“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
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.