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.