Will Ozzie Guillén Go the Same Way as Al Campanis?

Culture Watch


Murray Polner, a regular History News Network book reviewer, wrote "Branch Rickey: A Biography" and "No Victory Parades: The Return of the Vietnam Veteran."

When the Miami Marlins’ Venezuelan-born manager Ozzie Guillén confessed to Time that he “loved” Fidel Castro, he caused a lot of anger in the streets and cafes of that city’s huge Cuban population. Even the city's mayor has demanded penalties. Poor Ozzie. He and his bosses will now have to beg forgiveness from Cubans still dreaming of going back home and pray they’ll still be able to sell lots of season tickets.

It makes me think of Al Campanis, a true baseball old-timer I knew who was drummed out of the game he so loved in 1987 because of his absurd remark on Nightline about black players lacking “the necessities” to be managers or front office people. He’d been a Montreal Royal shortstop in 1946, playing alongside Jackie Robinson at second base. He barnstormed off-season with a racially integrated squad, becoming a Brooklyn Dodger scout who unearthed Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax, He reached the apex of his profession as general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers,  taking them to four pennants and one World Series title. He even prevented a former black Dodger from killing himself. And then he was suddenly, abruptly, unexpectedly, and permanently blacklisted.

In late 1987 or early 1988 Al Campanis gave me a call. Out of a job since that TV performance, he asked if I would help him write his autobiography. He said he had first asked the estimable New York Times sportswriter George Vecsey, who for his own reasons turned him down. He now came to me, he said, because I’d written a biography of his former mentor and boss Branch Rickey. The next week I drove up the coast from Laguna Hills to Fullerton in Orange County, where Al and his wife lived in a modest suburban home not far from Angels Stadium.

Born out of wedlock in 1916 in Kos, part of the Dodecanese Islands (once part of Italy but returned to Greece in 1947), Campanis and his mother arrived in the U.S. when he was six. He graduated from New York University and then joined the Navy. Once discharged, he began playing minor league baseball.

On at least a four or five occasions I drove north to Fullerton, where Al and other expatriate former Brooklyn Dodgers had moved in 1957 when Walter O’Malley kidnapped the team and moved them to L.A. (As the hoary joke among unrequited Brooklyn fans went and still goes, a diehard Brooklyn fan walks into a bar with a gun and sees Hitler, Stalin and O’Malley. Guess who he shoots?)

We talked and talked, drank coffee, ate sandwiches and sat around his comfortable but hardly luxurious kitchen, his wife always gone for the day. He was about 71, a tall, agile, still-vigorous if aging athlete with a commanding tone. A man accustomed to lead, or so I thought when I first met him. He spoke quietly of his past, how Rickey taught him to evaluate baseball players and the skills needed to build a successful ballclub. He was especially proud of a small book he had composed detailing what he had learned and practiced, The Dodger Way to Play Baseball, and he autographed a copy for me. Looking back, I felt like a junior reporter, pleased to be treated as an equal, a feeling which gradually left me the more we met and talked. I could see the man was badly hurt.

On other days he was more relaxed, warmer, less interested in impressing me. He wanted an honest book, he said, one that told his life story good and bad. He proudly spoke of players, some black, he had treated fairly and honorably like Roy Campanella, and of course Robinson, who he taught various infield skills while playing together for the Dodger’s top farm club, Montreal. And he spoke of how a deeply depressed John Roseboro, once a star catcher for the Dodgers, tried to commit suicide in his office -- Campanis persuaded him to drop his gun. It was as if he was saying, "How can anyone call me a racist bigot?"

He was unhappy and wounded, profoundly regretful, and thoroughly crushed. "Even prisoners get parole or probation, don’t they?" he blurted out one day, managing a smile. What was most difficult for him was that he had mindlessly squandered what he treasured most in life: authority, companionship, responsibility -- The Chase. He told me that soon after the Nightline debacle he had appealed to Rachel Robinson for advice and she wisely and compassionately told him, “Forget it, Al. Move on with your life."

Throughout our meetings, he always went back to that late-night TV show in the Houston Astrodome, where he expected to join Don Newcombe, the black ex-pitcher -- who never appeared because his flight had been canceled -- Roger Kahn of The Boys of Summer fame, and Rachel Robinson to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the significance of her husband breaking into the majors. While he was waiting, he told me over and again, he kept staring into the dark lens of a camera, far from the producer in New York and interviewer Ted Koppel in Maryland.  

And then it came: Koppel finally lobbed him a softball asking why there were virtually no black managers, front office executives, or owners, and whether racial bias was widespread in baseball. His convoluted answer would follow him into his grave. “No, I don’t believe it’s prejudice. 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.” 

Al tried to explain to me how he only intended to refer to their lack of experience. But managers have been employed without experience, and some teams preferred hiring from an all-white old boys list of pals. Nor did he consider the power of wealthy white owners, “Jock sniffers” in Robert Lipsyte's felicitous phrase, who have earned, inherited, or married into money and power.  He was certainly unaware of what Rev. Billy Kyles, a close ally of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., meant when he told Tim Wendel in The Summer of ‘68 that King and his closest friends closely watched sports with “an historical eye.”

In our final meeting he told me he was initially blindsided by the question and become confused and unable to respond sensibly. No, he hadn’t been drinking, though he may have been feeling sickly. And no, Ted Koppel had not been unfair. In parting, I left believing that despite his foolish remark he was a good man who had been badly treated by professional baseball.

For saying what he did he had to resign and would never again be hired to run a baseball team (nor, for that matter, would the brainy, courageous Robinson) despite accolades from black players, managers and others who knew him. Dusty Baker, African American manager and former Dodger outfielder, said, "You hate that any man's career is ruined in a couple of minutes. What he said was wrong, but he was always cool to minorities when I was there, especially the Latin players, and the blacks.” Professor Harry Edwards, a sociologist at Berkeley and a civil rights activist who was taken on by baseball to help develop ways of adding more minorities to leadership roles, worked with Campanis after Nightline. On ESPN’s recent Outside the Lines documentary he explained, “It wasn’t a simple case of Al being a bigot -- to say he was just a bigot is simply wrong -- people are more complex than that. To a certain extent, it was the culture Al was involved with. To a certain extent, it was a comfort with that culture. And at another level, it was a form of discourse he was embedded in.”

It’s an old American temptation. Punish the words, not the deeds. Don Imus, Andy Rooney, Jesse Jackson and Rush Limbaugh spring to mind. Some, like Imus and Andy Rooney, didn’t suffer too much and managed to recover. Jesse Jackson and his “Hymietown” remark faded and he’s carried on in Washington. Rush Limbaugh lost lots of advertisers (temporarily) while keeping his many radio outlets and millions of loyal fans. And according to Larry Elder in the Jewish World Review, even Harry Truman once called New York “Kiketown” in his correspondence. Nixon couldn’t stand Jews -- except, of course, for Henry Kissinger -- and told his tape recorder all about it, but he survived (well, he survived his foul mouth and anti-Semitism -- Watergate is another matter).

So I ask: Should Campanis have been pilloried and permanently blacklisted for one outrageous blunder? Or did liberal white fear of being branded bigots allow groupthink to take over? In 1987, five managers and eight general managers or team presidents were hired, none of them black. Someone had to shoulder the blame for institutionalized racism. Al Campanis was the perfect scapegoat.

Al Campanis died in 1998, but his life was over in 1987. His punishment never fit the crime. He should have been suspended and then allowed to return to work.

His autobiography was never published.

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