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The Bitter Lesson for Al Campanis: Just Say, ‘No, Thanks’

Did you ever have an invitation you wish you hadn’t accepted, turned down, pleaded a sick headache? Did you ever wish you hadn’t answered the phone, wondered why you hadn’t squirmed out of it?

Does Napoleon wish he hadn’t gone to Waterloo, Mrs. Lincoln wish she’d said thanks, but they’d already seen the play?

On the face of it, the invitation that baseball executive Al Campanis got to go on the program, “Nightline,” on the night of April 6, 1987, seemed innocent enough.

The producer, Richard Harris, explained that he just wanted him to say a few words in tribute to the late Jackie Robinson, the 40th anniversary of whose entry into baseball was to be honored on the program.

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That’s the way invitations are. They don’t tell the truth. If the truth be known, the invite should have read: “You are cordially invited to participate in a piece of network entertainment that will cost you your job, your reputation, your place in history and maybe the good will of half a nation.”

It wasn’t an invitation, it was a warrant. They should have read him his rights, given him one call to his lawyer, given him all the rights they have to give to any ordinary suspect in custody.

Because Al ended up in the dock, pinned to the wall like a butterfly.

Never mind that he did it to himself. The point is, he was a volunteer for this immolation. Al had no more idea he was in terrible peril than Little Red Riding-Hood entering the forest with the wolf in it.

He had gone to the interview with a light heart, thinking he was going to just say some nice things about his old buddy, teammate and roommate, Jack Roosevelt Robinson.

Al had been in Houston with the team, which had lost that night, and, at the appointed hour, he was led to a chair near home plate in the darkened Astrodome, where a camera and a bright light were trained on him and a button microphone was stuck in his ear.

They should have given him a priest, or a hood to put over his head and a hearty meal to eat. Because as soon as he got strapped in, interviewer Ted Koppel threw the switch. None of Al’s mentally rehearsed responses prepared him for what Koppel was about to ask him.

Because Koppel, a self-confessed ignoramus in matters of baseball, immediately put baseball on the blocks. How come, he wanted to know, aren’t there more Jackie Robinsons, i.e., black executives, in the grand old game.

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Now, Al Campanis (NYU, CCNY) is an educated man by baseball’s standards, but Oliver Wendell Holmes, he’s not. A constitutional lawyer, he’ll never be. But he was suddenly sitting in a darkened empty ballpark, staring into a black void, being asked unanswerable questions by a man he didn’t know and couldn’t see.

It wasn’t an interview, it was an execution. Al was in one of those elaborate traps where the more you struggled, the tighter the noose got.

In an ordinary court of law, he could have taken the Fifth. But TV talk shows aren’t ordinary courts of law.

These are places where you can be gracious enough to consent to go on and someone will demand to know why you write such junk. They get reputations as fearless interrogators; you get to go lick your wounds.

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Campanis didn’t take the Fifth. He took the plunge. There wasn’t much left of him when Koppel got through. Forty-six years were in ruins.

If baseball had a case, he sure didn’t present it.

“I screwed up,” he admits candidly today. “I got confused. I buried myself.” If so, Koppel kept handing him the shovel.

“I found myself saying things I didn’t mean, explaining things I couldn’t. You can understand in that environment where you can hit on a word that does not express exactly what you mean.

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“When I said blacks lacked the ‘necessities’ to be managers or general managers, I meant the necessary experience, not things like inherent intelligence or native ability.

“You look at the years you have to have in baseball to be a successful general manager, the situations you have to experience, the contacts you have to make, the mistakes you have to learn by. Look at me. I managed for four years in the minors and the Caribbean. I was a scout for 10 years. I was scouting director for 10 years and then general manager and vice president for 19.

“That’s what I meant. You can’t walk in off the street and deal with some of the shrewd characters. You can’t build a champion team till you are at the level where you can sit down with crafty, experienced men.

“Look at Mr. Rickey. The shrewdest judge of baseball talent that ever lived. How many years did Mr. Rickey have to serve in the game before he could achieve that? His whole life.

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“I presented myself badly, but in that environment I think you can understand it. I still say there is no prejudice in baseball. Because I say that an owner will hire a man who will bring him a pennant or a world championship, regardless of what color or what religion he is. “Do you think a George Steinbrenner cares what race or religion a man is who can put him in the World Series in Yankee Stadium every year?”

Campanis is dismayed at the image a few confused responses on television can create. “I want to explain to black people and white alike that I’m not that kind of guy,” he says. “I would like to show people that the Al Campanis who’s the butt of comedian’s jokes and locker room stories is a stereotype.

“The best way I know to apologize--and I have already apologized--is to teach a course at a university free of charge on baseball management, all phases of it--the intricacies of contracts, the option rule, free agentry.

“I would like to rebuild my image. I have been hurt by this. I not only lost my job after 46 years, I lost my image. Fortunately, not everyone deserts you. My friends know the picture is not a true one.

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“My grandson is a catcher on the USC baseball team, and when they played a game against Arizona, the kids in the stands were yelling, ‘How come your grandfather is a bigot? Are you, too?’ And Rodney Peete, who is a shortstop on the baseball team and quarterback on the football, comes over and puts his arm around him and says, ‘Pay no attention, Jimmy, we still love you.’

“I had lunch with Ted Koppel. I tried to explain what I meant by ‘necessities,’ and he said, ‘What about Pete Rose?’ And I explained, ‘Well, you have to remember Pete is a drawing card, the greatest number of hits in baseball history, and they are letting him jump the queue because baseball is also in the business of selling tickets. And even Pete better have the qualifications. He better win or he’ll be a free agent again, too.’ ”

Adds Al: “I lost my job but I didn’t lose my friends.”

And, he also adds, he’s still learning about this game. Only the other day, a girl called him up to go on the TV show, “Face the Nation.”

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But by now, Al knows that ball is going to curve. He did what he should have done last April: Laid off the pitch; shook his head from side to side. He knows the best he can do with that pitch is pop it up.


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