The legacy of Al Campanis

Dodgers exec's racially charged remarks on "Nightline" shocked the nation

Updated: April 1, 2012, 11:21 AM ET
By William Weinbaum | ESPN

YORBA LINDA, Calif. -- If only the Dodgers-Astros game had been longer.

If only the Hagler-Leonard fight had been shorter.

If only Rachel Robinson hadn't mentioned the dearth of blacks in baseball management.

If only Ted Koppel hadn't been listening intently.

Maybe Al Campanis never would have said what he said.

Maybe his public life and legacy would be remembered very differently.


When he was 11 or 12 years old, Jimmy Campanis says, he asked his father to help him with a school "show and tell" the next day about Jackie Robinson, figuring maybe his dad could get him a Robinson bat for the "show."

Jimmy's father Al, after all, had been Robinson's teammate and fellow infielder a decade earlier with the Montreal Royals, the top farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers, and they remained friends as Robinson achieved mythic status as a pioneer and player and as Campanis distinguished himself as a scout and then executive for the Dodgers. The senior Campanis exuded pride in having mentored Robinson during that 1946 season in Canada, tutoring him on the rudiments of playing second base and rooming with him at a time when such interracial arrangements raised more than eyebrows.

[+] EnlargeAl Campanis
Darryl Norenberg/US PresswireAl Campanis played briefly for the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Montreal Royals. He became the L.A. Dodgers' general manager in 1968.

Jimmy Campanis says he prepared a speech and told his father he'd have to recite it to the class the next morning at 10. And right on schedule, as Jimmy was wrapping up his "tell," he caught a glimpse of Al standing in the hall outside the classroom.

"The teacher says, 'Jimmy, that's really good -- your tell was great, now what do you have to show me?'" Jimmy Campanis recounted recently at his home in Yorba Linda, Calif.

The surprise his father was about to give him still brings a gleam to Campanis' eye more than a half-century later.

"I said, 'Let me go get it,' and I walk out to the door and there's Jackie Robinson standing there. And I bring him into my class and for the next two years I was the greatest guy in the world as far as the whole school was concerned, because I brought Jackie Robinson in on one day's notice."

"He was the biggest star on the Brooklyn Dodgers at that time and it shows the kind of bond that they had," Campanis said. "That Jackie would say, 'Oh, of course I'll do this for your son.'"

Beyond his connection to the man who broke major league baseball's color barrier, over the next 30 years Al Campanis earned renown for instilling the fundamentals of the "Dodgers' Way to Play Baseball" in generations of signees -- even compiling a book by that title; devising innovations such as a catcher's mitt with a fluorescent orange perimeter for enhanced pitching target visibility (for which he obtained a patent); and recruiting well-known future stars, many of whom were African-American or Latino.

His son said Al was fluent in several languages and was a teacher for a stint after graduating from New York University, where he was a friend and briefly a roommate of Howard Cosell. In his Dodgers office, Al kept three big photos on the wall, the younger Campanis said, "A picture of Sandy Koufax, a picture of Roberto Clemente and a picture of Jackie Robinson … a Jewish man, a black man and a Hispanic.

"He didn't care what nationality you were, he didn't care as long as you could play. And if you could play, he wanted you on his team. He wanted you on the Dodgers."

Jimmy Campanis followed his father into baseball and onto his team, reaching the majors as a catcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The two earned an odd distinction two years later, in 1968, when Al made his first move as general manager. The father traded the son to the expansion Kansas City Royals, calling it the best way to give Jimmy an opportunity for the most playing time. Jimmy says it was a hard move, but the right move.

By 1987, with Jimmy Campanis' playing career long over, his son, Jim Jr., was pursuing the family business as a catcher at the University of Southern California. And 70-year-old Al, known to many as "The Chief," was still with the Dodgers, as vice president and general manager.

Jimmy recalled being at home on April 6, 1987, when he received a telephone call from Al, who was with the team in Houston for opening day, and wanted to make sure Jimmy's wife, Brenda, received his birthday greetings and that they knew he was going to be on the ABC News "Nightline" program that night, to air tape-delayed in California.


"Nightline" didn't often air sports-themed shows, but had a compelling reason to do so that night, as it could report on the highly anticipated Marvelous Marvin Hagler-Sugar Ray Leonard middleweight championship bout in Las Vegas. In an era before the Internet or even the explosion in popularity of all-sports TV and radio, "Nightline" could attract viewers by being among the first outlets to deliver the outcome of the fight, which was expected to end during the program's live telecast.

[+] EnlargeAl Campanis
Courtesy of the Campanis familyAl Campanis, left, with his son, Jimmy Campanis, center, and grandson Jim Campanis Jr.

According to Ted Koppel, who anchored "Nightline" for 25 years from its inception in 1980, an ABC editor suggested a few days earlier that as the upcoming program waited for Hagler-Leonard to end, it could present a tribute to the late Jackie Robinson in advance of the 40th anniversary of his historic April 15, 1947, debut for Brooklyn -- a feature idea the editor first pitched unsuccessfully to George Will and his Sunday morning show.

Heading into the weekend preceding Monday, April 6, "Nightline" proceeded with plans for two main elements of the tribute -- a taped package to include the likes of legendary former Dodgers announcer Red Barber, and a live conversation with others who had been close with Robinson. For that planned discussion with Koppel, the staff decided to invite three panelists -- Robinson's former teammate and fellow African-American baseball trailblazer Don Newcombe, author Roger Kahn and Campanis.

Executive producer Rick Kaplan suggested Campanis, according to Richard Harris, who was in his first week as a "Nightline" producer assigned to book guests. Harris and Koppel -- the latter of whom acknowledges having little baseball knowledge and even less interest in it -- both say they had never heard of Campanis.

"We learned that Campanis had roomed with Jackie Robinson," Koppel recently told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap, "and we thought, 'This will be perfect.'"

"Al Campanis embraced Jackie Robinson when it wasn't popular to do it and he was a good guy," Kaplan said recently, "and we thought, 'Who better to help us celebrate than a white baseball player who had celebrated this extraordinary black athlete?'"

Koppel added, "I thought he was someone we could safely bring on to talk in rather bland if warm clichés about one of the great men in baseball."

So Harris contacted Campanis on Friday, April 3, he says, and enlisted him to participate in what was "simply going to be a nice, sweet historical program." The segment with Campanis, Kahn and Newcombe was envisioned as an appetizer for the report on the sweet science's main event in Vegas, from ABC's Dick Schaap, Jeremy's father.

"We looked upon that part of the program [the discussion of Robinson] as being filler until the Hagler-Leonard fight was over," Koppel said.


On the night of April 6, the taped piece about Robinson was all set, but trouble loomed for the segment in which the three guests were to speak with the Washington-based Koppel, each from a different site. "As it got close to air time, I saw my life passing before my eyes," Harris recalled. "I got word that Don Newcombe's plane was late and he wouldn't be able to make the show. I got word that Roger Kahn was coming from Westchester [Kahn lived in a New York City suburb and had to get to a Manhattan studio] and there were floods and he barely would make the show, and I got word that they had difficulty hooking up Al Campanis."

The Dodgers were locked in a tight duel in the Astrodome between Orel Hershiser and the Astros' Mike Scott, and the only place "Nightline" could arrange to place Campanis for its postgame live shot was home plate. An extra innings game could wreck the plans for "Nightline" to interview Campanis.

Steve Brener, then the Dodgers' publicist, has said for years and reiterated in a recent phone interview that until the middle of the game, when someone came looking for Campanis in the press box, he wasn't aware that Campanis had agreed to appear on "Nightline."

"I asked Al what it was about and he said it was arranged and OK," Brener said. "I didn't think he should do it -- I told him. I wasn't a big fan of Ted Koppel, he was controversial and I didn't want Al in that position."

Al Campanis
Courtesy of ABC Photo ArchivesTed Koppel interviews Al Campanis on "Nightline," on April 6, 1987.

Brener said one of the Dodgers' beat writers there that night, Gordon Verrell of the Long Beach Press-Telegram, told Campanis, "They'll fry you."

Regardless of the seemingly innocuous subject Campanis was booked to discuss, there was legitimate cause for concern about what he would say, according to the accounts of two writers friendly with Campanis, in Steve Delsohn's book "True Blue: The Dramatic History of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Told by the Men Who Lived It."

"He had a way of mangling the language," Los Angeles Times writer Mark Heisler told Delsohn. "As much as I liked the guy, he would go off the point and say something weird so often, people actually wondered if he was senile, or just pretending to be that way to confuse them."

And George Vecsey, longtime columnist for The New York Times, described to Delsohn a Campanis tendency to "bumble."

When the Astros' Jose Cruz homered off Hershiser with two outs in the seventh inning and Houston closer Dave Smith blanked the Dodgers in the eighth and ninth for a 4-3 win for the home team, the field cleared and Campanis was hooked up for his appearance. A bright TV light was directed toward him, and he sat on a wooden stool in a solid grey suit and white-collared shirt, with an earpiece in his ear and a microphone on his striped tie. He presumably was told to look at the camera trained on him through glass behind home plate.

"I said to someone, 'My gosh! The Chief looks like he's sitting in the electric chair,' Verrell recounted in Delsohn's book. "And then, of course, you found out later he was."


As "Nightline" went on the air that evening, Kaplan was in its Washington control room, dividing his attention between the show and updates Dick Schaap was giving him about the prizefight. "If Hagler performs like Dick Schaap says he's going to perform, then he knocks the bejesus out of Sugar Ray Leonard like in two rounds," said Kaplan, who made it clear that the show's grand plan depended on an expeditious ending to Hagler-Leonard.

"You lead with Jackie Robinson, you celebrate him. Al Campanis puts a cherry on top of the sundae, we're out of there [and on to the post-fight report]."

The taped feature with Barber and others opened the show and concluded with Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, saying, "It's not coincidental that baseball in the 40-year period has not been able to integrate at any other level other than the players' level … we have a long way to go."

At that moment, the 12-round middleweight title fight 2,400 miles away had a long way to go. After a commercial, Koppel commenced an unexpectedly prolonged and profoundly painful interview.

He opened with questions about Robinson to both guests. Campanis gave a lengthy answer and called it a "privilege and honor" to reminisce about him, but he apparently misunderstood or couldn't hear clearly the specific question posed by Koppel, who then restated a query about how long it had taken other Dodgers to treat Robinson like a human being and help him. Campanis replied that the other players were accepting of Robinson when they recognized his baseball prowess.

Then Koppel, citing Rachel Robinson's statement, asked Kahn and Campanis about baseball's lack of African-Americans in leadership positions.

"Anyone who knows me and knows how I go about doing interviews, knows that I will read up, I will do the research, but I don't lay out a line of questioning and I don't prepare questions in advance -- I never have questions written down," Koppel said, as he recalled changing the subject of that show's discussion. "It's just a matter of sort of going with the flow and I had not even seen the piece [with Rachel Robinson's lament] before we went on the air that night."

Ted Koppel
Courtesy of ABC Photo ArchivesKoppel gave Campanis a chance to clarify his remarks.

Kahn ended his answer by saying, "Although we all can rejoice in the progress that baseball has made in integration, I think if Jack [Jackie Robinson] were alive today, Jack would say, 'How come there are no blacks running ballclubs?'"

ESPN recently showed a DVD of what happened next to Koppel, who watched in Maryland, and Kaplan, who watched in New York. Each shook his head, seemingly in disbelief and discomfort as he relived the moment.

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.

As the show went to a commercial, viewers could briefly see Koppel on the set shaking his head, much as he did when he watched it again at our request a quarter-century later.

"All of a sudden, Al says what he says and it was just show-stopping," Kaplan said. "The mood in the control room was serious and it was like a lightning bolt had struck."

"No one thought it was going to be memorable," Koppel said, "and I certainly did not go into it with anything other than feelings of admiration toward Al Campanis and was surprised as anyone that he said the things that he said."

"This guy is shooting himself with two guns, so Ted was trying to help him," Kaplan said. "I've never seen Ted off-air try to bring the guy back and say, 'Al, are you hearing yourself? Do you hear what you're saying? Are you sure you don't want to rethink that?' I remember it like it was yesterday because, again, it was not something Ted ever did, but I think Ted felt that Al's answers were a misrepresentation of Al's person.

"Ted just about took Al on his lap."

When the show resumed, Koppel asked a question of Kahn and then turned again to Campanis, lauding his reputation and overtly offering a lifeline. "I'd like to give you another chance to dig yourself out, because I think you need it," the anchor said to the sinking guest.

But rather than repudiating or clarifying his earlier comments, Campanis challenged Koppel on the racial makeup of television news executives and anchormen. Koppel said there were a few black anchormen, but in broadcasting, as in baseball, the absence of blacks from executive roles wasn't related to their intelligence, but to unyielding white control of the establishment.

Campanis went on to say he thought many blacks in baseball were "highly intelligent, but they may not have the desire to be in the front office." And he added, "I know that they have wanted to manage and some of them have managed, but they're outstanding athletes, very God-gifted, and they're very wonderful people, and that's all I can tell you about them."

Koppel announced he was "flabbergasted," and said "maybe we haven't made all that much progress in 40 years." He spent the next seven minutes engaged with Kahn and then Campanis in a discussion mostly about Robinson.

After alerting his audience that the show would go long in order to eventually report on Hagler-Leonard, Koppel teed up Campanis to predict the future for blacks in baseball's front offices.

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.

After Kahn said the time was ripe for black ownership or operation of a team, given that perhaps a third of the players were black, one more Koppel question produced an unsettling Campanis comeback.

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.

More than three minutes after "Nightline" would normally end, Koppel conversed with Kahn about Robinson, thanked both of his guests and, in a strikingly subdued tone, promoted the chat he finally would have about the marquee fight. Dick Schaap came on to discuss Leonard's upset of Hagler in a unanimous decision that for "Nightline" was unimaginably anticlimactic after Campanis's comments.

"I said to my wife, 'He won't last a week,'" Harris said of the Dodgers executive whom he had invited to pay tribute to Robinson.


[+] EnlargeAl Campanis
Courtesy of the Campanis Family"He didn't care what nationality you were, he didn't care as long as you could play," said Jimmy Campanis of his father, Al Campanis. "And if you could play, he wanted you on his team. He wanted you on the Dodgers."

Jimmy Campanis said his father called him after "Nightline" -- before the delayed airing on the West Coast -- and said, "I want you to tell me what you think, all right?" And that Al added, "I might have said just a few things that, you know, might not be right."

"I'm watching it and I was with a friend who was a journalism major and she kept cringing," said Al's grandson Jim Campanis Jr., the then-USC Trojan. "And I said, 'What are you talking about? He's talking about 'experience.''"

"He [Al] said maybe some of the black players don't have the 'necessities,' which meant 'necessary experience' to manage or be a front office guy, and 'necessary experience' is going back to the minor leagues and managing in the minor leagues," Jimmy Campanis said.

"He tried to defend baseball somehow and it just came out like it was his views."

"'Grandpa, I just saw you on TV,'" were the words Jim Campanis Jr. says he first said by phone to Al. "He goes, 'Yeah, I said some things I think people will take the wrong way.' I go, 'Well, I knew you were talking about experience, I knew what you were saying,' and he goes, 'Yeah, but I got all mixed up in there. You know, I'm a little concerned something might happen with this, but no matter what, just know I love you and everything's going to be fine.'"

"I went right to sleep -- didn't think anything about it, because I knew what he meant," Jimmy Campanis said. "I know he's not prejudiced, that never occurred to me at all until the next day when the whole world came crashing down on him."


The L.A. Times hustled to get Campanis' comments into the morning paper, just a start of a storm that quickly engulfed "the Chief" and his team.

Brener, the team publicist, said he didn't even know of Campanis' incendiary "Nightline" remarks until a reporter's call awoke him in the morning. Dodgers owner Peter O'Malley met with Campanis in Houston and both issued statements of apology. O'Malley also said through Brener that Campanis' job was "absolutely not" in jeopardy.

But pressure mounted as some African-American community leaders called for Campanis to be fired.

A day later, O'Malley's public assurance notwithstanding, Campanis resigned. Less than 48 hours after he shocked a national television audience, the career-long Dodger had lost his life's work and his good name.

"It took two days, and in today's world of viral video, of tweeting, Internet and all the rest of it, it would not have lasted two hours, probably," Harris said, adding that he dreaded calling Campanis the day after "Nightline." "But before I could get a sentence out, he said, 'Richard, it wasn't your fault.'"

A telling indication of what O'Malley would have done if Campanis hadn't resigned came in an announcement by the team: "Mr. Campanis' statements on the ABC Nightline show Monday night were so far removed from the beliefs of the Dodger organization that it was impossible for him to continue in his duties."

Understandably, it was widely reported as a firing.


Major League Baseball hired sociologist and civil rights activist Harry Edwards two months later to lead an initiative to increase diversity among the sport's leadership. He said in a recent phone interview that Campanis was one of the first people he heard from.

"He wanted to know how he could help and he said that if what he said on 'Nightline' opened the door for him to help, then it was worth it," Edwards said. "I was pleasantly surprised with the sincerity of his sentiment."

Since April 6, 1987, every time a Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Marge Schott or Reggie White made insensitive, inflammatory remarks, the Campanis "Nightline" episode was invoked. And in all those years, people who knew Campanis and many more who didn't have been trying to reconcile his agonizingly long and lamentable comments on the program with his actions before and after.

"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," Edwards said. "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."

"In the grand scheme of things, Al Campanis did sports a big favor by exposing that train of thought," Charles Farrell, a longtime equality and education advocate, said in a phone interview.

"It was the first time someone was saying publicly what we knew people were thinking."

[+] EnlargeJimmy and Jim Jr. Campanis
ESPN Al Campanis' son, Jimmy Campanis, left; and Jimmy's son, Jim Jr., at Jimmy's house in Yorba Linda, Calif.

Jim Campanis Jr, said the family later learned that his grandfather had suffered several strokes around age 70, had diabetes and perhaps wasn't himself on "Nightline." Al said in interviews that he took responsibility for the remarks, but that maybe exhaustion and confusion were contributory culprits. He said drinking -- one popular theory -- was not.

Campanis invited and met Koppel for a cup of coffee in Los Angeles several years later, the former "Nightline" anchor said.

"'You know I'm not a racist, right?'" Koppel recalled Campanis asking him. "And I said, 'I think I do know that, I really do believe that,' and he told me, 'Honestly, I have no hard feelings.'"

From Koppel's 25 years and 6,000 or so editions of "Nightline," the Campanis episode is one of the best-remembered, along with historic treatments of subjects like South African apartheid and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I realized it was an extraordinary program at that time. I realized that what Al Campanis had said was unacceptable and that he would pay a price for that. I don't think I saw it as sort of a pivot point in U.S. sports history," Koppel said.

"Al Campanis paradoxically deserves credit, I think, both for his courage as a young man, his fundamental decency as a young man, and his malapropisms as an old man, which curiously may have led to more advances in racial equality in professional sports than anything he could have said that would have been unnoticed."

Said Edwards: "He didn't get a raw deal, he got the deal he ordered up, but he was one of the most honorable men in the whole process and he handled it with class, with conscientiousness and with courage."


Campanis supporters and even some of his critics voiced objections to the Dodgers' and baseball's failure to give him a second chance. He never worked again in a major league front office, but was a regular at Dodgers and Angels games, taking notes and offering scouting reports, gratis.

And he spent two years writing a book, "My Turn At Bat," his son Jimmy says. But he couldn't interest any publishers.

Jimmy's son, Jim Jr. went on from USC to play in the minor leagues. "I played over 1,500 pro games over eight seasons, including winter ball seasons in Mexico and Puerto Rico," he said, "and every single game, some fan -- or all of them -- screamed something negative about my family."

According to Jimmy Campanis, on one occasion, taunts about racism hurled at Jim Jr. came from an opposing team after a game Jimmy and Al had just watched.

"Their team bus was leaving and somebody yelled out something … I was going to turn the bus over," Jimmy Campanis said. "And my dad grabbed me by the arm and said, 'Jimmy, let it go, buddy. We know it's not true.'"

Magic Johnson/Al Campanis/Brooks Robinson
AP/Getty Images/APNearly 25 years after Al Campanis' controversial remarks on "Nightline," Magic Johnson, as an owner, has brought the Dodgers full circle.

When Al Campanis died in 1998 at age 81, his fall from grace 11 years earlier topped his obituaries. His relationship with Jackie Robinson had become a footnote. Some of the obits had enough room to mention that Campanis had traded his own son from the Dodgers.

For 36 years, the son, Jimmy, now 68, has been back working for the Dodgers in their community relations department. Reached this week for reaction to news that an investment group, fronted by Magic Johnson, had entered into a $2.15 billion deal to purchase the Dodgers, Campanis said, "He's perfect, such an outgoing guy and personality, such a winner and one who knows about bringing the community together -- very few things get me jacked up at this age, but this does."

And if Al Campanis had lived to see the leader of the "Showtime" Lakers take over the Dodgers, his son said, "I think he'd be the happiest guy on the planet."

Jimmy's dad surely would also appreciate the nickname given his son by Charley Steiner, one of the team's broadcasters.

The nickname is "Show and Tell."

William Weinbaum is a producer for ESPN's Enterprise Unit and worked with ESPN correspondent Jeremy Schaap and associate producer Elizabeth Sosbee on the "Outside the Lines" feature about the Al Campanis "Nightline" episode.