to head coaching, "It was frustrating, sure, for all of us. But over all, the process has to help him. After the last round, we talked about making some changes in his approach, and to his credit he did. He told me after his first interview with the Jets, he nailed it."

Baseball's history, culture and demographics essentially guarantee that whites will have access to managerial jobs. And there's nothing wrong with that. But if MLB truly wants to be diverse, it will make sure that teams like the Brewers give minority candidates a chance in the interview room, too. The Selig Rule isn't an end; it's a means. A tool. Like a hammer. Put it in the hands of the right candidate, like Bowles, and they'll nail the rest.