by | Apr 10, 1987 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

There goes Al Campanis, right to the junk heap. What did you expect? He gets on ABC’s “Nightline” and says blacks can’t manage major league teams because they lack “the necessities.” He says they can’t swim because they lack “the buoyancy.” Whoa. Are you kidding me?

Say bye, Al. Forty-seven years in baseball, and he’s gone, forced to resign, and now that we’ve chewed him up, the saliva is really flowing: Social groups scream we must do something about racism in baseball, and players scream we must do something, and commissioner Peter Ueberroth has vowed to do something.

Great. Talk to me in a month. In six months. Let’s see the same fever after some other scandal grabs the headlines. Racism didn’t begin Monday night at 11:30, you know.

Al Campanis is a dunce, he had to be, for 30 minutes, to say the things he did to Ted Koppel. The “Nightline” show was supposed to be a tribute to Jackie Robinson. Instead, Campanis, the Dodgers’ vice-president for player relations, dug his professional grave at least nine different ways.

But know this: He was not asked to resign for thinking racist thoughts; his crime was voicing them on TV. Had he made the same comments in the boardroom or the bathroom or the luxury box, he’d still have a desk to go to this morning.

And there’s your problem. Because in the boardrooms and the bathrooms they’re still making those remarks, still mistaking race for intelligence, still looking to take care of their own first. “This is the saddest day of my life,” Campanis said upon leaving.

How much sadder if nothing comes of it? The issue is hot — for now Hold up one hand. Count the fingers. That’s how many “management level” blacks there are in the American League. The entire league. One sales rep, one marketing man, one accountant, one ticket sales director, one clubhouse manager. We leave out a black man who is the
“executive chef” for the California Angels. That is not my idea of management. I don’t care how well he cooks.

Twenty-six teams. Hundreds of minority players. No minority mangers, no minority GMs. What did Curt Flood once say? “I’m glad God made my skin black. I just wish he’d made it thicker”?

But OK. These facts have been around for a while. The irony is that without Campanis’ televised collapse, they would be on the back burner today.
“The subject seems to come up like an anniversary,” said Vada Pinson, the only black coach on the Detroit Tigers. “It’s like, here it is, the racial thing again. And then it disappears and nothing is done about it.”

I asked Pinson whether he thought he’d get a fair shake at managing the Tigers if the job opened. “I don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t.”

But sadly, here is an American pattern. Issues get hot. We get hot. Then they cool. And we move on. Ueberroth — who went on “Nightline” himself Wednesday — said he has a plan of attack. Rake the minor leagues for openings, fill them with minorities, destroy the tired excuse that few blacks and Latinos are interested. Good. But at last check, Ueberroth wasn’t the man doing the hiring.

Baseball is still largely an old-boy network, a close-knit fraternity of former ball players and their ball-playing buddies. When players are “groomed for management,” they are often men much like their mentors. In most cases that means white. The few players who jump straight from lineup to manager’s office — Pete Rose, Lou Piniella — seem to be tagged for the role years earlier. They are considered “in line.” Where does the line form? Who gets to stand in it?

Public shame; private jokes The Yankees were here Thursday. I asked right fielder Dave Winfield, who is as articulate and intelligent as any player in the game (he is also black), if he felt he would hit any walls of prejudice should he pursue a front-office career. “Me?” he said. He thought for a while. Then he nodded.

“That’s terrible to realize, isn’t it?” he said.

Yes it is.

There are places today where they believe Campanis was innocent, blinded by camera light, that he should not have been ousted for one mistake. Not here. Campanis may not be a racist — that word is often misused — but just as he once traded players for the good of the team, he departs now for the good of the game.

And what does it accomplish? Nothing if the words that shamed him on TV are simply repeated in places more private. You can bet there are people out there right now making jokes about black swimmers, and black quarterbacks and black managers. Until that ends, this whole thing is just a highly celebrated weed-pull.

Eddie Robinson, the longtime football coach at Grambling University, was once asked why he stayed there, working with poor black players, instead of fleeing for better opportunities. “Some build the roads,” he said, “some drive over them.”

This week it’s the Al Campanis Highway, and we’re driving madly over his professional corpse. Let’s just hope the road takes us someplace better.


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