MLB

Drew Brees May Be Losing Friends, but Al Campanis Destroyed His Career

Drew Brees is taking a flogging off the field worse than what J.J. Watt or Chandler Jones could ever inflict on the field, but the New Orleans Saints quarterback will likely survive the furor surrounding his take on protests and the American flag.

It can be argued that Brees’ comments would not have caused nearly the uproar had they not been spoken so close to the death of George Floyd while being taken into custody by Minneapolis police. On the other hand, Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis once wandered into a discussion of race from which there could be no return.

Al Campanis was an accomplished general manager

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Examined separately from his 1987 interview on Nightline, the career of Los Angeles Dodgers executive Al Campanis could be held up as the very definition of an American success story.

Campanis arrived in the United States from Greece at the age of 6, earned a degree from New York University, and played briefly in the major leagues before serving in the U.S. Navy in World War II. Upon returning, Campanis formed a double-play combination with Jackie Robinson on the Triple-A Montreal Royals but didn’t make it back to the majors.

A career as a scout followed, during which time he discovered future stars Sandy Koufax and Roberto Clemente. His subsequent tenure as general manager of the Dodgers included some of the franchise’s greatest success since the move from Brooklyn. After unsuccessful trips to the World Series in 1974, ’77, and ’78, Los Angeles won the title in 1981 by beating the New York Yankees in six games.

A fateful, unforgivable interview on live TV

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Al Campanis destroyed his 44-year baseball career with a 10-minute interview on Nightline, the late-night news show on ABC, in 1987. The GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers had agreed to be part of a panel with author Roger Kahn and Rachel Robinson, the widow of Jackie Robinson.

Host Ted Koppel’s intent was to explore the subject of race in baseball, the sport in which Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Dodgers. Campanis, 70 at the time, presumably would lend perspective as both a baseball executive and a teammate of one of the most famous black athletes in American history.

What he did instead, however, was make the indefensible observation that blacks lacked the acumen to work in positions of power in baseball. “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,” Campanis said.

The aftermath: A swift denunciation and firing

Anchor Ted Koppel was tough but fair in pushing back on Al Campanis as the Nightline interview continued, but the Los Angeles Dodgers general manager did not back down in justifying the paucity of black managers and front-office executives.

Coupled with an observation that black men and women were not good swimmers “because they don’t have the buoyancy,” Campanis had dug a hole from which there could be no escape.

Two days later, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley announced that the GM had been fired.

“Mr. Campanis’ statements on the ABC Nightline show Monday night were so far removed from the beliefs of the Dodger organization that it was impossible for him to continue in his duties,” O’Malley said.