Thursday, January 17, 2013

The History of Racism in America: The Curious Case of Al Campanis

Alexander Sebastian Campanis (1916 –1998) was an American executive in Major League Baseball. He had a brief Major League career, playing for both the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' minor-league team. Campanis is most famous for his position as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1968 to 1987, from which he was fired on April 6, 1987 as a result of controversial remarks regarding Blacks in baseball during an interview on Nightline.

The odd thing about Al Campanis, a white man of Greek descent, was that nobody who knew him ever thought he had a racist bone in his body.  In fact, when Jackie Robinson famously broke the modern major league color barrier in 1947, Campanis, then a Brooklyn Dodger infielder, offered – repeatedly - to room with him. 

Jackie Robinson

Campanis taught Robinson how to turn a double play to avoid spiking by the charging, Robinson-hating base runners. Throw the ball at the base runner's forehead, Campanis advised. Do that a couple times, he said, and goodbye, human javelins.

Being the first Black player in major league baseball, Robinson faced a daunting challenge. He was subjected to  a horrible barrage of the most vitriolic, vile, and vicious racist bile imaginable from fans and other players alike, but had to keep his cool so he would not get his whole race labeled as incapable of playing in the big leagues. 

According to Robert Kuwada, a sportwriter for the Orange County Register in Southern California, while in the minor leagues, “Campanis once threw down his glove during a game and challenged an opponent who was bullying Robinson. He was also known to invite Robinson to eat with him while many other whites chose to keep their distance."

As a player development executive with the Dodgers, Campanis signed, among others, African-American stars Roberto Clemente, Willie Davis and Tommy Davis.

On the fortieth anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s Major League Baseball debut, Campanis was invited by the ABC TV newsmagazine show Nightline to comment, and began making what sounded like the most racist comments imaginable, basically seeming to say that he did not think Blacks had the mental capacity or administrative skills necessary to serve in baseball as managers or general managers. He compared this to Blacks not being good swimmers because they “don’t have the buoyancy.”

Ted Koppel, the interviewer, could not believe what he was hearing. He kept giving Campanis the chance to clarify what he was saying, but Campanis seemed to keep digging himself into a deeper and deeper hole.

Here’s most of the interview (watch it at

KOPPEL: Mr. Campanis, it's a legitimate question. You're an old friend of Jackie Robinson's, but it's a tough question for you. You're still in baseball. Why is it that there are no black managers, no black general managers, no black owners?

CAMPANIS: Well, Mr. Koppel, there have been some black managers, but I really can't answer that question directly. The only thing I can say is that you have to pay your dues when you become a manager. Generally, you have to go to minor leagues. There's not very much pay involved, and some of the better known black players have been able to get into other fields and make a pretty good living in that way.

KOPPEL: Yeah, but you know in your heart of hearts -- and we're going to take a break for a commercial -- you know that that's a lot of baloney. I mean, there are a lot of black players, there are a lot of great black baseball men who would dearly love to be in managerial positions, and I guess what I'm really asking you is to, you know, peel it away a little bit. Just tell me, why you think it is. Is there still that much prejudice in baseball today?

CAMPANIS: 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.

KOPPEL: Do you really believe that?

CAMPANIS: Well, I don't say that all of them, but they certainly are short. How many quarterbacks do you have? How many pitchers do you have that are black?

KOPPEL: Yeah, but I mean, I gotta tell you, that sounds like the same kind of garbage we were hearing 40 years ago about players, when they were saying, ''Aah, not really -- not really cut out --" Remember the days, you know, hit a black football player in the knees, and you know, no --" That really sounds like garbage, if -- if you'll forgive me for saying so."

CAMPANIS: No, it's not -- it's not garbage, Mr. Koppel, because I played on a college team, and the center fielder was black, and the backfield at NYU, with a fullback who was black, never knew the difference, whether he was black or white, we were teammates. So, it just might just be -- why are black men, or black people, not good swimmers? Because they don't have the buoyancy.

KOPPEL: Oh, I don't -- I don't -- it may just be that they don't have access to all the country clubs and the pools. But I'll tell you what, let's take a break, and we'll continue our discussion in a moment.


CAMPANIS: Well, I don't have the crystal ball, Mr. Koppel, but I can only tell you that I think we're progressing very well in the game of baseball. We have not stopped the black man from becoming an executive. They also have to have the desire, just as Jackie Robinson had the desire to become an outstanding ballplayer.

Still later

KOPPEL: Just as a matter of curiosity, Mr. Campanis, what is the percentage now of black ballplayers, for example, in your franchise?

CAMPANIS: I would say, I think Roger mentioned the fact that about a third of the players are black. That might be a pretty good number, and deservedly so, because they are outstanding athletes. They are gifted with great musculature and various other things, they're fleet of foot, and this is why there are a lot of black major league ballplayers. Now, as far as having the background to become club presidents, or presidents of a bank, I don't know. But I do know when I look at a black ballplayer, I am looking at him physically and whether he has the mental approach to play in the big leagues.

Wow. Naturally a national uproar ensued, and Campanis was of course fired from his job almost immediately after the interview. Everyone was talking about how horrible a racist the man was.  Except for everyone who knew him. They just could not believe the man could have possibly meant was he was saying. It seemed so totally out of character.

So what happened here? I surely could not blame anyone, Black folks especially, for assuming the worst about Mr. Campanis. I certainly did at the time of the interview. That is, until I read a somewhat cryptic interview on the subject by one of the few African-Americans in baseball who actually was a manager – Frank (not Jackie, no relation) Robinson.

Frank Robinson (no relation)

Here is the interview with Frank Robinson, from the April 27, 1987 issue  of People Magazine:
Q: Why haven't blacks been able to break the management color barrier?

A: Because we haven't been in the position either to do the hiring or to say, "Hire me or else." Blacks haven't put pressure on baseball. So baseball says, "If we don't have to give you a job, we won't." Part of this is our fault. You talk to some black players and they say, "I'm a happy man. I'm making a good living. Why should I stick my neck out?" You talk to people outside the game, and they say, "I don't want to be bothered."

Q: Why don't more black players speak out?

A: Speaking up could be damaging. Someone will get buried. The ownership might think, "He's mouthing off. Who needs him?" I won't say that today they could blackball a great player. But they could make it tough for him. At the end of his career, he might not get to play those extra years if they feel he's a troublemaker.

While Robinson did not exactly defend Campanis, he did not exactly attack him either. But what was that bit about Blacks not “sticking our necks out?” What does that mean exactly, and what does it have to do with Campanis? Well of course I can only speculate, but what I hear in the interview is an implication that African Americans may not have demonstrated to White baseball people the ambition, aptitude or inclination to be higher-ups in the organization.

Why? Because just a couple of decades earlier, Black Americans who “stuck their necks out” by showing intelligence, ambition, or even moxie were labeled as “Uppity N….’s” and were in serious danger of they or their families being attacked or even lynched. If you had these qualities, it was very wise to hide them from any Whites in the area. You just could not trust them, even if they seemed to be your friends.

So call me naïve if you will, or hate me if you think I am someone who appears to defend a racist, but maybe, just maybe: Campanis did not think Blacks had the capacities he spoke of because he never saw any black players demonstrate them, just as Frank Robinson was alluding to. Therefore, he had nothing with which to compare the stereotypes about Blacks to which he had undoubtedly been exposed his whole life.

Maybe , just maybe, Campanis appeared to be more of a racist than he was because he was stuck in a game without end with his Black friends.

No comments:

Post a Comment