by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — His phone number was easy enough to find. He still lives in southern California, same house, same patio, same swimming pool. Someone said he was working on a book. I dialed the seven digits.

For the last column of 1987, I wanted to talk with the year’s biggest goat.

“Al Campanis?” I said.

“Speaking,” said the voice.

Is there anyone who doesn’t know his name by now — people who otherwise never would have heard of him, grandmothers and housewives and college kids with no interest in baseball? In another world, he might be quietly retiring now, an office party, a cake, lots of telegrams thanking him for 46 years with the Dodgers.

But Al Campanis went on television.

One night. Thirty minutes. Staring blankly into a single camera with only Ted Koppel’s voice in his ear. He could see nothing, but millions of viewers could see him, and when Koppel asked about blacks in baseball, why there weren’t more black managers, Campanis, 71, put his foot in his mouth and made the country flinch.

Two days later he was fired.

“I don’t think I’m ready for an interview,” he said now over the phone, his voice a bit soft and rambling. “I’m writing a book, I’m trying to write a book. . . . I’ve given a few interviews since the ‘Nightline’ thing. Some were so negative. . . .

“Everything is going positive for me right now. I want to keep it that way. I think everybody realizes it was an unfortunate incident. I see people on the street or in the stores and they say ‘You got a raw deal.’ . . . But I tell them I was going to retire at the end of the year anyhow, so. . . .”
‘If my termination helps . . . ‘

This is a crazy business. We grab five minutes of a person’s time and slap it on a screen or in a newspaper and it sticks as if etched on God’s tablet. Nobody really knew Al Campanis the day they called for his head. His comments seemed more than enough:

“Blacks might not have some of the necessities (to be big- league managers) . . .” he had said. And later: “Why are black men and women not good swimmers? They don’t have the buoyancy. . . .”

Was he crazy? How could he say that? In one night he went from front-office

executive to front-page bigot. Yet today, nine months later, the heat of the moment has cooled. Little has happened in the hiring of black managers. And Campanis, the reverse example of Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of celebrity, lives alone in his nice house, with no job and no office at Dodger Stadium.

“You know, I played with Jackie Robinson in Montreal in 1946,” he said,
“Did you know that? I was the shortstop. He played second base. . . . He was a wonderful man. . . . He would have made an excellent executive. . . .

“I, uh, really shouldn’t do any interviews. I’m putting it in a book, if we can, although I don’t know, the book market isn’t so good now. . . . But like I said, I had 46 wonderful years. I am not complaining. . . .

“I’ve been honored down in Latin America. . . . I’m going down there again soon. . . . I may do some lecturing at Cal State-Fullerton. . . .

“I’ll just say if my termination with the Dodgers helps the minority groups to advance, then I am not sorry a bit that it occurred. Not at all.”

He was not on TV when he said that. Just talking on the phone with a newspaper writer.

Does that make it less significant?

Is the legacy too harsh?

Everyone should hate what Al Campanis said that night in April. The remarks were racist. And yet few people know Campanis also was instrumental in helping Latin Americans get ahead in baseball, or that he recommended Jim Gilliam, a black man, as a coach, or Tommy Davis, a black man, as a batting instructor. Or that, in that same Koppell interview, he said he had played alongside black ball players in the ’40s and never felt any differences as men.

We are busy. We move too fast. We take what we hear and whisper down the lane and things get bigger and bigger, then explode, then fade away. Al Campanis deserved what he got; he had to be fired. But after 71 years on earth, he may not deserve to be remembered only as “the guy who screwed up on
‘Nightline.’ “

Too late now.

“You’re here for the Rose Bowl?” he asked.

“Yes,” I answered.

“Are you rooting for Michigan State?”

“Well, I’m from there.”

He chuckled. “I’m rooting for USC.”

“That’s OK.”

“Yes,” he said, softly, ” that’s the good thing about America. Two people can pull against one another and still be friends.”

And he hung up. I tell you this: If there’s one lesson learned from 1987, it’s that keeping your perspective in this crazy country is getting harder and harder.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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