(Ted Koppel and Al Campanis on Nightline)
For the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's breakthrough into Major League Baseball, ABC's Nightline hosted a routine conference call to commemorate the Dodger hero. Al Campanis, who was the Dodgers' current VP and general manager, had been a part of the organization for nearly half a century and played alongside Jackie in the minor leagues. Campanis was considered one of Robinson's closest friends on the field, making his panel appearance on Nightline a no-brainer.
But on the night of April 6, 1987, Campanis made statements that not at all reflected his reputation. Asked if prejudice played a factor in the dearth of black coaches and GM's in American sports, Campanis answered, "I truly believe that they [African-Americans] may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager, or let's say, perhaps a general manager."
Ted Koppel gave follow-up questions that would have allowed Al to retract his statements. But Campanis lacked the good sense to do so, and even adding, "Why are black people not good swimmers? Because they don't have the buoyancy."
Campanis' statements launched an uproar throughout the United States. He was forced to resign just two days later, his reputation and legacy forever disgraced.
His comments forced an assessment on how far athletics had come since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, especially since it was the 40-year benchmark of that event. While blacks made up the majority of the NBA and NFL, there were only a handful of African-American executives and owners in professional sports. In Major League Baseball, there wasn't a single black coach, GM, or majority owner.
Those numbers increased greatly over the next decade, in some part to the awareness created by Campanis' statements. Yet over the years, the number of black baseball players dropped precipitously. African-Americans made up roughly a quarter of the baseball rosters in the 1980's, yet they made up less than 9% of the players on the 60th anniversary of Robinson's debut. Unlike the managing issue, this was seen more as a generational fading by young African-Americans rather than a case of prejudice.
As for Campanis, his peers within the Dodger organization did not regard him as a racist or bigot. Though his statements carried the lingering voice of discrimination, perhaps lifted from the era he lived in, no one who believed that he meant any malice or hurtfulness.
"I don't believe Campanis has a prejudiced bone in his body," said Don Newcombe, Robinson's teammate who was one of the first black pitchers in baseball. "If Jackie were around today, I don't think he would appreciate what has happened to Al, because Al helped him and befriended him. He would tell Al, 'You just messed up and you've got to apologize,' and Al did apologize."