THE LEGACY OF AL CAMPANIS

“I’m sad not only for his passing but the way people will remember him. That’s not the way I will remember him. There are a lot of racists in the world, on both sides , and he wasn’t one of them. He helped Roy so much when he was coming through the major leagues. He molded a lot of young men into men.”…   Roxie Campanella, Dodger Hall of Fame Catcher Roy Campanella’s widow

 

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This is a love story, a story of compassion, both understanding and misunderstanding.

About a month ago, my friend Bob Perlberg asked me to join him for lunch with Jimmy Campanis.  This excited me because I had heard so much about Jimmy from my friend Al Campanis.

Al had been the Vice President and General Manager of the Dodgers and on many an occasion would host my son Steven and myself to a steak and eggs brunch in his box at Dodger Stadium  Sunday during doubleheaders… Remember them?

I thought Bob was talking about Al’s son Jimmy when he was really speaking of Jimmy, Al’s grandson. Subsequently, I got to talk to young Jimmy who was kind enough to send me his book, ”BORN INTO BASEBALL”.

The book itself is easy reading and gave me an insight even deeper into my late friend Al. In this day and age of so much disrespect and animas, it was great to read about parental and family love that started with a grandfather, (Al), a Greek Immigrant who rose to one of the most coveted positions in what has often been called, “America’s Pastime…Baseball”.

He was born in the Dodecanese Islands, graduated from New York University and was a Navy Chief Petty Officer during World War II. He loved this country and everything about it. He appreciated what the U.S.A.

had given him. Al was a man without prejudice.

So much so, that when Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson into the Dodger organization he asked Al to be Jackie’s roommate and in essence, help in anyway possible to make Jackie feel wanted and to be Jackie’s mentor. While playing for the Dodger’s Montreal farm team, they became the first interracial roommates in all of Baseball.

At the time, Al, himself, was to endure a lot of personal taunts and insults. You can use your imagination the names he was called.

Al stood alongside Jackie, together fighting many a battle against those who would slander him or intend to harm him.  It was Al’s chore to make number 42’s integration into the Dodger organization as smooth as possible. The task was well done and a strong bond between the two men was formed until Jackie passed.

To show you the closeness that developed between Jackie and Al, is best exemplified in what young Jimmy wrote in “BORN INTO BASEBALL”

It seems that Al’s son, 12-year-old Jimmy, asked his dad to help him with a school “show and tell” project. His subject was Jackie Robinson and the project was due the next day.  He figured his dad could perhaps get one of Robinson’s bat, or his glove for Jimmy to bring.

Jimmy told his dad he prepared a speech and he had to recite it to the class the next morning at 10. The next morning, as Jimmy was wrapping up ‘tell’, he saw his dad standing in the hall outside the classroom.

The teacher said to Jimmy,” your ‘tell’ was great, now what do you have to show me?”

Young Jimmy said ‘”let me go get it”. He went out into the hall. To his surprise, there was Jackie Robinson.

Jimmy brought him into the room and for well over thirty minutes he answered questions and signed autographs.  All the time, telling the class how happy he was to do this for his friend Al, Jimmy’s dad.

On most of those Summer Sundays at Dodger Stadium, Al would introduce me to many of his friends. This included Don Newcombe, Murray Wills, Roy Campanella and Jim Gilliam… all African- Americans ballplayers.

Unfortunately, Al’s illustrious and successful career with the Dodgers came to a crashing and ignominious end on April 6, 1987. On the wall of his office, this non-biased man man who beside family pictures had only three other pictures… Don Newcombe, an African- American; Sandy Koufax, a Jew; and Roberto Clemente, Hispanic.

This man who had embraced Jackie Robinson when it wasn’t popular to do it, on ABC’S Nightline after praising the superior athletic ability that Black Ballplayers possessed, went on to make some statements that were construed as prejudicial.

A hue and cry immediately labeled him as a racist.  Both Mr. Campanis and the Dodgers quickly apologized, but their pleas fell on deaf ears and the Dodgers, in fear of offending their fans, unceremoniously fired Al.

I have written this column today, because I feel my voice has to be added to many others, viewing today’s tensions in our society, are asking for calm, understanding and clarity of thought.

I am the son of an immigrant mother.  Over the years, I have felt the slings and arrows of prejudice. However, unlike the Black Man, I am not an obvious target.

For years, the locker and the arena have been my milieu. This area is occupied by teams.  In order for a team to succeed, they must react as one.  Color, has no place in the Locker Room. I am no different!  I am like every man!

I use the phrase, “Some of my best friends are people!’ America built its reputation over the years as a ‘melting pot’. Unfortunately, with the good, comes the bad. In every barrel of apples, there are always a few bad ones. There are those who hate and those who care.  Too often, those that hate outshout those who care.

To me, Al Campanis, a devoted man, a good citizen and a great friend got a bad rap. He is a good example of how knee jerk reactions without thought can ruin someone’s life.  Before we do something regrettable, we need to take a deep breath and reflect.  Or as my Mom used to say, “we must think before we act”.

AL Campanis knew his way around a Baseball Field like few others.  He was not trained in being a TV Personality. When asked any question realizing that millions of people are watching, it is easy to get sidetracked and flustered.  It is said in the Broadcast Industry, “Your tongue gets in the way of your eye teeth”. That night on ABC, not schooled, or versed in TV, Al was like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights once the cameras were turned on.

This I am convinced is what happened to Al Campanis

Misunderstanding that brings about violence is never the answer.

THE THUNDERING HERD

McConahey

Through the movies and sports, my life has always been full. About ten years ago, I saw a motion picture entitled “We Are Marshall”. It was also there that the movies introduced me to Mathew McConaughey. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me take you back and eventually you will see where I am heading.

When I was a kid growing up in Boston anything that had to do with athletics, I wanted to be a part of.  My mom always knew where I was.

If I wasn’t at school, or hadn’t walked the six, or seven miles to either Fenway Park, or Braves field, I could be found on a nearby sandlot playing in a pickup game of Baseball.  There were always enough guys to make some sort of teams.

Usually, it was behind the local Super Market. In order to get to our field of combat, we would pry a wooden slat off of a fence behind the projects where we lived. After playing. We would make sure to replace the board in the exact place, so the Super Market people would never know how we got there.

There was always one Baseball! It was kept in tact by black electric tape, and was always on its last legs. Unfortunately, Morrill, the worst player, owned the ball.  However, if we didn’t let him play in the game there would be no game.  We made sure we were nice to Morrill except when his mom called him for supper and he would not leave the ball.

In football season, we rag-a-muffins would walk all the way to Harvard Square and look for a pickup game on the hard dirt infield of Cambridge Commons.  We often played under the Elm Tree where George Washington once took command of the Continental Army.

Sometimes the authorities bothered us, but never when the Kennedy kids were there… Teddy et al, (that’s right the future Senator).

In Basketball season we would sneak into the MIT Gym where little Bobby O’Neal was our lookout.

When the weather wasn’t good and we had at least eleven cents (that’s right, 11pennies… that was all it cost), we would go en mass to the movies.  It was great! There were always two pictures: –  (a double feature), a cartoon and a News Reel.  Many days the auditorium was hot until some special theaters had refrigeration, or swamp coolers.

It was at the Cinema, (the Movies), where I was first introduced to Sports Movies, That was to become the genre I loved most of all. Thus, in the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s, I discovered Knute Rockne, the Gipper, Lou Gehrig and all the sports heroes past and present.

It was in such a way that Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, Pat O’Brien, Kirk Douglas, Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster all entered my life. They played bigger than life characters, (my heroes), who had graced our Sports pages.

Of course, there was always Jack Oakie.  No matter what the sport was, the studios always put this amiable, jovial rotund fellow into them.  Although he seemed to always to be stumbling over himself, yet he would emerge victorious.  Whether playing a fictitious Quarterback, a Pitcher, First Basemen, or a Track Star, we always rooted for him.

His movies, however, were always comedies and good inevitably triumphed over evil.  Real sports pictures, as they developed over the years, started to look at not only the seamy side of life, but also the hardships that had to be overcome.  Many had messages filled with pathos where in real life, good did not always defeat the bad.

One such movie was “We are Marshall” and the real life hero was Coach Jack Lengyel.  Mathew McConaughey portrayed Coach Lengyel.

Now, dear reader please understand I have never met the Coach.  However, he sits on many illustrious Boards, including the United States Sports Academy Advisory Board of which I am proud to serve also.  My mentor Bob Block who is a founding member of the Academy brought Coach Lengyel’s heartfelt story to my attention.

It was Bob who suggested I write a story about the Coach… and what a story it is!

Let me share it with you…The story is about a man who not only has been a winning coach, but also a man who has been an inspiration to all those he taught… teaching them about life and how to be good citizens.

Although he had been a football coach since he was graduated from Akron University and became the Freshman FOOTBALL coach and then became the Assistant Varsity Football Coach , his story really began in 1971 at the age of 36.  Until then he had been coaching at various colleges and universities when fate intervened and he was ready for the challenge.

On November 14, 1970, Lengyel, who was in his 5th year as coach of the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, was watching TV with his family.  The news came across that the Southern Airways Flight 932 had crashed.  On board the plane were 75 Marshall University football players, coaches, administrative officers and fans… everybody perished.

It was a few hours after Marshall had lost to East Carolina and they were heading home to Huntington, West Virginia. With a heavy heart, Jack determined perhaps he could help the devastated University.

His first thought was “that there for the grace of God, could have been him and his team”. He applied to be the new head coach. Fortunately, for Marshall they had the foresight to hire him.

In that hiring, they got not only a qualified leader on the football field, but part of his package was understanding and compassion.

That move would change lives forever, including Lengyel’s. Prior to hiring him as coach, the downhearted and sad University was thinking seriously of permanently eliminating Football from their schedule.

Fortunately, they did not surgically remove Football as part of their school activities. Lengyel went about rebuilding a non-existent program with a Freshman team that was not eligible to compete intercollegiatly .

Upon his arrival, since no one was left, he was forced to recruit athletes from other sports (Baseball and Basketball etc.;) as well as a large number of walk-ons in order to field a team.

Although the team struggled in Lengyel’s  first season. A miracle happened in his second game. The rag-tag Marshall Team upset a heavily favored Xavier team on the final play of the game with no time left on the clock.  It was so exciting that when the team went into the locker room they threw everyone into the showers, uniforms and all, including the priest who was travelling with them.

Two hours later when the team returned to the field, the fans were still there. People were crying and hugging each other because everybody knew a teammate, classmate, a friend, or neighbor on the ill-fated flight.

It was a very emotional game, but it gave everyone hope. This unexpected victory brought about a euphoric feeling of unity and was an uplifting spirit for not only the University, but also for the entire Huntington, West Virginia Community whose residents felt deeply the lose of the Marshall athletes.

The true story was so uplifting, that in 2006, Warner Brothers released the Biopic  “We are Marshall”. The brilliant and eventual Academy Award winning Mathew McConaughey played Coach Lengyel.

Lengyel, his rebuilding job completed, after four years, went on expand his illustrious career.  He continued as   as a coach and teacher, but also became Athletic Director at some of America’s foremost bastions of education including his fourteen years as AD of the United States Naval Academy where his two sons David and Peter graduated. The strength training facility is named in Coach Lengyel’s honor.

Today, he is a member of the United States Sports Academy Board of Advisors and was inducted into the Collegiate Hall of Fame.

Jack Lengyel, a name Sports Fans everywhere should know. His emphasis on strategic planning and core values which he used in rebuilding Marshall, is something all of us can use in our daily lives.

He is the true embodiment of what sports an acadamua should be all about.