On April 6th, 1987, the biggest sports story of the night was supposed to be the highly anticipated boxing matchup between Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard. ABC’s Nightline with Ted Koppel was set to broadcast the fight later in the evening, but needed a story to fill the time before the showdown began. Because it was the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s integration of the MLB, Nightline decided to conduct a tribute to Robinson and his legacy. Among several guests, including Jackie’s widow, Rachel, was Al Campanis, the general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and a man who had been a part of Major League Baseball for decades. Prompted by previous comments from Rachel Robinson, in which she had stated that Jackie would have been disappointed in the lack of progress made in the MLB since he first began playing and the racism that still existed in management and front office positions, Ted Koppel decided to ask Campanis what he thought of the issue. Al Campanis opened his mouth, began speaking, and suddenly the Hagler-Leonard fight was the second biggest sports story of the night.
Koppel asked Campanis “to peel it away a little bit. Just tell me, why do you think it is? Is there still that much prejudice in baseball today?”
Then, Campanis answered, “No, I don’t believe it’s prejudice. I truly believe that [African-Americans] may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or perhaps a general manager.”
Campanis then went on to suggest that there weren’t many African Americans in pitching, catching, or quarterbacking positions because those were more cerebral positions and required a level of thinking that many black players didn’t possess. He also added, quite bizarrely, this philosophy: “Why are black men, or black people, not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.”
Ted Koppel, along with every other viewer tuning in, was quite understandably shocked by Campanis’ remarks. Koppel was so confused, in fact, that he repeatedly tried to help Campanis realize the gravity of his comments and to give him a chance to correct himself. Such efforts were in vain, and Campanis’ statements continued to be racially charged. Koppel went on to ask, “Just as a matter of curiosity, Mr. Campanis, what is the percentage now of black ballplayers, for example, in your franchise?”
Campanis replied, “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.”
Unsurprisingly, Al Campanis’ ignorant and utterly insensitive remarks cost him his job in the days following the interview and have since shrouded his name in infamy. What is perhaps most confusing about his comments, however, is the fact that he had never before displayed any racist ideologies and in fact had been involved in promoting African American participation in baseball in previous years. He had even been Jackie Robinson’s teammate and roommate decades prior. Yet, when he made his comments on Nightline, he revealed something that no one wanted to acknowledge at that time: that racism still existed in baseball, and it was disgustingly ugly.
After the interview, Frank Robinson, the first black manager in the MLB, commented by saying, “Baseball has been hiding this ugly prejudice for years—that black aren’t smart enough to be managers or third-base coaches or part of the front office. There’s a belief that they’re fine when it comes to the physical part of the game, but if it involves brains they just can’t handle it. Al Campanis made people finally understand what goes on behind closed doors: that there is racism in baseball.” This attitude ultimately represents the problems many African Americans faced toward the end of the 20th century and the discriminatory beliefs that pervaded athletics even after all sports had been fully integrated- they were eventually considered athletically gifted enough to excel on the court or the field, but ultimately were seen as not smart or intellectual enough to hold a coaching or management position. What’s worse, we unfortunately continue to see these trends today.
It must be stated that Al Campanis was aging (at the time of the interview he was 70 years old) and for whatever reasons may not have been himself during the program. He is even said to have had a tendency to sort of bumble through interviews and mess up his speech and trains of thought. Given his previous work in the MLB, as well as accounts about his actions both before and after the interview, I have to believe that Al Campanis was not a racist or a bigot. In fact, he may have been misunderstood and wrongfully shamed following his appearance on Nightline. That being said, he exposed an underlying way of discriminatory thinking that seemed to exist throughout the MLB, one that continues to characterize the wrongful stereotypes of African American athletes that govern their roles in sports.
Al Campanis was the first person to blatantly state the racist beliefs of the sports world, but there is no denying that the discrimination behind his remarks had existed long before he spoke with Ted Koppel on Nightline. While we have since progressed beyond this ideology, it still continues to exist under the surface of sports at times, but hopefully we will eventually be able to overcome this ignorance through more diversity hirings in coaching and front office positions in all of sports.
Zirin, Dave. “25 Years Since Al Campanis Shocked Baseball: What’s Changed and What Hasn’t | The Nation.” The Nation. The Nation, 16 Apr. 2012. Web. 05 Mar. 2013.
Weinbaum, William. “The Legacy of Al Campanis.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures, 01 Apr. 2012. Web. 05 Mar. 2013.