Insensitivity cost Campanis in ‘87

Ted Koppel: “Is there still that much prejudice in baseball today?”

Al Campanis: “I don’t believe it’s prejudice. I truly believe that [blacks] may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager.”

Koppel: “Do you really believe that?”

Campanis: “Well, I don’t say all of them, but they certainly are short. How many black players do you have? How many pitchers do you have that are black?”

With those words, unwittingly and dimwittedly spoken on ABC’s “Nightline,” Los Angeles Dodgers vice president Al Campanis effectively ended his own 40-year career in baseball on April 6, 1987. The following day, astounded by the firestorm he had started, Campanis apologized. One day after that, Dodgers president Peter O’Malley demanded and got his resignation.

Thus Campanis became part of an ongoing tendency by public figures to put one or both feet in their mouths and thereby end their own careers. A year later, bookmaker-turned-TV commentator Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder followed suit by observing in an interview on Washington’s WRC-TV that blacks made better athletes “because they were bred to be that way [during slavery].” In 1995, golf analyst Ben Wright spewed derogatory remarks about women golfers. CBS speedily fired both.

Campanis was born at a time (1916) when segregation, and often prejudice, was a way of life. Later in the Koppel interview, Campanis observed that blacks were not good swimmers “because they lack buoyancy.” In his mind, there was nothing insulting about such generalities.

In fact, Campanis, a teammate of the young Jackie Robinson, was widely known for having warm relationships with black and Hispanic players. As former star Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe told the Los Angeles Times years after the “Nightline” interview, “I don’t believe he has a prejudiced bone in his body. I don’t think [Robinson] would appreciate what happened to Al, because Al helped and befriended him. He would have just told Al, ‘You messed up, and you’ve got to apologize’ — and Al did apologize.”

But as former presidential candidate George Romney, Sen. Trent Lott, Sen. George Allen and countless others could attest, once an injudicious remark is out there, it’s out there.

How strongly did some individuals and organizations object to Campanis’ comments? Well, a year later, when the Seattle Mariners reportedly were about to hire him as a consultant, the Seattle chapter of the NAACP threatened to picket or boycott games. The Mariners swiftly backed off.

Mike Littwin of the Rocky Mountain News described the situation well when Campanis died in 1998 at age 81: “Al Campanis was a very nice man, even a sweet man, but also a flawed man who made one colossal mistake that would come to define him forevermore.”

In a list of what it called “worst cases of foot-in-mouth,” ESPN.com ranked Campanis at the top — ahead of Bobby Knight saying in an interview with Connie Chung, “If rape is inevitable, relax and enjoy it,” and Cincinnati Reds owner Marge Schott blathering that Adolf Hitler “was good in the beginning, but he went too far.”

Or, in a much less important category, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Chuck Dressen’s ungrammatical bleat at midseason 1951 that “the Giants is dead.” (For further information, see Thomson, Bobby, and Branca, Ralph.)

Campanis was, and deserved to be, especially criticized because the Dodgers had long served as a beacon of racial enlightenment in the minds of many Americans for breaking baseball’s 63-year color barrier by signing Robinson in 1947 and adding other black players like Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Joe Black, Junior Gilliam and Sandy Amoros at a time when segregation was a way of life throughout most of America.

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