Sports

Throwback Thursday: What Al Campanis Revealed On Nightline 29 Years Ago

When Al Campanis went on "Nightline" 29 years ago and said a bunch of stupid things about why baseball had no black managers, he showed more than his own idiocy.

by Steven Goldman
Apr 7 2016, 6:44pm

Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: Each week VICE Sports will take a look back at an important sports event from this week in sports history. We are calling this regular feature Throwback Thursday, or #TBT for all you cool kids. You can read previous installments here.)

The important thing to remember is that no one who knew Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis thought he was a racist before he went on TV and revealed himself to be one, 29 years ago this week. And Campanis wasn't a racist—not in the rabid stars 'n' bars-waving, sheet-wearing sense of the word. He probably didn't even know he was, until he found out along with everyone else.

Campanis was a man of the world—a multilingual NYU graduate, a World War II veteran, an executive who oversaw four pennant-winners, and, to invoke an unfortunate cliché, some of his best friends, including Jackie Robinson, were black people. And yet, as Campanis revealed when he appeared on "Nightline" this week in 1987, he was also inescapably, ineluctably racist.

Read More: When MLB Almost Tapped J. Edgar Hoover As Commissioner

The program was observing the 40th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball's color line, and Campanis was both the inheritor of Branch Rickey's position with the Dodgers and Robinson's teammate on the 1946 Montreal Royals. It all went wrong when host Ted Koppel turned the discussion from baseball's past to its present:

Ted Koppel: Why is it that there are no black managers, no black general managers, no black owners? Al Campanis: Well, Mr. Koppel... 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 the 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. TK: Yeah, but you know in your heart of hearts, 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... Is there still that much prejudice in baseball today? AC: 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. TK: Do you really believe that?

AC : 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? ... Why are black men or black people not good swimmers? Because they don't have the buoyancy.

Within two days, then-owner Peter O'Malley received Campanis' resignation. It seems, in retrospect, too long a wait.

Things have improved in baseball since Campanis' day, at least a little bit, although Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts are currently looking a little lonely out there. That doesn't mean we can safely tuck Campanis away in our closet of embarrassing sports antiquities, though, because his moment of rare and idiotic candor is still of value to us. As journalist Nathan Asch wrote, "The worse you can exploit somebody, the worse you hate him. You have to. Your conscience wouldn't let you alone." That was Campanis. He had been injected with a virus so subtle he didn't even know it was there.

Campanis might also have been that stupid (they don't have the buoyancy?) or, as some subsequently suggested, that addled. But that's the level of thought American apologists have offered when trying to reconcile the nation's centuries-spanning race-based class warfare with its egalitarian rhetoric. As historian Jacqueline Jones wrote in A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama's America, "By keeping blacks in menial jobs permanently, whites might reserve new and better opportunities for themselves and ensure that someone else did the ill-paying, disagreeable work." The problem was that this didn't fit with all that talk about all men being created equal; after that, whites needed an excuse for not treating everyone that way.

American racism was invented to duck the question. As with Campanis, the crutch was made-up biology. In 1781, Thomas Jefferson, who had written that wonderful phrase about equality into the Declaration of Independence, attempted to rationalize his and our hypocrisy. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, he checked in on his slaves and noted "the real distinctions which nature has made" between the races, including blacks' "very strong and disagreeable odor." They did not reason well, he thought, and lacked creativity. "In imagination they are dull [and] tasteless," he wrote. "Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry." His conclusion: they were, "inferior to whites in both body and mind."

It seems never to have occurred to him to wonder what the blacks he observed might have accomplished if they were given the same opportunities he had had, or what he might have accomplished, or smelled like, had he been put in a field each day from dawn until dusk and been subjected to the workaday brutalities of plantation life.

That's one ancient underpinning of Al Campanis-style thinking. Later, slavery apologists offered a religious explanation via the story of Noah in the book of Genesis as well. After the Civil War, racist propaganda paradoxically had it that blacks were simultaneously lazy, stupid, and childlike, but also animalistic rapists on the hunt for white women to despoil. Having armed themselves with the entire spectrum of excuses, whites could justify any suppression of African Americans—there was always a rationale somewhere in a catalog of hatred that was effectively boundless. After a while, attempts like Jefferson's or that of the antebellum preachers to make racism reasonable must have seemed quaint. Racism had been inculcated for so long that you didn't need a reason. You just knew, and that knowing expressed itself everywhere, particularly when it came to equality of opportunity. Even government programs that were constitutionally required to be colorblind were not.

The gap between the races in the United States is man-made, not biological; it is the result of government policy and cultural biases, and it is reinforced in a million visible and invisible ways. Everyone who now cares to know this knows it, although that's not to say that we're any closer to solving the problem. A Campanis, though, does not see the problem. A Campanis will look at the difference in outcomes created by it and other structural impediments, combine it with every other idiotic idea about race that has been spilled onto the American psyche going back to the 18th century, and spit out something about "buoyancy."

A Campanis would not be alone in this; otherwise reasonable people start to believe that "those people" have received what they deserved, not that generations of powerful majorities had, in an often unconscious, uncoordinated way, limited their possibilities. At that point it's apparently easy to think that just because you haven't seen many black faces at the best schools, or your office, or your manager's office, that there must be a good reason for it—they must not be there due to some inherent deficiency. It's not you, it's them.

In other words, Campanis was imbued with a reflexive racism that never even stops to ask if it is racist. He took pride in his friendship with Robinson, but he was a Judas: Robinson died dreaming of African American managers and executives. Campanis was one of those standing athwart the path to the dream's realization. A little over a month before his death in 1972, Robinson pointed out Frank Robinson, Jim Gilliam, and Elston Howard as people qualified to manage, and said outright that they hadn't gotten the chance due to racism. Gilliam, a Dodgers coach, worked for Campanis.

All of this is, in a mutated form, still with us. The number of African American managers and executives remains small, and the next frontier is really ownership. But it's not Campanis holding things back—he and his generation have succumbed to retirement or the grave. It's a younger generation that perpetuates it both in and out of the game, and it doesn't have the same excuses of coming from a more bigoted time that Campanis, who was 71 in '87, did. The current form of Campanisism takes its permission from current events by intentionally misreading what happens in places like Ferguson and Baltimore.

Blaming a group for its own oppression is a perverse inversion of exactly the same kind as "buoyancy" or Jefferson's "no poetry." It reflects the same lack of logic as, having only been to zoos but not the savannah, concluding that lions cannot live outside of cages. When a movement like Black Lives Matter arises, so many whites view it as special pleading on behalf of an already-privileged group. That's present-day Campanisism in action. Critics shout "White lives matter" or "All lives matter," which are true in letter but overlook the prejudices that Campanis demonstrated are baked into the cake. Or to put it another way, there aren't songs like "Strange Fruit," "Mississippi Goddam," or "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" about caucasians for a reason. They haven't needed them.

Two memories of Campanis from Steve Delsohn's True Blue, an oral history of the Dodgers. The first is from his son, Jim:

My father had never shown any prejudice. In his office for 20 years he had three pictures. He had a picture of Sandy Koufax, who is Jewish, a picture of Roberto Clemente, who is Latin, and a picture of Jackie Robinson. In a way, that summed up my dad. Only thing he cared about was if you could hit, run, field, and throw.

The second is from Franklin Stubbs, an African-American first baseman who came up with the Dodgers in 1984:

To this day, I don't think Al was a racist. He probably did more for black and Latin players than most people in this game.

It would be wrong to argue with them, because all this means was that Campanis was a good baseball man; prejudice didn't deflect him from being a judge of athletic talent. No general manager could have been that blinkered as of 1987 and survived. "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," Campanis told Koppel. Generalizations about any racial "they" are awkward at best, but okay, accept this as a scout's limited perspective. Campanis went beyond that, though, finishing the thought by saying, "Now, as far as having the background to become club presidents, or presidents of a bank, I don't know." That's scouting of a different sort, and it is exactly what it is, regardless of what Campanis thought of himself, or others believed about him, or all the benefit-of-the-doubt we can give.

Baseball integrated its rosters, but hesitated to go further. America integrated its schools and its drinking fountains but hesitated to go further. The game and the country broke arms patting themselves on the back for taking down the old WHITES ONLY signs, but the work of clearing those signs from our minds has yet to be fully embraced. Sometimes you aren't even aware of the poison that has corrupted your thinking. That's what Campanis continues to teach us.