The Jackie Robinson Of The Front Office?

In the spring of 1947, eight-year-old Joel I. Ferguson joined neighbors packed into the small living room of a two-story wooden house in Lansing, Mich. He was watching the World Series on one of the few television sets in the neighborhood, and what he saw he would never forget: Bat in hand, Jackie Robinson, Major League Baseball's first black player, stepped to the plate against the Yankees.

A bum arm and the inability to hit the curve foiled little Joe's dream of following Robinson into the bigs. But 45 years later, Ferguson has a shot at a first of another sort. He's bidding to buy a controlling stake in the Detroit Tigers. If he can ink a deal with current owner and Domino's Pizza king Tom Monaghan, Ferguson will do with a pen what Robinson did with a bat: break the color barrier in an all-white club.

OLD BOYS. Today, the clubhouses of Major League Baseball are thoroughly integrated. A black man, Bill White, is president of the National League, and minorities filled 16% of front-office positions in major-league clubs in 1991, up from 2% in 1987, according to Major League Baseball. But there are no black club presidents or general managers--or, of course, owners.

The Tigers would be a prime candidate to break baseball's last color bar. The team has been on the market since January, when Monaghan announced his wish to sell most of his holdings. He bought the Tigers for $53 million in 1983 and is asking at least $100 million, which is considerably higher than the team's estimated value of $83.6 million. Ferguson refuses to jump into a bidding war but says he's prepared to pay Monaghan's asking price.

The two other likely bidders for the team, Edsel Ford II and Keith E. Crain, a scion of the Crain Communications Inc. fortune, epitomize the old-boy network. Both have spoken publicly about having wanted to own a baseball franchise since they were young boys. Joel had different childhood goals. "When I was a kid," he says, "I just wanted be able to afford a hot dog at the game."

Ferguson declines to estimate his net worth, but clearly, today he could buy franks for the whole stadium. Nonetheless, Ferguson says that Monaghan hasn't treated him as a serious bidder. When Ferguson asked to review the Tigers' financial package, Monaghan stalled, explaining that the data wouldn't be ready for another two weeks. But by that time, the package had been in Ford's hands for two months. Then, Monaghan asked Ferguson for information on his personal finances. Ford, who faces no such requirement, told the local press that "maybe the name helps." Crain declined to comment on the status of his bid, and Monaghan's camp didn't reply to requests for an interview.

Judging from his past, Ferguson isn't likely to get discouraged. He started out in the early 1960s tossing steel at the local Oldsmobile plant while attending Michigan State University. But rather than become the first black foreman, and the only one with a college degree, Ferguson moved on to become athletic director at a neighborhood park. He says it was an insult for Oldsmobile to offer him a job that required a bachelor's degree from a black man but not a white one. He then gained prominence as a local spokesman during the racial unrest of the 1960s and was elected Lansing's first black city council member in 1967.

While cutting his teeth in politics, Ferguson was also learning about real estate. He swung his first deal in 1969, borrowing $121,000 to buy a property and reselling it for $360,000 the same day. From there he built a string of low-cost apartments and senior citizen developments. Strong demand for both types of housing--and a close relationship with the Michigan State Housing & Development Authority--have enabled him to weather the real estate bust. "He's a good systems guy," says Paul V. Gentilozzi, a Lansing developer. "Joel gets a quick grasp of how the system works."

He has stayed involved with the local community, founding a bank and the first ABC-TV affiliate in Lansing. He lost a bid for mayor in 1973 and managed Jesse Jackson's upset victory in the 1988 Michigan Democratic Presidential primary.

Ferguson has already thought about how he would promote the Tigers, which, despite ranking 20th out of 26 teams in ticket sales, eked out a $5.1 million profit last year. Since black attendance at Tiger Stadium has been comparatively low, he would begin marketing directly to African-Americans, in part by urging players to take a more active role in community projects. In that, he might get help from a famous Michigander: Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who is rumored to be joining Ferguson in his bid.

Baseball's hierarchy claims to be neutral on Ferguson. Says Stephen D. Greenberg, deputy commissioner of Major League Baseball: "If those owners are black or brown or whatever, it won't make a difference." But to someone who grew up admiring Jackie Robinson the pioneer, being the first black to join baseball's most exclusive club would make quite a difference.

      1939, Lansing, Mich.
      BA, elementary education, 1965, Michigan State
      President and co-owner of F&S Development Co. and First Housing Corp., Lansing. 
      Companies own or operate over 5,000 housing units and office buildings in 
      Owner of WLAJ-TV (Channel 53), Lansing's first ABC network affiliate
      Founder of Capitol National Bank, Lansing
      Michigan Democratic Party officer; Michigan chairman, 1988 Jesse Jackson 
      campaign; the first black elected to Lansing City Council
      DATA: BW
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