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Jewish World Review March 25, 1999 /8 Nissan 5759

Larry Elder

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Joe D. and affirmative action

(JWR) ---- (
WHAT DO JOE DIMAGGIO and the new California affirmative action plan for colleges and universities have in common?

Before and after Joe DiMaggio's recent death, many called him the greatest ballplayer who ever lived. I dissent. No disrespect intended, for one can scarcely overstate DiMaggio's style, grace, elegance and accomplishment. But the greatest ballplayer ever? And I don't mean what about a Babe Ruth or a Rogers Hornsby or a Ty Cobb.

Here's the problem. These guys did not play against the best. Until 1947, the modern major leagues barred talented blacks and Latins from competing.

But black stars existed. They played, often under miserable field, hotel and travel conditions. For reasons having nothing whatever to do with their character or ability, "major league" baseball stopped them from displaying their talents before the widest possible audience and on the most important stage.

According to the Ken Burns PBS documentary on baseball, all-star players from the Negro leagues and from the major leagues played each other during so-called "barn-storming" tours. While records are sketchy, many say the Negro players more often than not bested their white counterparts.

The modern major league shutout of talented black and Latin ballplayers not only harmed the excluded players. This shutout hurt everybody -- the excluded, the included and the fans -- all of us.

Why shouldn't baseball place an asterisk next to Babe Ruth's 714 home runs? He never faced Satchel Paige, who, at an age well past his prime, finally got a shot at the major leagues. Paige pitched effectively, helping the 1948 Cleveland Indians to the World Series.

Until Rickey Henderson and Maury Wills came along, many consider Ty Cobb the best base stealer, having amassed 892 over a career that spanned 24 years. But tell me, was Ty Cobb the only fleet-footed ballplayer of his era?

How many records would a latter-day Lou Brock or Tim Raines steal against pitching devoid of black and Latin arms?

Which brings us to California Gov. Gray Davis' plan to admit the top 4 percent of grads at every state high school to one of the University of California's campuses. Diversity, you know.

What about merit? What about the unfairness of punishing a kid who falls below the 4 percent cutoff at an academically rigorous high school in favor of a top-4 percent-er at a school with lousy standards? Where is the pressure on the lousy school to improve if, irrespective of how badly teachers teach, how poorly administrators administer and how indifferently parents parent, the top 4 percent get a pass?

But we all pay for this. Corporations pay billions of dollars in remedial training expenses, making up for under-performing K-through-12 schools.

Davis' 4 percent plan removes yet another incentive on the part of these schools to clean up their act.

And of the kid who comes from a highly competitive academic school with high standards and exacting classes, California Gov. Davis effectively says, "Too bad." Years ago, the National Collegiate Athletic Association instituted minimum SAT test scores. A court recently overturned the NCAA's minimum standard rule, but black athletes did meet the standard. The decimation of the black collegiate athlete never occurred. The kids knew what they had to do and, surprise, surprise, did it.

Defenders of the governor's plan say that the plan helps poor whites, too. Oh. Guess it's OK for merit meltdown if white sub-performers benefit along with minority ones.

The laugher, at least in California, is that Asian students take the biggest hit through affirmative action. Asians outperform whites on standardized tests and hold huge pluralities at the leading California campuses.

Laws and policies that punish merit, however well-intended, ultimately hurt everybody. When you walk on a 747 and notice a female pilot, do you want someone who represents company diversity or a lady who aced the flight academy? When your mother has a heart attack and they wheel her on a gurney into the operating room, do you want a "diverse" group of doctors, nurses and other para-professionals, or do you want the best and most competent you can afford?

When President Clinton assumed office, he said he wanted a Cabinet that looked like America. Does the physics faculty at MIT look like America? Does the roster of the New York Knicks look like America? Do the leading players in the fashion business look like America? What does that mean? As long as the competition is fair and open, we all lose when we try to control the result.

Here's a better policy. How about a Clinton Cabinet that represents the best and brightest in America? Then, the prez could say about his Cabinet, as many have said about the great Joe DiMaggio, here, truly, was the best.

No asterisk necessary.


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©1999, Creators Syndicate