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Mark Whicker: 30 years later, did Al Campanis’ reputation die for a good cause?

Though his ‘Nightline’ comments were inexplicable, many who knew him say Al Campanis was anything but racist. (Associated Press)
By Mark Whicker The Orange County Register

Thirty years ago on April 6, Al Campanis sat behind home plate in Houston’s Astrodome and put on earphones.

Until that moment he was “The Chief,” a Dodgers employee for 44 years and now the imperious, formidable general manager, a man who reverberated throughout baseball.

A few minutes later he was a punchline and a metaphor.

Two days after that he was fired.

Campanis’ “Nightline” interview with Ted Koppel handcuffed his name to “necessities” and “buoyancy.” It made him the face of baseball’s institutional bigotry.

He was not the first self-inflicted victim of the “gotcha” ethic in the media world, but his was the biggest scalp it ever claimed.

It was Opening Day, 1987. A faceoff between Orel Hershiser and Mike Scott got to the seventh inning, and Jose Cruz homered to give Houston a 4-3 win.

Campanis, 70, had agreed to do a “Nightline” interview that also featured Roger Kahn, author of “The Boys Of Summer,” and Rachel Robinson, Jackie’s widow. With Robinson’s birthday upcoming, the subject was baseball and race.

Fred Claire, vice president of communications, was home. Steve Brener, the communications director, was in the press box. Sometime during the game, an ABC producer asked Brener where Campanis was sitting. That was the first time the Dodgers knew of the interview.

“I told Al later that I wished we’d known,” Claire said. “We could have prepared him.”

Instead Campanis was sitting there, looking through glass at a camera. He could hear Koppel, to a point, but he couldn’t see him.

When Koppel asked Campanis about baseball’s failure to hire black managers, Campanis said that it was important to pay your dues, and “some of the better-known black players” weren’t attracted to minor league managing jobs.

Koppel called that “a lot of baloney,” and Campanis laughed. Then Koppel asked Campanis to “peel it away a little bit” and explore the real reasons.

“I don’t think it is prejudice,” Campanis replied. “I truly believe that they may not have the necessities to be, let’s say, a field manager or perhaps a general manager.”

“Do you really believe that?” Koppel asked.

“Well, I don’t say all of them, but they certainly are short,” Campanis said.

They went back and forth and Campanis finally asked, “Why are there not many black swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.”

Although Koppel confronted Campanis’ statements, he also gave him several opportunities to escape. The Chief refused them all.

Later he told Vin Scully, “I think I really messed up.”

Two days later, owner Peter O’Malley told Claire he had to become the new general manager. The second immediate victim was Brener, the obvious choice to move into Claire’s position. But the Dodgers chose Tommy Hawkins, the former Lakers player and broadcaster.

Brener resigned. “I had protested as much as I could,” Claire said. “I followed Steve out to the parking lot and told him, ‘This will be the best thing that ever happened to you, because you’re the best in the business.’ ”

Claire was right. Brener founded a PR firm, Brener Zwikel & Associates, that handles sporting events throughout the world.

Claire also agreed to become GM but he asked O’Malley for total personnel control. A roster built by Campanis but significantly modified by Claire won the World Series in 1988.

Campanis wrote a book but found no publishers. He died in 1998. There never had been a cleansing, no image rehab.

They say that the worst thing you ever did will invariably be in the first paragraph of your obituary.

The fact that Campanis signed Sandy Koufax and was a major player in building the 1981 champions was not in that paragraph, at least not in the New York Times version. But the “Nightline” appearance was directly or indirectly mentioned in 21 of the 24 paragraphs.

“There wasn’t a racist bone in his body,” Claire said. “What happened that night was a matter of Al defending his profession, in his mind.”

The Dodgers had to fire Campanis, as Campanis acknowledged. But Don Newcombe, Lou Johnson and Tommy Davis were among the many who vouched for Campanis’ character.

In Robinson’s Triple-A days, Campanis was his roommate and his shortstop, and often his mentor.

As Jim Campanis told ESPN, he wrote a paper about Jackie Robinson for his elementary school class, a show-and-tell exercise, and hoped his dad could bring some equipment Robinson had used.

Al waited outside and then brought his show-and-tell exhibit: Robinson himself.

Did Campanis’ reputation die for a good cause?

Well, Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts last year became the first African-American managers to face each other in a division series.

But when Seattle GM Jerry Dipoto fired Lloyd McClendon after the 2015 season, and before Washington and the Dodgers hired Baker and Roberts, there were no black managers.

Only eight percent of MLB players are African-American. Florida’s Mike Hill is the only black general manager, although the Dodgers’ Farhan Zaidi and Detroit’s Alex Avila are minorities.

Another famous Dodger went to the grave with a sign around his neck. Ralph Branca passed away as the man who gave up Bobby Thomson’s 1951 home run. Unbeknownst to most, he won 20 games in 1947, and pitched eight five-hit innings two days before Thomson’s epic home run.

A grounder that rolled through Bill Buckner’s legs in 1986 wound up defining him far more acutely than the 2,715 hits he generated.

Those were performance hiccups, not attitudes. But the principle is the same. If we insist on demanding perfection, maybe we can start with ourselves.