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A Lifetime Destroyed by Words

“Eenie, meenie, minie, moe. Catch a tiger by the toe.”

We all learned that children’s rhyme, some differently than others.

Some didn’t, and maybe still don’t, say tiger, employing an ‘N’ word with racist overtones instead.

George Campanis remembered Sunday making that mistake in his youth and remembered the beating as well.

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“It was the only time my dad took a belt to me,” said Campanis on the Father’s Day that George and Jimmy lost their father. “My dad said he never wanted to hear me use that word. Dad brought his family up right. There was never any prejudice or racism tolerated.”

Al Campanis died Sunday morning at 81, his vitality stripped by the infirmities of age, although he had been strong enough to share a lunch with former Dodger owner Peter O’Malley last weekend.

It was O’Malley, under pressure from civic leaders and civil rights groups, who had fired Campanis in April of 1987 for his racially insensitive remarks on the television show “Nightline.”

How strange and sad.

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A lifetime in baseball as a player, scout and executive, helping shape Jackie Robinson’s career, expanding scouting in Latin America, scouting and signing so many African American players, taking a belt to his son for using the ‘N’ word, and this is the man who tends to be thought of as a racist?

I don’t buy it, which is not to say that Campanis shouldn’t have been fired or that he may not have held to some misguided beliefs shaped in generations past.

Blacks can’t swim because they lack buoyancy?

Campanis said it on “Nightline.”

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Ridiculous, of course.

No black managers in the majors because they may lack some of the necessities?

Campanis said it on “Nightline.”

Ridiculous, of course.

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But Campanis a racist?

No way.

Not the man I knew for more than 30 years, the man who hung only three pictures in his Dodger Stadium office--those of Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente, an African American, a Jew and a Puerto Rican. Two of whom, Koufax and Clemente, were scouted and signed by Campanis and are in the Hall of Fame.

Not the man I remember on so many occasions--at Dodger Stadium, in his Fullerton home, on planes and buses--talking with so much pride and enthusiasm about Tommy Davis and Willie Davis, Maury Wills and even the exasperating Willie Crawford, and especially that 1946 season, on assignment from Branch Rickey, playing shortstop with the Montreal Royals and tutoring Robinson on the rudiments of second base.

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Not the man I remember trading for cornerstones of the ‘70s such as Jimmy Wynn, Dusty Baker and Reggie Smith, trading to bring back Maury Wills and acquire Manny Mota, even taking a chance on Dick Allen.

Color and culture didn’t matter to Al Campanis. He was a baseball man who believed in the Rickey dogma, preached the Mahatma litany of luck being the residue of design, filled so many nights at Dodgertown telling Rickey stories that we all raised our eyebrows--or a glass--when he started another.

This is the man who wrote the book on the Dodgers way to play baseball--in an era when they followed it and lived it. The man who loved to use Rickey’s term of “coconut snatching” when he moved a player from one position to another, as he did with Bill Russell and Davey Lopes, converting the two outfielders to the infield, where they formed an 11-year partnership with Steve Garvey and Ron Cey.

No, what I think this baseball man meant to say on that April night in ’87 when he sat on a stool near home plate in the darkened Astrodome, searched in space for the hidden camera and kept tugging on his ear piece in an attempt to hear Ted Koppel in New York, was that blacks need experience like everyone else before they can manage in the majors and some times they seemed hesitant to go to the minors to get it.

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Brand me an apologist, perhaps, but listen to Don Newcombe, who has worked for the Dodgers since 1970 and followed Robinson through that door in Brooklyn.

“I don’t believe [Campanis] has a prejudiced bone in his body,” Newcombe said in an interview with The Times on the 10th anniversary of the “Nightline” appearance. “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. . . . Al didn’t mean for what he said to come out the way it came out, but blacks need qualifications for a job like anybody else needs qualifications. You cannot be a general manager just because you’ve been successful on the field. That’s not the way you run this business or any other business.”

This is the way Campanis ran his business: The first trade he made after succeeding the late Fresco Thompson as general manager in 1967 was to trade a Dodger catching prospect named Jimmy Campanis to the Kansas City Royals for two minor leaguers because he didn’t want the hint of favoritism or nepotism following Jimmy and. . . . well, if Jimmy had a future, it wasn’t with the Dodgers.

That was Campanis.

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Spank one son for using the ‘N’ word. Trade the other because he didn’t want to be accused of playing favorites.

Firm but fair.

And proud of the blue, of Tom Lasorda, whom he promoted from scout to minor league manager to major league coach to Walter Alston’s successor and whom he occasionally had to sit on, and proud particularly of all those young players who came through the system when he was making the decisions.

He was right on so many occasions, and wrong on that fateful April 6 1987 in what I will always believe was a semantic breakdown by a man who was never a wordsmith and paid a heavy price for it.

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Ten years of exile, forlornly appearing at ballparks and baseball gatherings in the futile hope someone would give him the chance to rebuild his reputation and help build a ballclub in the process.

That was what Campanis was best at, where he was needed, not talking into a camera.

Some may view “Nightline” as his legacy, but the image I see is different.

I see the baseball man in his kitchen demonstrating how to turn the double play, as if I was a young Jackie Robinson.

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I see him sitting in his office, the roster on one wall, those three defining pictures on the other.

* AL CAMPANIS 1916-1998; EX-DODGER EXECUTIVE DIES AT 81. Story, A1

* MORE COVERAGE, C8


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