East Bay woman was a pioneer in professional baseball with the Oakland A's
- June 15, 2012
Looking at the dignified woman in the tailored skirt holding court in her El Cerrito living room, it's hard to believe anyone would dare to utter a racial slur in her presence -- or send her hate mail for revealing that the owner of a major league baseball team had done so.
But that's what happened to Sharon Jones when the then-Oakland A's executive assistant handled a conference call with 26 team owners for her boss in 1987 -- only to overhear Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott say that she, Schott, would "rather have a trained monkey" working for her than an African American.
Only Schott didn't say "African American." She used the N-word.
"The other owners gasped and the call went dead silent," recalled Jones, who was one of the first African American women to hold an executive position in major league baseball, working for the A's from 1980 to 1992. "They had all met me, so they knew what she (Schott) had done."
Shocked and hurt, Jones kept calm nevertheless, simply saying, "Mrs. Schott, I'm Sharon Jones and I'm still holding the line."
Jones' boss, Roy Eisenhardt, then-president of the A's, then came on the call. Jones had been holding the telephone for Eisenhardt while he tended to some last-minute business.
The phone call was not a one-time lapse. At one time, Schott had the worst front office hiring record for people of color in baseball, according to The New York Times.The Reds' former marketing director, Cal Levy, said in a deposition that Schott had used the N-word to describe two of her players. In 1992, she was quoted in The New York Times as saying her use of the word was "a joke."
After the conference call, Jones blew the whistle on Schott -- a move that eventually helped oust the Reds owner. Despite the resulting storm of publicity and criticism -- Jones received some 75 letters, as well as death threats, and innumerable articles were written -- Jones didn't back down. Schott ended up getting a $25,000 fine, a suspension for the 1993 season and mandatory multicultural training.
Jones' stand against racism was perhaps the first major flaw in Schott's armor. Despite the lesson of the $25,000 fine, in a May 1996 ESPN interview Schott continued to spew offensive remarks. She said of Hitler, "Everything you read, when he came in he was good."
Later that month, Sports Illustrated quoted Schott as saying she didn't like it when Asian-American high school students "come here, honey, and stay so long and then outdo our kids. That's not right."
In 1996, baseball's executive council ordered Schott to give up day-to-day operation of the Reds to avoid a long suspension, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported. In 1998, Schott sold her controlling share of the team. The Enquirer summed it up in a headline: "Insensitivity defined reign over Reds -- and ended it."
How did Jones develop the strength to stand firm in the storm that followed her whistle-blowing? She gives major credit to two factors: Her education at Oakland's Mills College and her seven brothers.
"I'm the tenth of 10," said Jones, as her granddaughter Elizabeth Dominguez worked on a three-foot-tall red, white and blue Lego tower on the coffee table. Jones's rescue dog Diamond, a brown and white terrier mix, cuddled next to her on the couch.
"I've always been the type to stand up," she said. "I had these brothers who protected me. Plus, I was used to being around men and holding my own."
This characteristic made itself known early on. As a youngster, she heard that baseball great Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play baseball in the major leagues, was visiting the family next door. It was 1966.
"I had no idea who he was, but I could see the men were impressed," said Jones. "We weren't invited, but I walked right up to the door and knocked. When I came in, Jackie said, 'Let the girl have a seat.'
"His hands were huge. When we shook hands, mine disappeared in his," Jones said.
Jones' early training was reinforced at Mills, a women's college known for producing leaders like U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, and pioneering broadcaster Renel Brooks-Moon.
"The motto there is, 'Know who you are and who you represent,' " Jones said. "At Mills we were taught to speak up and not just sit in the back," an image that evokes another soft-spoken African American woman who refused to accept discrimination, Rosa Parks.
After graduating, Jones continued knocking on doors. When she heard that Walter A. Haas, Jr. was negotiating to buy the A's, she sent him a letter explaining how she could use her connections in the community to increase attendance and awareness of the team. Impressed, Haas snapped her up.
Jones said she was his first official A's employee, even before any player transactions.
Her experience with the rough-and-tumble of seven brothers stood her in good stead during Jones' many seasons with the A's.
"Billy Martin had a mouth on him. He was a terror. He didn't back down, even with the millionaires. He had huge fights with George Steinbrenner," Jones said. "I learned a lot from Billy."
She proudly displays her World Series ring. "They wanted to give me a girl's ring, but I said no, I want a regular ring, a man's ring."
Eisenhardt described his former employee as "wonderful."
"She always handled herself with dignity, very much so," said the former president of the Oakland Athletics, a San Francisco resident. "She was very professional in her manner. When I came on the phone that day, I had no idea anything was amiss."
Eisenhardt said he was shocked when Jones told him what Schott had said. By the time Jones went public, Eisenhardt had left the A's, but he said he was completely supportive of her decision.
"It made a positive contribution to the sport of baseball," Eisenhardt said. "It's events like this, when the facts come to light, that cause behavioral change. If the facts don't come to light, people don't change. I am very proud of Sharon."
Like the slightly built Rosa Parks, Jones does not necessarily come across as a crusader. When granddaughter Elizabeth grabbed her dog, Jones softly cautioned her, "Now, be gentle with Diamond."
Earlier, a reporter was asked by Jones if it had been a long journey to the El Cerrito home she shares with her husband Terry Jones, a professor emeritus in social work at Cal State East Bay.
Not surprisingly, Jones doesn't revel in Schott's downfall. She is simply glad to have helped move the sport of baseball in the right direction.
"(Schott's racism) still hurt, but on the other hand, justice was served," Jones said. "They held her feet to the fire and people learned they couldn't speak that way."