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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin writes about the politics of sports for the Nation Magazine, and is author of Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games We Love

April 17th, 2012 11:02 AM

25 Years Since Al Campanis Shocked Baseball: What's Changed and What Hasn't

On April 6, 1987, all eyes in the world of sports were supposed to be on the fight to end all fights: Marvelous Marvin Hagler vs. “Sugar” Ray Leonard. In this pre-internet era, ABC's award-winning news program Nightline with Ted Koppel was devoting its broadcast to that epic long-awaited encounter, but first they needed to kill some time. It was the fortieth anniversary of the date Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line and desegregated the sport so they decided to produce what host Ted Koppel called a "wet kiss" to Robinson and his memory: something gauzy, soft-focused and without edges. But their first guest, Jackie Robinson's widow Rachel, was someone who hadn’t lived a gauzy, soft-focused life. A woman who never feared telling inconvenient truths, she said that Jackie, if alive, would feel a great disappointment at how little progress baseball has made over the last forty years in breaking the still existing color barriers that prevented African American advancement toward management and front office positions.

Koppel decided on the spot to keep that line of thought alive in his next segment with the Los Angeles Dodgers General Manager Al Campanis, who was also a former roommate and close friend of Robinson. After the next several minutes, Hagler-Leonard would officially be the second most memorable sports story from that evening.

Koppel asked Campanis “to peel it away a little bit. Just tell me, why do you think it is? Is there still that much prejudice in baseball today?”

Campanis answered, “No, I don't believe it's prejudice. I truly believe that [African-Americans] may not have some of the necessities to be a field manager or perhaps a general manager.” He later tried to prove his point by arguing that the reason there weren’t more African American catchers, pitchers or quarterbacks in football was that these were thinking positions. He then added with a big smile on his face, for reasons that still aren’t clear, “Why are black men, or black people, not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.”

In the aftermath, Frank Robinson, baseball Hall of Famer and its first African-American manager, summed up the feelings of many when he said, "Baseball has been hiding this ugly prejudice for years-that black aren't smart enough to be managers or third-base coaches or part of the front office. There's a belief that they're fine when it comes to the physical part of the game, but if it involves brains they just can't handle it. Al Campanis made people finally understand what goes on behind closed doors: that there is racism in baseball."

The furor that erupted resulted in Campanis's immediate firing and a bounty of promises about change coming to the National Pastime. But the promises were miles wide and an inch deep. Since 1987, baseball has hired five African American General Managers but only two, Kenny Williams of the Chicago White Sox and Michael Hill of the Miami Marlins, have lasted longer than one season. There have been several prominent African American field managers, from two-time World Series winner Cito Gaston to multiple-time Manager of the Year winner Dusty Baker, and the man who has guided the Texas Rangers to the last two World Series, Ron Washington. But the number of hires has been few and far between since Campanis “peeled it back a little bit” and Frank Robinson said that “there is racism in baseball.” Today, Washington and Baker are the sport's only African American managers. The most lasting change is that people in Campanis’s executive position are now far more polished and far more careful and have become, like a twenty-first century politician, experts on being interviewed and saying absolutely nothing of substance. The Campanis lesson for Major League Baseball hasn’t been to take on racism in the sport but to find executives who can smile for the camera and talk a cat out of a tree.

But the bigger problem today is less the old school prejudice, than something far more systemic. The number of African American ballplayers has dropped from more than one quarter of Major League players to 8 percent. In 2012, ten teams have one or zero African Americans on their rosters. That means the pipeline of prospective managers has also plummeted. This, coupled with the collapse in urban infrastructure, the shuttering of Boys and Girls Clubs, as well as the increasing costs of Little League baseball, (and the chirping, unsubstantiated “conventional wisdom” that inner-city kids just don’t like the game because of changing cultural norms) means that African-Americans in positions of actual power will only become more scarce.

Baseball could be investing more money into developing talent in the cities, but they’ve chosen a different path. Major League Baseball invests billions of dollars in the Dominican Republic where 15-year-olds can be signed on the cheap and enlisted in “baseball academies”, where they can be developed full-time into Major League prospects. It’s globalization, but instead of bats and gloves being cheaply stitched together for Major League use, it’s human beings. Latino players make up the spine of the sport at present, yet Bud Selig still feels such a casual disrespect for their contributions, not to mention their families, that he thought nothing of holding last year’s All-Star Game in anti-immigrant Arizona. Selig went ahead with the game despite the fact the several dozen players spoke out against rewarding the state that had become ground-zero for ugly, racial profiling legislation.

Jackie Robinson, in very public fashion, never played in an Old Timers Game for the Dodgers because of the lack of advancement in African American hires. The need now is for a new generation of truth tellers inside the game to challenge baseball's priorities.

After Al Campanis made his remarks, Frank Robinson commented about why more people didn’t call out the casual bigotry in the game. "Speaking up could be damaging," he said. "Someone will get buried. The ownership might think, 'He's mouthing off. Who needs him?' I won't say that today they could blackball a smart player. But they could make it tough for him. At the end of his career, he might not get to play those extra years if they feel he's a troublemaker." If there was ever a sport that needed troublemakers in 2012, it’s Major League Baseball.

Crossposted from the Nation

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