When baseball had its Donald Sterling moment

Jack Moore
Kirby Lee / Reuters

Major League Baseball had a Donald Sterling moment, a moment in which it has reacted swiftly to excise someone who made public racist comments. It was not, as one common analogy has been, former Reds owner Marge Schott. Schott spent the 1990s in and out of suspensions for a litany of racist and bigoted comments (the Spartanburg Herald-Journal provides an excellent timeline here), but owned shares in the Reds until her death in 2004.

Rather, the source of the fatal gaffe was Dodgers general manager Al Campanis. Campanis did not have a detailed history of public racism like Schott or Sterling, and it would later become clear he was not a Schott or a Sterling, but sometimes 134 seconds is enough.

Campanis, an executive and not an owner and thus easily removed from an organization, was finished as soon as he said, "It's just that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let's say, a field manager, or, perhaps, a general manager." If not, his comments on "great musculature" and "buoyancy" were sure to sink him, and rightly so. Beyond the obvious racism of the statements, Campanis was in a position of unique power as the Dodgers' general manager of nearly 20 years, a massive figure in the baseball industry and one of fewer than 30 people in charge of hiring in a major league organization.

Shortly after, on April 9th, 1987, the Dodgers requested Campanis resign his post, and Campanis obliged. "Comments given by Al Campanis are so far removed from what the organization believes that it is impossible for Al to continue his responsibilities," Dodgers president Peter O'Malley said. "I don't believe those comments accurately reflect his thoughts and feelings," O'Malley added, "but what was said was said." 

The story exploded. As nationally syndicated columnist Nicholas Van Hoffman wrote, "When what he had done dawned on Mr. Campanis, he apologized but by the next day a reluctant Dodger management had sacked him, the California State Assembly passed a motion of censure and every man, woman and child in America with access to a computer dumped on him." 

It was not surprising to see that many white writers jumped to Campanis's defense. Pulitzer Prize winning columnist Mike Royko wrote, "But I'm not convinced that what Campanis said is what he meant. I watched that show and it looked to me as if he was thoroughly confused by the questions." Royko added "I'm sure he's never been hammered by someone like Koppel, the most relentless, merciless interrogator on TV" and later described Koppel as "an English-born TV interrogator who didn't know [Jackie] Robinson." and generally implied the entire incident could be blamed on the Nightline host. 

George Vecsey of the New York Times was spirited in his defense. "Every morning when he is home, Al Campanis drives a few miles to the house of his mother, where breakfast is awaiting him," Vecsey's column opens, and the gratuitous sentimentality continues throughout the piece. Vecsey's primary point, however, is that "I have never heard Al Campanis say anything faintly resembling the foolish phrases he used on television."

The defenses of Royko and Vecsey fall flat today as too reliant on blaming Koppel, a journalist who couldn't have claimed to be doing his job without pushing Campanis on his comments. If anything, Koppel was trying to help. As Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Daly wrote:

Once he got talking, Campanis' analysis of blacks in and out of the front offices of baseball was so benighted, so full of gibbering nonsense that you could see his career dissolving before your eyes.

Clearly, "Nightline" host Ted Koppel saw it, and tried to give Campanis a pass. Having heard the Dodger executive maintain that blacks perhaps lacked "the necessities" to be field managers or general managers, Koppel tried to pull the hook out of Campanis' mouth.

"I'd like to give you another chance to dig yourself out," Koppel told him, "because I think you need it."

Campanis's best defense came from Sam Lacy, writing in the Washington Afro-American the week after the "Nightline" broadcast. Lacy is clear that his column is not intended to "absolve [Campanis] for this lack of wisdom in opening his mouth." But Lacy, a legendary sportswriter who spent 70 years writing in black newspapers, rather pointed out the source of Campanis's ideas.

What do you say when you're between the proverbial 'rock and a hard place'?....Do you lie?....Or do you try to find an appropriate line to sing from "Impossible Dream"? 

So, for voicing the obvious, Al Campanis was universally flogged by people who have known of the sickness all along, then fired by the people who have been feeding the cancer.

The onus is on the clubowners... They hire the general managers, who hire the field managers the owners want. 

Since Jackie Robinson retired in 1957, and Roy Campanella was incapacitated (by auto accident) in 1958, there have been 291 managerial changes in the major leagues -- 165 in the American and 126 in the National .... Owners make those changes; the major media reports them -- but never questions the perpetuation of the (white) status quo.

Or, as Frank Robinson, baseball's first black manager put it, Campanis "was saying what a lot of baseball people think, and I'm glad it's finally in the open."

Campanis was 23 in 1940 when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, and he was 70 in 1987 when he was fired as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. This is a man who had lived nothing in his adult life other than the life of a baseball man, from player to scout to executive to GM. Campanis may not have harbored actively racist intent. But then it cannot be avoided that a man who spent 47 years working in Major League Baseball responded with those words, that his first reaction to the idea of blacks in managerial positions was to doubt their possession of certain necessities. And if this could happen in the Dodgers organization -- the organization of Jackie Robinson, who was the whole reason Campanis was brought onto "Nightline" in the first place -- it seems safe to assume the problem was universal.

To his credit, Campanis worked to attempt to right his wrongs. When MLB hired Harry Edwards, a prominent black sociologist at the University of California-Berkeley who focused on issues in sports, Campanis reached out to Edwards. "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 told ESPN's Outside the Lines in 2012. 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."

Despite his later efforts, Campanis cannot be forgiven for his remarks. As comfortable as he might have been with the culture and discourse within Major League Baseball, the responsibility still falls on people like him to detect the problems within it. Ignorance is not an excuse, and even without malicious intent, there is a vast malicious effect of such mindsets taking hold in a wide-reaching institution like Major League Baseball.

As much as we like to say our games are no place for racism, one of the most common refrains in the aftermath of Donald Sterling's comments, the people in our games consistently prove otherwise. From owners like Sterling who can throw his financial weight around to maintain his post to executives like Campanis who were the product of decades working in a racist culture, American sports have been a breeding ground for racist views of athletes and people in general. 

For the NBA, banning Sterling was the obvious next step, as was firing Campanis for the Dodgers in 1987. But if our sports leagues are truly committed to making sure our games are no place for racism, the light cannot shine on these issues only when feet are put in mouths on the air or on TMZ. Rather, these issues must be in constant focus for those in power in our sports leagues, and until they are we can only expect more Campanises and Sterlings in the future.