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Scott Ostler

How Could the Dodgers Be So Blind So Long?

April 09, 1987|SCOTT OSTLER

Now that the Dodgers have quickly eased their resident racist out of the general manager's seat and into retirement, they're cool, right?

Now they're square with the black community, and with the human community that was offended by Al Campanis' extraordinary statements on television Monday night, right?

Now the Dodgers can heave a sigh and get back to the business of baseball, right.

Uh, no.

There is still the slight problem of explaining how a man who holds the beliefs Campanis expounded so vividly on television could have been the No. 1 baseball man in the No. 1 organization in American sports for the last 19 years.

Peter O'Malley has been president of the Dodgers for 18 years. His baseball general manager for all 18 of those years, until today, has been Al (Chief) Campanis, whose actual title was vice president in charge of player personnel.

Is it possible that Al Campanis could have kept his views on black people, his serious doubts about their ability to manage or hold high executive office, a secret from Peter O'Malley and other top Dodger executives for almost two decades? Didn't the subject ever come up?

And if Campanis' views were known, how can the Dodgers justify having kept him around for this long? How can they justify it from a practical, legal or moral standpoint?

I mean, Campanis has been calling a lot of shots over the years. That's why everyone associated with the Dodgers calls him Chief. If not the final say, he surely has had a major input in deciding who works for the Dodgers and who doesn't, at various levels.

The Dodgers have never hired a black manager, in the majors or minors, nor a black general manager, although all hirings at all levels don't go directly through the main club. Why not? Is it because the team's general manager believes blacks lack the "necessities," as Campanis said on television? Or is it because an organization that would have such a man in high office lacks the necessities to provide equal opportunity?

All of this ruckus, of course, presumes that Campanis really does harbor some racial prejudice, a charge that will be hotly and widely contested by a legion of his friends and supporters.

Some will say that Campanis was a victim of a fast-talking, controversy-mongering TV guy, Ted Koppel. If you saw the show in question, however, that argument withers. It is a remarkable bit of television. Koppel simply asks Campanis to offer an opinion on why there aren't any black managers or general managers in the big leagues.

Campanis says, in no uncertain terms, he believes blacks lack the necessities. He says many are unwilling to pay their dues in the minors. A moment later, after talking to author Roger Kahn, Koppel returns to Campanis and says, "I'd like to give you another chance to dig yourself out, because I think you need it."

Campanis proceeds to dig himself deeper. Much deeper. He uses a steam shovel.

Finally, Koppel says: "I must say, I'm flabbergasted."

I've seen Koppel go for the jugular, grill a guest the way a hibachi grills a sirloin. This time, he seemed genuinely embarrassed for Campanis, and shocked.

And it wasn't just a slip of the tongue by Campanis, or an off-the-cuff remark that might have been misunderstood or misinterpreted by Koppel or the public. Campanis hit us again and again with eye-popping statements.

Look, I understand that we are all, to an extent, products of our time. Campanis grew up in an era when young boxers were warned to never punch a black man on the head, lest they injure their hands. It's understandable that Campanis might have picked up some misguided ideas regarding the relative buoyancy or intelligence of black people.

This doesn't make him a bad person. But you don't have to get into your car and run down black people in a crosswalk to qualify as a racist. Racists can be nice, kindly, warm people. They can even be kindly and warm to the people against whom they are prejudiced. Their racism can be born of simple ignorance.

Tom Lasorda sprang to Campanis' defense, saying "When he judges ballplayers, he doesn't judge color."

But what about when Campanis judges prospective managers or executives, which is the issue here? He seemed to say on television that blacks might not be as qualified as whites to become pitchers.

It's difficult to brush his comments aside. It's impossible. There will be some heat and some rhetoric. One angry black assemblywoman who can't even pronounce Campanis' name denounced him on television Tuesday night.

We have to keep cool. The world shouldn't lay the blame on Campanis for 100 years of systematic racism in sports. Hey, what about the other major league teams, none of which has a black manager or general manager? What about teams that took 10 years beyond Jackie Robinson to integrate, and teams that even today are suspect?

What about the modern-era National Football League, where there has never been a black head coach? Is that Al Campanis' fault, too? Did Al keep black golfers out of the Masters for all those years?

No, he's just one guy, and it's still unproven that even one black person has ever suffered a real injustice at Campanis' hands.

Yet his statements can't be ignored.

Firing him was a simple decision, like deciding whether or not to flee a burning building. Campanis fired himself. In the furor he generated on ABC-TV's "Nightline," you didn't have to look for a smoking gun. He was the smoking gun.

But an even more serious issue is that we're dealing here with an organization that kept a loaded weapon out in the open for 19 years.

In an ironic way, Al Campanis might turn out to be the Jackie Robinson of the '80s, a man who, through his suffering, helps further the cause of racial equality. As the fitness freaks say, "No pain, no gain."

Maybe the Campanis incident will result in the forced junking of some old baseball beliefs that have kept blacks from being more buoyant in the sea of upper-level employment opportunity. But Al's departure won't get the Dodgers off the hot seat.

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