‘Nightline’ became nightmare
LA AT 50: One in a series marking 50 years of the Dodgers in L.A.
It was 21 years ago and it remains as clear as yesterday. Al Campanis imploded on national TV, and both the Dodgers and baseball swayed wildly for a while.
A baseball team’s public-relations nightmare became an entire sport’s.
What happened that night has been well documented. How it got so quickly to the Los Angeles public that hadn’t seen the show, with that speed carrying great impact, has not been.
From a newspaperman’s standpoint, it was both a nightmare and an awakening. I lived it, and still do. I learned things I will never forget. Campanis lost his job as executive vice president and general manager of the Dodgers and several of us got the ultimate on-the-job training.
It was April 6, 1987. The Dodgers had opened the season that night in Houston.
About 8:30, the phone rang and it was Randy Harvey, then a Times sportswriter in Augusta, Ga., covering the Masters; my replacement two years ago as the sports editor of this paper. Our conversation was short. He said he had just caught a few sentences of the ABC show “Nightline.”
“Ted Koppel had Al Campanis on,” Harvey said, “and I think something controversial happened, because Koppel seemed kind of riled up. But I didn’t catch it all.”
The message was simple. Better check it out.
Calls were made. Reporters were dispatched. But it was late in Houston, where Campanis had done the interview, and an hour later in Washington, from where Koppel had hosted the show, and in New York, from where longtime baseball writer and author Roger Kahn had participated in a TV studio.
“Nightline” would come on in Los Angeles too late for our deadlines, so we would have to wait until the next day to get a tape and analyze. That seemed OK for a while, until our reporters started checking in. There seemed to be plenty of smoke and maybe some fire.
Campanis was reached at his hotel by The Times’ Sam McManis, in Houston with the Dodgers, and Campanis told him he hoped he hadn’t been misunderstood. McManis hadn’t seen the program and didn’t know exactly what had been said to be misunderstood. Suspicions and likelihoods are not printable.
The night editor in charge of The Times’ sports desk, a fiery guy named Paul Gelormino, wouldn’t let it die. It wasn’t a slow night at the paper, by any means, with Sugar Ray Leonard shocking Marvin Hagler for the middleweight title. But Gelormino kept pushing, kept saying there was something there. He wanted the story in the paper now, not later, when we’d have to spruce up our lack of timeliness with analysis and reaction and pretty charts and graphs. Gelormino was a news guy, not a pretty charts-and-graphs guy. He wanted verified facts, in the paper. Now.
In today’s world, of course, Campanis’ TV blunder would have been on 2,000 websites immediately and stirred the hackles of twice that many bloggers. Campanis would have been a dead man walking within minutes of unclipping the microphone from his lapel. Newspapers, with deadlines mandated now mostly by people who never wrote on one, would be an after-thought.
In 1987, we were the show. We had a three-hour break on deadline time against the East Coast. We preached the value of an all-inclusive sports section and usually produced one. Yet we hadn’t dealt before with the phenomenon of a news-generating television show, moving westward through time zones.
By the time we sorted through our options, “Nightline” had already played in the Central zone. We had one shot left, the Mountain time zone, and The Times owned a paper in Denver, the Post.
Gelormino had established that I would write the story. I remembered being flattered, then looking around the office and realizing I was the only staffer around who did any writing.
I reminded Gelormino who was boss and who made the assignments. Then I assigned myself the story.
Buddy Martin was a sports columnist at the Denver Post. I called his home and asked him to turn on “Nightline” and take notes. He was less than happy, knowing he may be participating in a huge story that his paper would miss because its deadline had already passed.
I reminded him of who owned who -- we used to do things like that.
He watched and listened, at first grumbling that this was ordinary stuff. Then, Campanis uttered his now infamous “blacks lack the necessities” and, a time zone away, I could sense Martin straighten in his chair. Soon, Campanis was raising the question of why blacks weren’t good swimmers and opined that they “lack buoyancy.”
I thanked Martin, who was now miserable. Another paper had a story he would love to have. He was a news guy. He couldn’t have cared less about ownership or corporations.
We had 20 minutes. I typed. Gelormino hovered.
The lead was careful. It said that Campanis had “implied . . . that blacks had not advanced in major league baseball . . . because of some inherent shortcomings.”
I was petrified. I knew what this story’s impact would be. I had been told Campanis’ words, but I knew that, by the time I saw the often-telling body language and gestures that went with them, the story would be headed toward doorsteps.
When I eventually saw the show, I knew the story had been warranted, but I didn’t feel any better. Al Campanis, a man beloved in baseball and in the city of Los Angeles, was a goner.
Two days later, he was fired by owner Peter O’Malley. He was replaced by Fred Claire, who said recently, “I was shocked by the quotes. I knew this wasn’t going to go away quickly.”
For Koppel and his crew, it had started as a nice night to honor Jackie Robinson and the 40th anniversary of his breaking the color barrier in baseball. It ended up as a night of infamy. Years later, Tom Bettag, “Nightline’s” longtime executive producer, said that show, more than any other, still came up in conversation.
Kahn talked about getting in a car to go home after the telecast and trying to get a grip on the enormity of what he had just participated in.
“When he said that blacks lacked the necessities,” Kahn said, “my legs almost fell off.”
Kahn was as conflicted as most of us. He was truly angry by what Campanis had said, but he had additional reasons to not want Campanis destroyed in public.
Two years before, Kahn had taken his son, Roger Laurence, to see Campanis at Dodger Stadium and Campanis had gently and correctly convinced the younger Kahn that, while he had some skills as a baseball player, his best long-range course in life was to go to school and get a degree.
The younger Kahn, struggling with drug addiction, did exactly that, and his father said those next two years, with his son at UCLA, were good ones.
Three months after “Nightline,” July of 1987, Roger Laurence Kahn died of a drug overdose.
The Dodgers won the World Series the next year, the year of the Kirk Gibson homer. But things started to scatter a bit after that, as they might have with or without the grandfather-like presence of Campanis.
O’Malley became intensely interested in the prospect of bringing an NFL team to Los Angeles, and poured heart, soul and money into that, only to be knocked off track by city political interests at the Coliseum. Eventually, he sold the Dodgers to Fox, which was more interested in broadcast rights than baseball ownership.
Claire, a former sportswriter, served well as general manager until Fox traded Mike Piazza out from under him and an on-field downhill slide, which includes only one playoff victory since the Orel Hershiser-Gibson ’88 World Series, began.
Campanis died in 1998, a day after Fox fired Claire and Manager Bill Russell.
Campanis was 81. Over the years, he had come to grips with what had happened and had acknowledged that O’Malley did what he had to do when he fired him.
His death brought a new groundswell of statements from people who said they knew him well, knew he wasn’t a racist, didn’t have a racist bone in his body. Many said it was a tragedy that he will always be remembered as much for that “Nightline” as for all the good he did for the game.
No argument that it was a tragedy -- for Campanis and for an entire race of people he insulted.
It was also one tough news story.
Bill Dwyre can be reached at email@example.com. For previous columns by Dwyre, go to latimes.com/dwyre.