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Nov 2, 2014

Remembering Al Campanis: Was Justice Done?

tags: Jackie Robinson;baseball; race; Al Campanis;Murray Polner

Remembering Al Campanis: Was Justice Done?

By Murray Polner


I often think of Al Campanis, a true baseball old-timer I knew, who was drummed out of the game he so loved in 1987 because of his thoughtless remark on “Nightline” TV about black players lacking “the necessities” to be managers or front office executives.  He’d been a Montreal Royal shortstop in 1946 playing alongside Jackie Robinson at second base, barnstormed off-season with a racially integrated squad, a Brooklyn Dodger scout who unearthed Roberto Clemente and Sandy Kourfax, and who reached the peak of his profession as General Manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and took them to four pennants and one World Series title. He even prevented a former black Dodger from killing himself. And then he was suddenly, abruptly, unexpectedly, and permanently blacklisted by a business, which until 1947 and Branch Rickey made a move, had barred black players.


In late 1987 or early 1988 Al Campanis phoned me.  Out of a job since that TV performance, he asked if I would help him write his autobiography. He had come to me, he said, because I’d written a biography of his former mentor and boss Branch Rickey. So, the next week I drove up the coast from Laguna Hills where I was living to Fullerton in Orange County in southern California where Al and his wife lived in a modest suburban home not far from Angels Stadium.


Born out of wedlock in 1916 in Kos, part of the Dodecanese Islands (once part of Italy but returned to Greece in 1947) Campanis and his mother arrived in the U.S. when he was six. He graduated from New York University, played football there though he loved baseball more, and then joined the Navy.  Once discharged, he began playing minor league baseball.


On five more occasions I drove north to Fullerton, where Al and other expatriate former Brooklyn Dodgers had moved in 1957 when Walter O’Malley kidnapped the team and moved to L.A.  (As the hoary joke among unrequited Brooklyn fans went and still goes: A diehard Brooklyn fan walks into a bar with a gun and sees Hitler, Stalin and O’Malley. Guess who he shoots?).


We talked and talked, drank coffee, ate sandwiches and sat around his comfortable but hardly luxurious kitchen, his wife always gone for the day. He was about 71 or 72, tall, agile, a still-vigorous, handsome, if aging athlete with a commanding, “I’m the GM” tone. A man accustomed to lead, or so I thought when I first met him. He spoke quietly of his past, how Rickey taught him how to evaluate baseball players and the skills needed to build a successful ball club. He was especially proud of a small book he had composed detailing what he had learned and practiced, The Dodger Way to Play Baseball, and autographed a copy for me and offered me as well a signed photo of himself.  Looking back, I felt like a cub reporter, a feeling which gradually left me the more we met and talked. Before too long,. I could see the man was hurt, badly hurt.


On other days he was more relaxed, warmer, less interested in impressing me with his baseball past.  He wanted an honest book, he said over and again, one that told his life story good and bad. He proudly spoke of players, especially black ones, he had treated fairly and honorably, like Roy Campanella and of course Robinson, who he said  he taught various infield skills while playing together for the Dodger’s top farm club Montreal in the International League. He told me  how a deeply depressed John Roseboro, once a star catcher for the Dodgers,  tried to commit suicide in his office when Campanis somehow persuaded him to drop his gun. It was as if Al was asking me, desperately, how can anyone call me a racist or bigot?


He was in truth unhappy and wounded, profoundly regretful, and thoroughly crushed. “Even prisoners get parole or probation, don’t they?”  he blurted out one day, managing a feeble smile.  What was hardest for him was that he had mindlessly squandered what he treasured most in life: authority, companionship, responsibility, the respect of his beloved baseball community. The seasonal Chase. The Game.  He told me that soon after the “Nightline” debacle he appealed to Rachel Robinson for advice and she wisely, compassionately, told him, “Forget it, Al. Move on with your life.”.


In all our meetings he always returned to that late- night TV show in the vacant Houston Astrodome, where he expected to join Don Newcombe, the black ex- pitcher-- who never appeared because his flight had been cancelled due because of bad weather-- Roger Kahn of Boys of Summer fame, and Rachel Robinson to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the significance of her husband’s arrival and impact. While he was waiting , he told me he  kept staring into the dark screen of a camera, far from the producer in New York and interviewer Ted Koppel in Maryland.  


And then it came: Koppel lobbed him a softball asking why there were virtually no black managers, front office executives or owners, and whether racial bias was widespread in baseball. His convoluted answer would follow him into his grave. “No, I don’t believe it’s prejudice. I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.” 


Al tried to explain to me how he only meant to refer to their lack of actual experience. But in truth many white managers have been employed without major league experience and some teams preferred filling their front office from their all-white, old boys roster of pals.  Nor did he consider the power of super-wealthy white owners, “Jock sniffers” in Robert Lipsyte biting, felicitous phrase, who had often inherited or married into money and power. (“Behind every fortune there is a crime,” said Balzac, one of my favorites)  He was  certainly unaware of what Rev. Billy Kyles, a close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., meant when he told Tim Wendel in Summer of ‘68  that King and his best friends closely watched sports with “an historical eye.”


In our final meeting he told me he was initially blindsided by the question and became confused, unable to respond sensibly. No, he hadn’t been drinking though he may have been feeling sickly. And no,  Ted  Koppel had not been unfair. In parting that last day, I left believing that despite his stupid remark he was a proud and honorable man who had been badly treated by the pitiless world of professional baseball and its self-righteous moral (or amoral?) guardians.


He was forced to resign and would never again be hired to run a baseball team despite accolades from black players, managers and others who knew him. Nor for that matter, would the brainy, courageous Robinson who was treated just as ruthlessly, never hired for any job in baseball, leading him to look elsewhere and forced to serve as a GM for the New York Stars, a minor league Continental League football  team who played under a bridge on an island off Manhattan to meager crowds.


Dusty Baker, the African American manager and former Dodger outfielder, said, "You hate that any man's career is ruined in a couple of minutes. What he said was wrong, but he was always cool to minorities when I was there, especially the Latin players, and the blacks.”  Harry Edwards, a sociologist at Berkeley and a civil rights activist, worked with Campanis after “Nightline.” On ESPN’s  “Outside the Lines” documentary he explained, “It wasn’t a simple case of Al being a bigot — to say he was just a bigot is simply wrong—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 with that culture. And at another level, it was a form of discourse he was embedded in.”


It’s an old American temptation.  Punish the words, not the deeds. Don Imus, Andy Rooney, Jesse Jackson and Rush Limbaugh spring to mind. Some like Imus and Rooney didn’t suffer too much and managed to recover. Jesse Jackson and his “Hymietown” remark faded and he’s carried on in Washington. Rush Limbaugh lost lots of advertisers (temporarily) while keeping his many radio outlets and millions of loyal fans. And according to Larry Elder in Jewish World Review, even Harry Truman in his correspondence once called New York “Kiketown”. Richard Nixon couldn’t stand Jews – except, maybe, Henry Kissinger-- and told his tape recorder all about it, but he survived his foul mouth and anti-Semitism—Watergate and his resignation is another matter.


So I ask years after his death: Should  Al Campanis have been pilloried and permanently blacklisted for one blunder? Or did white fear of being branded bigots allow groupthink to take over?  In 1987, five managers and eight general managers or team presidents were hired, none of them black. Someone had to shoulder the blame for baseball’s  institutionalized racism. Al Campanis was the perfect scapegoat.


He died in 1998, but his life was effectively over in 1987. His punishment never fit the crime. He should have been suspended and then allowed to return to work. Baseball owes him a belated apology.


His autobiography was never written.








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