“It was both a nightmare and an awakening,” wrote the LA Times’ Bill Dwyre of April 6,1987, the evening in which Al Campanis committed career suicide on “Nightline” and Dwyre’s paper scrambled to figure out exactly what happened.
Nightline” would come on in Los Angeles too late for our deadlines, so we would have to wait until the next day to get a tape and analyze. That seemed OK for a while, until our reporters started checking in. There seemed to be plenty of smoke and maybe some fire.
Campanis was reached at his hotel by The Times’ Sam McManis, in Houston with the Dodgers, and Campanis told him he hoped he hadn’t been misunderstood. McManis hadn’t seen the program and didn’t know exactly what had been said to be misunderstood. Suspicions and likelihoods are not printable.
The night editor in charge of The Times’ sports desk, a fiery guy named Paul Gelormino, wouldn’t let it die. It wasn’t a slow night at the paper, by any means, with Sugar Ray Leonard shocking Marvin Hagler for the middleweight title. But Gelormino kept pushing, kept saying there was something there. He wanted the story in the paper now, not later, when we’d have to spruce up our lack of timeliness with analysis and reaction and pretty charts and graphs. Gelormino was a news guy, not a pretty charts-and-graphs guy. He wanted verified facts, in the paper. Now.
In today’s world, of course, Campanis’ TV blunder would have been on 2,000 websites immediately and stirred the hackles of twice that many bloggers. Campanis would have been a dead man walking within minutes of unclipping the microphone from his lapel. Newspapers, with deadlines mandated now mostly by people who never wrote on one, would be an after-thought.
By the time we sorted through our options, “Nightline” had already played in the Central zone. We had one shot left, the Mountain time zone, and The Times owned a paper in Denver, the Post.
Buddy Martin was a sports columnist at the Denver Post. I called his home and asked him to turn on “Nightline” and take notes. He was less than happy, knowing he may be participating in a huge story that his paper would miss because its deadline had already passed.
I reminded him of who owned who — we used to do things like that.
He watched and listened, at first grumbling that this was ordinary stuff. Then, Campanis uttered his now infamous “blacks lack the necessities” and, a time zone away, I could sense Martin straighten in his chair. Soon, Campanis was raising the question of why blacks weren’t good swimmers and opined that they “lack buoyancy.”
I thanked Martin, who was now miserable. Another paper had a story he would love to have. He was a news guy. He couldn’t have cared less about ownership or corporations.
In the resulting firestorm, Campanis was relieved of his duties as Dodgers GM (replaced by Fred Claire), and ultimately became synonymous with old-boy-network racism in professional sports. No shortage of Campanis associates have argued over the years that his ill-advised remarks were not a true reflection of his beliefs, but given the paucity of black managers and executives in the game at the time, it was at the very least a shameful moment for the L.A. organization and Major League Baseball.
All of that said, I’m not entirely certain I agree with Dwyre that Campanis would’ve been toast in the modern era. The same tools that can used to bury a public figure can also be employed to issue a public apology or put an entirely different and/or misleading spin on things.