Ozzie Virgil, Sr. in 1977 became the first Black major league third base coach, one of baseball’s on-field “thinking positions” like pitcher and catcher, or in the dugout, such as manager, pitching coach and bench coach.
A 2010 New York Times analysis found that the disparity of Black third base coaches, then at 23 percent, compared to Black first base coaches (67 percent), was “almost twice as large as it was in 1990.”
The third base coach is the “traffic cop” on the field — he decides whether or not to send a runner home as he reaches third. He also relays dugout signs and signals to the batter and the runner at second or third.
“It is a very important person on your ball club,” noted Dave Dombrowski, now the president of baseball operations for the Boston Red Sox, who talked to the MSR earlier this season. Asked if the third base coach also serves as a grooming platform for future major league managers, Dombrowkski admitted, “[They] have been the main spots if you are likely to promote” to manager..
MLB this season has only three Black third base coaches, and less than 30 Blacks are coaches, including Butch Davis with the Minnesota Twins. Why are there more Black first base coaches than third base coaches? Dombrowski really couldn’t say.
Sadly, no one closely associated with baseball wants to talk about race in baseball, especially in hiring coaches and managers. On hiring third base coaches, Dombrowski said, “You have to make sure the manager has a lot of trust in that guy.”
“I think there is a good-old-boy network,” stated Yahoo! Sports Reporter Gary Washburn when asked by the MSR last month at the NABJ convention in Minneapolis.
“These jobs are coveted jobs, and guys usually take care of their buddies,” noted Detroit sports radio host Rob Parker, a longtime baseball writer.
Furthermore, the third base coach is often the target of media and fan criticism, especially if a runner gets thrown out at home. The affable Al Newman too often drew the ire of local sports talk callers whenever a Twins runner failed to safely cross the plate when he was the Twins’ third base coach (2002-2005). The team hasn’t had a Black coach there since.
Dombrowski agreed that the public blaming of the third base coach by both media and fans “does happen, but it doesn’t happen too often… It’s a tough spot,” he said.
Rarer yet than a Black coaching at third is a Black pitching coach. David Price, now a Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher, told the MSR he hasn’t had one since he joined the majors in 2008. “I don’t know of any Black pitching coach,” he admitted.
“Al Downing was a pitching coach at one time, but that was a long time ago,” recalled Parker. “Bob Gibson was a pitching coach, too.”
Black bench coaches in the majors? “I covered the Orioles and knew the late Elrod Hendricks very well,” added Washburn. “He never got promoted. He lived [as] a bullpen coach and died a bullpen coach.”
“It’s judgmental racism, and that’s what disturbs me about MLB,” said Washburn. “Baseball has to be more open-minded about its hiring practices and take chances.”
“I’m sure that will change at some point,” concluded Price. “I don’t have an answer for it.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.