Note: This article was originally published at TheNationalPastimeMuseum.com in April 2018 and is reprinted here by permission.
In April 1987 Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis appeared on the television show Nightline, on an episode intending to mark the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers. Campanis appeared live, and made some incendiary remarks about African-Americans and their suitability to hold management positions in the game.
Although many people, black and white, came to his defense, and although Campanis claimed he was tired and misspoke, and did not express his long-held views, he was soon forced to resign, and never worked in baseball again.
These five minutes are well known, and have served to overshadow what had been an accomplished 50 years in the game. This article will not attempt to mitigate what Campanis said, but will try to shine a light on the rest of his story, examining the whole of his baseball career.
Born on the island of Kos but living in New York by the age of six, by adulthood Campanis could speak Greek, Italian, English, Spanish and French. He starred in baseball and football in high school and at NYU, and signed with the Dodgers in 1940. He was a switch-hitting middle infielder who did not hit much, though he did make it to Brooklyn in September 1943 for seven games. He then spent more than two years in the US Navy.
Campanis got out of the Navy in early 1946, now 29 years old. With Eddie Stanky and Pee Wee Reese also in the Dodger fold, Campanis did not like his odds and was considering a career as a schoolteacher, something he had done in the off-seasons before the war. Dodger GM Branch Rickey offered him two other choices: come to Brooklyn as a utility infielder, or go to Montreal to help newcomer Jackie Robinson. Robinson had signed the previous October, the start of Rickey’s Great Experiment.
Rickey wanted support, but he also wanted Campanis to help Robinson, a shortstop, learn to play second base. Years later, the writer Roger Kahn, trying to stir up trouble, relayed to Jackie that Campanis had told him he had taught Jackie to turn the double play. “Is that what he says?” said Robinson. “Well, tell him I guess I could have worked out the pivot by myself.” He was smiling. “No. Don’t tell him. Al Campanis is a good guy. He was very good on integration when it counted.”
In 1948 the Dodgers first trained in Dodgertown at Vero Beach. Campanis was one of Rickey’s instructors. Rickey divided camp into different sections, rotated players at precise times, and then the camp leaders compared notes with Rickey at the end of the day.
For the next three seasons, 1948 to 1950, Campanis managed in the Dodger system. In late 1950, Branch Rickey sold his share of the club to Walter O’Malley and left to run the Pirates. Rickey tried to get Campanis to go with him, but Campanis stayed.
With Rickey gone, over the next seven years Campanis’s primary title was “Scout,” and he certainly did a lot of scouting. Because he could speak Spanish, Campanis spent much of the fall and winter scouting and holding clinics in Latin America – mainly Cuba and Puerto Rico. He signed Chico Fernandez in 1951, and Sandy Amoros a year later. Manny Mota, a Dominican who later signed with the Giants, later called Campanis “the father of Latin baseball.”
In December 1952, at a tryout camp in San Juan, Campanis first saw the 18-year-old Roberto Clemente. In his scouting report, Campanis graded Clemente major league average in everything except throwing arm and power, both above major league average. The Dodgers did not actually sign Clemente until February 1954, when Campanis gave the 19-year-old a $10,000 bonus.
Under the rules of the time, the Dodgers had to put Clemente on the major league roster or risk losing him. To their regret, they chose to send him to Montreal in 1954 and lost him after the season to the Pirates.
Campanis also became the lead instructor at Dodgertown. He was teaching Rickey’s lessons, for the most part, though he added more extensive organization. In 1954 he put it all together in a book that he called “The Dodgers Way to Play Baseball.” The book went through numerous printings and was translated into four languages. It was used in colleges, high schools and academies throughout the United States, Latin America, and Japan for many years.
In September 1954, tipped off by both a bird dog and a local reporter, Campanis held a tryout for Sandy Koufax at Ebbets Field. Rube Walker, who caught Koufax in the tryout, said, “Whatever he wants, give it to him. I wouldn’t let him get out of the clubhouse.” By this Campanis had invented a scouting scale from 60-to-80, with 70 meaning “major league average.” He rated Koufax’s curve a 72, and his fastball a 77. (The scale was later expanded to 20-to-80, and is universally used today.)
Campanis also signed Tommy Davis, a Brooklyn kid from Boys High who believed he was set to sign with the Yankees. He has often told the story of being wooed by a Yankee scout while Campanis focused on Davis’s mother. “Its important to know where the power in the family is,” Campanis would say. A phone call from Jackie Robinson sealed the deal.
After the 1957 season the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. Campanis was named Director of Scouting, a job he had been doing already. With the promise of increased income in California, Campanis was given an increased budget to sign players. In the next three off-seasons he and his scouts doled out 2.5 million dollars in bonuses. The most important players signed in this period were Frank Howard, Willie Davis, and Ron Fairly.
In 1965 the scouting world changed dramatically when baseball instituted the first-year player draft, effectively ending the type of amateur recruitment that the Dodgers had mastered. Scouts still had to find players, but the days of sweet-talking Tommy Davis’s mom were over. Campanis was in charge of the Dodgers drafts.
The greatest single draft class ever was that of the 1968 Los Angeles Dodgers, who selected and signed 234 future WAR – the equivalent of about 9 normal draft classes. This group included Ron Cey, Dave Lopes, Steve Garvey, Doyle Alexander, Joe Ferguson, Geoff Zahn, and Bill Buckner. The Dodgers had drafted Bill Russell, Charlie Hough, and Steve Yeager over the previous two years, and much of this group stayed together to help win four pennants.
In June 1968, after 18 years as general manager (including eight NL pennants) Buzzie Bavasi resigned to become president of the San Diego Padres (who would begin play the next year). Fresco Thompson, who had served alongside Bavasi that entire time, succeeded him. Tragically, soon after his promotion Thompson was diagnosed with cancer, and by November he was dead. O’Malley named Campanis, the third member of the long-running executive team, the new GM.
Bavasi had not been a big trader during his years running the team – he always figured he had better players than everyone else, so why bother exchanging them? With the draft having balanced the scales somewhat, Campanis became an active dealer.
In the 1970s, Campanis made an extraordinary series of trades, one of the best in baseball history. In a six year period he landed Dick Allen, Al Downing, Tommy John, Frank Robinson, Andy Messersmith, Mike Marshall, Burt Hooten, Jim Wynn, Dusty Baker, Reggie Smith, and Rick Monday. In virtually all of these cases, the Dodgers gave up much less future value.
Two examples illustrate his success. He dealt pitcher Claude Osteen to get Wynn in 1973 – Osteen was at the end of the line, while Wynn gave the Dodgers one great year and one good one. Sensing that his asset had run its course, he packaged Wynn to the Braves in exchange for young outfielder Dusty Baker, who gave the Dodgers several more excellent years as Wynn faded away.
The combination of the Campanis’s great 1960s drafts and his excellent 1970s trades led to four NL pennants and the 1981 world championship. Campanis did not trade as well after that, but the Dodger system began churning out excellent players like Fernando Valenzuela, Pedro Guerrero, Bob Welch, and Steve Sax, and captured division crowns in 1983 and 1985.
In 1987, Campanis had his interview with Ted Koppel. He lived another 11 years in the Los Angeles area, but never worked in baseball again.
But let history show that Campanis was one of the most versatile baseball minds in history. He was an historic and influential instructor, a legendary scout, one of the games greatest scouting directors, and wonderful general manager.
Had he left the game a year earlier on his own terms, he would be remembered today for far more than his interview with Ted Koppel.