Looking back at Al Campanis’ Racist Waterloo

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Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis was really, really good at what he did. Not just as a GM between 1969 and 1987, but as a Dodgers scout and scouting director for the 20 years before that. In those roles he was, perhaps, more responsible for the Dodgers’ excellence from the 1950s through the 1980s than anyone.

Last year Mark Armour and Dan Levitt wrote a book called In Pursuit of Pennants, which talked about how clubs were built and in which they ranked baseball general managers. Campanis came in at number 13, all-time. Heck, his 1968 draft alone probably would’ve put him high on the list. That year he got Ron Cey, Dave Lopes, Steve Garvey, Doyle Alexander, Joe Ferguson, Geoff Zahn, and Bill Buckner, all in the same draft. I mean, mercy.

But he was fired in 1987, just as the Dodgers were building another World Series winner. He was fired not because he ceased to be good at his job, but because of something he said that was unforgettable and unforgivable. It happened on April 6, 1987 when he went on Nightline with Ted Koppel to talk about the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier.

Robinson and Campanis, by the way, had been friends, teammates and coworkers. Campanis was not thought of as a racist man by his contemporaries or, if he was, the public didn’t know about it. But when asked why there were no black managers or general managers in the game, Campanis said, “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.” He went on to say “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.”

His goose was cooked. This was 19th century-style faux intellectualism cum eugenics nonsense used to defend racism in 1987 and the Dodgers would not stand for it, as they should not have.

Today Steven Goldman of Vice has a great article about this whole affair. His primary purpose is to get inside the mind of someone like Al Campanis. A man who did not wave confederate flags or drop N-bombs that anyone knew of, yet who showed himself to be clearly racist in the most open and obvious sorts of ways, simply by being asked a question. He was literally a person in a position of power keeping people from positions of authority by virtue of the color of their skin. How could such a man rise to the top of his industry and stay there 40 years after the game integrated despite believing the things he believed?

Goldman’s answer is an interesting one which goes a long way toward explaining how racism manages to persist despite almost everyone knowing that there are certain things one can’t say and certain things one should not think about people of color. It persists because people who would not say such things nonetheless still harbor such attitudes, often without even knowing that they do.

How can this be? Go read Goldman’s article and find out.