April 6, 1987.
Nothing could have prepared me for what happened that spring night.
I had just finished my first week as guest producer on ABC’s “Nightline.” And I got a quick introduction into the power of live television. Just a few words and neither the baseball world nor one man’s career would ever be the same.
I was the “Nightline” producer who first called Al Campanis, inviting him on the broadcast to honor Jackie Robinson 40 years after he broke baseball’s color barrier.
“Nightline” had already established a reputation as a no-nonsense broadcast with Ted Koppel forcing guests to answer his questions directly, without filibustering or obfuscating. But baseball was not, by Ted’s own admission, in his sweet spot.
On this Monday night, the broadcast was to be a nostalgic remembrance of one of sport’s greatest milestones.
It was also one of those nights when we were lucky to make air. One of the scheduled guests, Don Newcombe -- another black baseball pioneer who followed Robinson to the Dodgers -- was on a flight that would not land in time for the show. Roger Kahn, author of “The Boys of Summer,” barely got to the Manhattan studios before airtime because of flooding in Westchester County.
And Al Campanis, the Los Angeles Dodgers vice president and general manager and a friend of Robinson’s, was to be interviewed via satellite while sitting at home plate at the Astrodome, presuming the Dodgers-Astros game ended in time.
As each guest came perilously close to missing the show, I was convinced I would be fired.
When I finally got word at home that Kahn had arrived with just a few minutes to go and Campanis and Koppel were electronically linked at the last minute, I settled in to watch, expecting anything but what happened next.
Campanis may have been a 40-year baseball veteran, but on this night he was a novice as a guest on a network news broadcast.
Kahn asked why there were so few blacks running ballclubs, 40 years after Robinson’s historic moment in 1947.
And Ted turned to Campanis, saying, “It’s a legitimate question,” and proceeded to ask him why “there are no black managers, no black general managers, no black owners?”
Campanis responded with a jaw-dropping answer: “I truly believe that they may not have some of the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager, or perhaps a general manager.”
When Ted gave Campanis a chance to dig himself out of a hole, Campanis asked, “Why are black men or black people not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.”
I turned to my wife, horror-stricken that the man I had invited to honor his old friend was committing professional suicide on live television, and predicted he might not survive this interview.
Sure enough, in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast, civil rights groups spoke out against Campanis and two days after the broadcast, the Dodgers forced him out after a four-decade association with the team.
The morning after the broadcast, I called Campanis, who was gracious and didn’t blame me for what came out of his mouth the night before.
We then spoke periodically over the years. He never tried to make an excuse for what he said. But he couldn’t quite understand why the world didn’t appreciate he wasn’t a racist. Truth be told, I think what we heard that night was a 70-year-old man say some things people of his generation said in a locker room. Not acceptable, but such words don’t necessarily equal racism.
Campanis, after all, had done more than many in bringing Latinos and African Americans into baseball’s ranks.
I always felt slightly tinged by guilt in the firing of Al Campanis. But I also realized that the interview forced then-commissioner Peter Ueberroth and the baseball owners to come to grips with the lack of diversity in the game and eventually give managerial opportunities to many minorities who deserved them.
Some years later, when I traveled to Los Angeles for “Nightline,” I called Campanis and said I wanted to finally meet him. He said he would be at the Dodgers game that night and told me where to find him.
Around the fourth or fifth inning, I spotted a man who looked like Campanis and sat down next to him. At first, I wasn’t sure I was talking with Campanis. Then he asked me, “How’s Ted?” We had a pleasant conversation. There was something satisfying about finally coming face to face with the man whose career I inadvertently cut short
I talked with him on the phone several times after that. He told me he had tried in vain to get a book published that might have been called, “I’m Not a Racist.” No one was interested. It’s sad to know he went to his grave believing people didn’t know the real Al Campanis. He died June 21, 1998.
What a first week at “Nightline” it turned out to be. Huge story. Lots of press and a man’s 40-year career evaporates before the country’s eyes.
Perhaps in their own awkward way, Al Campanis’ ill-chosen words compelled baseball to look at itself and change its hue.
Not a bad legacy.
Richard L. Harris, who spent 19 years at “Nightline,” is director of afternoon programming at National Public Radio.