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How much has baseball changed since the infamous Al Campanis interview?

Not enough, judging by the number of African-American players and managers

Thirty years later, I remember exactly where I was when my jaw dropped.

Watching a tiny black-and-white television in our suburban Washington, D.C., bedroom, I was stunned at what was coming out of the mouth of the man I had invited onto Nightline.

Los Angeles Dodgers Vice President Al Campanis told my boss, Ted Koppel, it wasn’t “prejudice” that explained why there were no black managers or general managers in baseball in 1987. Instead, he said, “I truly believe they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager.”

I turned to my wife and predicted, “I don’t think he will last the week.”

He didn’t.

But like so many moments that we think are black and white, the years have exposed many shades of gray about Campanis, minority hiring in baseball and whether the game can still truly be called “America’s pastime.” It’s something I’ve been thinking about since that bizarre night in 1987. And it seems especially timely as baseball just celebrated Jackie Robinson Day, the 70th anniversary of the first African-American stepping onto a major league diamond. In his honor, the Dodgers unveiled a Robinson statue and all players in every major league game wore No. 42. But Robinson was never about his historic moment. It was all about diversity in the game, something his family never forgets.

ICYMI: Blackball: How to bring blacks back to baseball

At Saturday’s ceremony at Dodger Stadium, Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, said, “It has to be that we really believe in being a diverse society and want to be inclusive, and that’s just not the direction that we’re going in currently. So I think baseball is symbolic of America. We have a lot of work to do.” Her words echoed those of her mother — Jackie Robinson’s widow, Rachel — from 30 years ago this month at the start of that Nightline that shook up baseball: “I know we have a long way to go.”

Campanis interview almost didn’t happen

Thirty years ago, as the 40th anniversary of Robinson’s achievement approached, the infamous Campanis Nightline was conceived almost by accident. Thank Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler for creating the opportunity. They were fighting the much-anticipated middleweight championship bout on the evening of Monday, April 6, that would end about the time Nightline went on the air. So the plan was to go live to Las Vegas for a report on the fight at the end of the program.

To fill the first two-thirds of the show, executive producer Rick Kaplan wanted to keep the sports theme, even though Nightline — born out of the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980 and known for tackling the big issues of the day, often punctuated by tough interviews from Ted Koppel — didn’t dabble much in sports. Someone suggested the upcoming 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier. And the rest, as they say …

Having just joined Nightline the week before as its chief guest producer, I was assigned to book people who were close to Robinson for Koppel to interview after the video report that often kicked off the show. “But where’s the controversy?” I thought. Little did I know what lay ahead.

I reached out to three men who knew Robinson well: former Dodgers pitcher Don Newcombe, who was among the first African-Americans to follow Robinson to the major leagues; Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer, who had also ghostwritten a magazine column for Robinson; and, at Kaplan’s suggestion, Al Campanis, the longtime VP and general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers who played with and roomed with Robinson on the Montreal Royals, the top farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The evening of the program, I was working from home and began to have a bad feeling. I got word that Newcombe’s plane would arrive too late for him to make the broadcast; flooding in Westchester County, New York, would make Kahn’s trip to the New York City studio dicey at best; and Campanis’ appearance from the Astrodome was at the mercy of the Astros-Dodgers game in Houston ending in time for the live Nightline broadcast. With two young children at the time, I had visions of ending up with no guests and no job.

But Kahn made it to ABC’s Manhattan studios with just minutes to spare, and the game at the Astrodome ended in time for Campanis to be connected to Koppel. The first Greek player in the major leagues, Campanis was 70 years old then. And despite his many years as GM of the Dodgers, he hadn’t had much, if any, experience doing live network TV interviews. At 11:30 p.m. straight up, Koppel set the tone for what we thought the program would be: “It took as much courage as any wartime act of heroism, and today, Major League Baseball paid tribute to the man who 40 years ago changed the face of baseball and the American social fabric forever.” The theme rolled.

With Koppel anchoring from Washington, Campanis sat on a stool at home plate in the Astrodome, wearing an earpiece, bathed in lights, staring directly into a camera while Kahn sat in a studio in New York, looking into his camera. The two men then listened as Rachel Robinson made this observation in the video background report: “It’s not coincidental that baseball in the 40-year period has not been able to integrate at any other level than the players’ level. … I know we have a long way to go.”

In response, Kahn said, “Although we all can rejoice in the progress baseball has made in integration, I think if Jack were alive today, Jack would say, ‘How come there are no blacks running ballclubs?’ ”

It was a question Ted Koppel then put to Al Campanis: “You’re still in baseball. Why is it that there are no black managers, no black general managers, no black owners? … I’m asking you to peel it away a little bit. … Is there still much prejudice in baseball today?”

Campanis: “No, I don’t believe it’s prejudice. I truly believe 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 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, black people not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.”

Reverberations for Jim CampaniS, Jr

Eighty miles east of Los Angeles and blissfully unaware of what had just transpired on TV in the Eastern and Central time zones was Jim Campanis Jr., a 19-year-old sophomore on the University of Southern California baseball team with a day off from practice and school. He had taken his girlfriend to the family cabin at Lake Arrowhead. At 11:15 p.m., the phone rang and young Campanis’ life was never quite the same. It was his grandpa, Al, who had just gotten off the air after the live Nightline interview and urged his grandson to watch the taped program, just 15 minutes away on the West Coast.

“There may be some people who think I said some controversial things,” Campanis said in a bit of understatement to his grandson, a third-generation ballplayer who would react very differently from his girlfriend as they watched his grandfather on Nightline. “The first thing I thought of when I heard his ‘lack the necessities’ line was a reference to experience and not cognitive ability,” he recounted in his book Born into Baseball. “But my friend, a journalism major, was cringing after each comment.”

Campanis’ remarks were continuously played on newscasts, “lack the necessities” headlines popped up in newspapers throughout the country and, even though we were years away from social media, it didn’t take long for an all-out national firestorm. Campanis resigned under pressure less than 48 hours after the Nightline broadcast, after NAACP and other civil rights protests.

“My entire family had to deal with being a Campanis in 1987,” Jim Campanis Jr. wrote in his book. As a baseball player for USC and then eight years in the minor leagues, he told me recently, he couldn’t hide. “They put your name on the damn back of your jersey.”

A few days after his grandpa was on Nightline, his USC team was at Arizona State, and when he was announced as he stepped up to bat, the heckling began: “Hey Campanis, your family is racist!” “Hey Campanis, is your grandpa mad you play with black guys?” They even taunted him throughout his years playing in the minors and with the USA team overseas. “I know Spanish, so I knew when they were ragging on me in Latin American countries. At least in Japan, I didn’t understand them,” Campanis said.

But the worst, he said, came in the American South, a kind of reverse taunt. “I felt most uncomfortable when I would be confronted by someone who was trying to suggest I’m a Klansman like he or she is. Your grandpa was right and all that.”

Though the taunts and heckles have subsided over the years, the sins of the grandfather are still being visited upon the grandson. Thirty years later, Jim Campanis Jr. is 49 years old, an author who does marketing and still is around the game, giving private lessons. “There’s still a stigma. Even when my friends are joking with me, it still kind of sucks when they say, ‘I had an Al Campanis moment’ to mean not politically correct. I don’t know I’ve ever had an interview since 1987 that didn’t mention my grandpa saying ‘those racist things’ on Nightline. It’s the 500-pound gorilla in my world.”

At Al Campanis’ lowest moment, when his world and more than 40-year association with the Dodgers suddenly collapsed, something remarkable happened. MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, embarrassed by Campanis’ remarks and the spotlight he had put on the lack of minorities in the managerial ranks of baseball, hired civil rights activist and sociologist Harry Edwards as a special assistant to help create a pool of minority applicants for managerial positions. Edwards had cut his civil rights teeth in the 1960s at San Jose State and in 1968 inspired Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith to put their fists in the air in a Black Power salute on the Olympic platform in Mexico City while the national anthem played.

Trying to turn a negative into a positive

So who does Edwards hire to help him recruit minority applicants? None other than Al Campanis. “You can’t believe the letters I got,” Edwards told me. “How dare you bring this racist so forth and so on? They wanted to ride somebody out of town on a rail, tarred and feathered and branded an unredeemable, irretrievably racist monster. That was not who Al Campanis was, and I told Benjamin Hooks, Jesse Jackson and others I’m going to continue to work with him. Everyone was looking for a scapegoat to jump on. Campanis may have been the only decent individual coming out of this whole thing.”

Fred Claire, the man who took over for Campanis as general manager, former Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda and Don Newcombe, the former Dodgers pitcher, all of whom were close to Campanis, said various versions of “He didn’t have a racist bone in his body.” You’d expect his Dodger family to close ranks around him. But when someone as outspoken as the civil rights activist Harry Edwards says Campanis is hardly a racist, you sit up and take notice.

Edwards said Campanis may have been a victim of what he calls “cultural racialism,” who bought into the idea that “blacks couldn’t function at administrative, decision-making or authoritative positions, whether it’s sport or elsewhere.”

But there was no escaping the “R” word, and the first line of Campanis’ 1998 obituaries reference his career-ending remarks on Nightline. Campanis’ work with Edwards to help right the ship, to make baseball management more diverse, got much less attention. It didn’t fit the racist narrative that had formed. How could someone who said such things effectively reach out to prospective minority managers?

“When Al told people after Nightline, ‘That’s not what I meant by “lacked the necessities,’ ” I gave him a call,” Edwards explained. “He told me, ‘I have no antipathy, no animosity, no dislike [of African-Americans], and if we can find people who are interested and prepared to be GMs and managers, I want to be part of that.’ ”

“So I asked him who he would start out with? And he said with a guy who came out of the Dodger organization, Dusty Baker. I think he could step right in as a coach and develop. Al and I met with Dusty at Denny’s in Emeryville, outside Oakland, to talk about a job as the San Francisco Giants batting coach.”

The irony of a meeting at Denny’s to talk about improving the diversity in baseball was not lost on Edwards.

“You can live in a phone booth with a rattlesnake as long as you know where he is,” Edwards said. “I couldn’t think of any place that would be better to begin breaking up this thing in baseball than Denny’s, where if you went at a certain time of night they wouldn’t serve you. It was ideal.

“When we left Denny’s,” Edwards recalled, “Dusty got into his car and was headed to the Giants the next day for the job interview we set up for him. I was in my car to take Al back to the airport after he had flown up from L.A. And he turned to me and said, ‘If this thing helps make things better to get more people participating throughout baseball, I’d consider it worth it.”

The Giants hired Baker as a first-base coach, then its hitting coach and finally its manager in 1993. That first season, Baker was named National League Manager of the Year. And just last week, Baker, now skipper of the Washington Nationals, won his 1,770th game as a major league manager, giving him sole possession of 16th place on the all-time wins list. Apparently, he has “the necessities.”

None of us wants to be defined by our worst day, but Al Campanis was. He was saddled with the racist label until the day he died, no matter what he did in the years before his Nightline appearance — he was the first GM to hire a minority, Manny Mota, for a primary coaching position and developed the Dodgers’ playing academy in the Dominican Republic. And despite how Campanis picked himself off the mat after his dramatic fall from grace and helped recruit African-Americans into the managerial pipeline of baseball, none of it seemed to matter. He tried in vain to sell publishers on a book to try to clear his name. But there were no takers.

Jim Campanis Jr. had no illusion that the baked-in stereotype of his grandpa as a racist can be easily turned around. That’s part of what motivated him to write his book. “Changing one person’s opinion at a time is all you can do.”

Harry Edwards’ pivotal role

What’s particularly galling to Edwards is the way Campanis is frequently lumped in with the late owner of the Cincinnati Reds, Marge Schott, who talked of her “million dollar n—–s” or with Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who received a lifetime ban from the NBA after a recording surfaced of Sterling telling his then-girlfriend not to bring black people to Clippers games. “Anyone who thinks Al Campanis was a Donald Sterling or Marge Schott doesn’t understand race relations in this country,” Edwards told me.

It was during the Sterling episode a few years ago when Edwards explained that the challenge in baseball is not simply bringing more African-Americans into the upper echelon, decision-making positions, as important as that is. Edwards says the greater challenge is what he told a succession of baseball commissioners, including Bart Giamatti and Fay Vincent: that systems had been set up to deny blacks opportunities to play baseball. The percentage of African-American players has now fallen below 8 percent after once being nearly 20 percent.

“The trajectory we’re on was apparent in the 1980s. What’s at stake here is the institution of baseball as an American institution,” says Edwards. “No group in history who has ever lost pre-eminence, much less predominance in a sport, has gained it back … not the Irish in boxing, not the Italians in baseball, not the Jews in basketball. The issue for baseball is at what point are we no longer talking about an American sport as a result of the offshoring of athlete development.”

And it’s not just African-Americans who manage or play major league baseball that concerns Edwards. A few years ago on HBO’s Real Sports, Chris Rock introduced himself as “an endangered species: a black baseball fan.” And when you look around at major league ballparks these days, he has a point.

In 1984, Richard Lapchick wrote Broken Promises: Racism in American Sports, which featured, in effect, the first racial and gender report card for minority hiring in sports management. After baseball’s Campanis crisis, journalists began calling Lapchick for the numbers of minorities and women in the major sports, and since 1988 he has issued an annual report card on minority and gender hiring. The latest on baseball, out Tuesday, shows decreases in both racial and gender hiring. There are only three managers of color, 10 percent of all managers who began the 2017 MLB season: just two African-Americans, Baker of the Nationals and Dave Roberts of the Los Angeles Dodgers (who faced each other in last season’s National League playoffs), and one Latino, Rick Renteria of the Chicago White Sox. That earned the 30 MLB teams an “F” for the position of manager. In contrast, Commissioner Rob Manfred’s office earned an “A-” for hiring people of color.

Lapchick credits former Commissioner Bud Selig with setting baseball on the right course, even predating the NFL’s Rooney Rule to require that the interview process be opened up to include a diverse pool of candidates for manager and general manager jobs. For a time, the numbers went up significantly before leveling off, and in recent years they have come down again.

Without criticizing Selig, MLB Chief Legal Officer Dan Halem, who oversees baseball’s diversity efforts, conceded, “We didn’t put in place the number of programs and number of people to drive results. We tended to hope things would happen organically.” He has great faith in Commissioner Manfred’s programs to put more minorities into the pipeline to be managers and general managers. “If I’m lucky enough to be talking to you in 10 years, I think it’ll be a different conversation, particularly at the senior level.”

Halem is encouraged by this year’s player’s draft, in which the top pick could be African-American, and that Latinos now make up 30 percent of all players. But he says it’s all intertwined. “The fact that we had fewer African-American players is somewhat related to the low African-American manager numbers.”

Having had 30 years to think about it, I’m more convinced than ever that Campanis’ ugly words that April night in 1987 awakened a sleeping, complacent baseball establishment. The stewards of the game, virtually all white men, suddenly realized America’s pastime, 40 years after Jackie Robinson, didn’t much look like America. Changes were made over the years, what Manfred described as “ebbs and flows.” But sadly, 70 years after Robinson first endured the taunts and boos of being the first, as baseball again marked Jackie Robinson Day, the game in some ways looks even less like America.

Hopefully 30 years from now, on the 100th anniversary of Robinson’s baseball milestone, his descendants won’t still be saying we have a long way to go.

How long would it have taken baseball to act on its lack of managerial diversity if it had not been for Campanis and his “lack of necessities” line? Hard to tell. Maybe history will be kinder to Campanis years from now. Maybe people will realize that, in a weird way, he did baseball a favor with his poorly chosen words, forcing the sport to look at itself in the mirror and begin an effort to look more like America.

The other day, Mark Whicker, a columnist for The Orange County Register, asked what may be the central question: Did Al Campanis’ reputation die for a good cause? For a while, it seemed it had. But, given the report card issued this week to Major League Baseball — with just three managers of color; with African-American representation slipping to 7.7 percent of all players, the lowest since Lapchick began tracking minority players in the big leagues; and with African-American fan numbers dwindling — it’s become much harder to make that case.

Baseball might just need another Al Campanis moment.

Richard L. Harris spent 19 years as Senior Producer of NIGHTLINE with Ted Koppel. Harris also served on NPR's diversity committee as Director of Afternoon Programming.