It was interesting watching the 2015 version of the Army-Navy football game a few Saturdays ago. By game time, it had already been announced that the Heisman Trophy voting had already begun, and Navy’s brilliant quarterback, Keenan Reynolds, who should have been on the ballots, would not be. Still, here was the Navy Midshipmen team, with its senior Black quarterback of four years, and Army’s Black Knights, with its freshman Black quarterback, just getting started.
It called to mind former L.A. Dodgers Vice President and General Manager Al Campanis’ public comments several years ago, that “Blacks, at least most of them, lacked the necessities to play big league quarterback, or to manage baseball teams, or be the head of front offices in baseball and other sports.” Of course, there was endless discussion at the time (April, 1987), howls of protest that Campanis’ comments had been misconstrued and misinterpreted, but in the end (in fact two days after the comments were made public), Mr. Campanis resigned/was fired from the Dodgers.
On Ted Koppel’s then-popular “Nightline” show, arrangements were made for the evening of April 6, 1987, to interview folk who had known and worked with Jackie Robinson—April being the month 40 years earlier that he had debuted in professional baseball with the Dodger AAA team, the Montreal Royals. Campanis had been a Robinson teammate and lifelong friend, so he was asked to participate. That segment of the show was scheduled to be fairly short, as the biggest news was supposed to be Koppel’s announcement of the winner of the “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler/Sugar Ray Leonard middleweight fight that was going on during the time his show aired.
Well, the fight was a long one, and Koppel’s interview with Campanis, and author Roger Kahn, became the show that night. Pitcher Don Newcombe had also been asked to participate, but he had to bow out at the last minute. Just before the interview began, Koppel played a previously taped segment that included widow Rachel Robinson’s comment that 40 years after her husband broke the color barrier in big-league baseball, there still were no Black baseball managers or front office executives. Koppel started off his interview with Campanis and Kahn on that point. Kahn was non-controversial, but Campanis, already known as a major malapropist, started a meandering set of responses that polarized the audience, the sports world and Koppel.
KOPPEL: Yeah, but you know in your heart of hearts—and we’re going to take a break for a commercial—you know that that’s a lot of baloney. I mean, there are a lot of Black players; there are a lot of great Black baseball men who would dearly love to be in managerial positions, and I guess what I’m really asking you is to, you know, peel it away a little bit. Just tell me, why you think it is. Is there still that much prejudice in baseball today?
CAMPANIS: No, I don’t believe it’s prejudice. 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.
KOPPEL: Do you really believe that?
CAMPANIS: Well, I don’t say that all of them, but they certainly are short. How many quarterbacks do you have? How many pitchers do you have that are Black? . . . So, it might just be—look, why are Black men, or Black people, not good swimmers? Because they don’t have the buoyancy.
Campanis, for these comments, was branded a racist and booted out of big league sports. His family has yet to live it down.
The point of this column, though, is to re-look at his cultural commentary (accurately articulating the view then of most Whites in the USA) about Black athletes not being smart enough to be play quarterback, be successful big league pitchers etc. Already during his career with the Dodgers, Campanis had seen major evidence against the pitcher comment—Don Newcombe, himself. Roy Campanella, the already famous catcher, was another great baseball mind who had already helped the Dodger franchise.
The Black quarterback thing, though, persisted. Doug Williams, the-then quarterback of the Washington Redskins, who would go on in 1988 to be the first Black quarterback to win the MVP trophy at the Superbowl and to guide his team to a victory, commented on feeling the need to overcome the negative myth of the “too dumb” Black quarterback in an interview just before his most memorable game.
In 2015, 18 starting quarterbacks of the 25 best college/university football teams in the country were/are Black. In the NFL, Russell Wilson has already quarterbacked another winning Superbowl team, and 7 other NFL teams (out of 32) have Black starting quarterbacks, and one, Cam Newton, with a 14-0 team record, has a great shot at winning the league MVP trophy this year. At week 14 of this year’s football season , the two quarterbacks leading the league (based on official quarterback ratings) are Black field generals Russell Wilson of Seattle, and Cam Newton of North Carolina. There are also five current Black head coaches in the NFL, and six Black general managers.
Major league baseball, in contrast, has not kept up with football. In fact, it has gone backwards. Campanis would easily recognize the present situation. As of the 2015 baseball season, there were no current Black baseball managers, even though there have been several successful Black managers since 1975, when former baseball great Frank Robinson became a manager. Some have won the pennant leading their teams (Ron Washington, two A.L. pennants with the Texas Rangers; Dusty Baker, one pennant, five division titles, three-time national league manager of the year). But even though the baseball manager’s job can seem to be a revolving door, and the same guys keep getting hired for different teams, once a Black manger has been fired, he is rarely, if ever, hired with another club. That’s been the case with the likes of Willie Randolph, Dusty Baker (until recently), Terry McClendon, Jerry Manuel and Cecil Cooper, in spite of their success when allowed to manage ball clubs. Presently, there’s one general manger who is African American in big league baseball—the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Dave Stewart, and Dusty Baker was just hired in November 2015, to manage the Washington Nationals ball club next season.
Meanwhile, as reported in this column in 2014, the number of African American players in the majors continues to decline. The highest percentage rate of African American ballplayers in major league baseball was 19 percent in 1986. For 2015, it was 8.3 percent, and only 8.2 percent in 2014. It hasn’t increased substantially since 207, in spite of all league efforts. It has not, however, been because of lack of talent.
Within the context of a U.S.A. with a continuing African American president, we keep hope alive that the myth of the physically gifted but less intelligent Black athlete is finally being buried. But the results continue to be mixed. We look forward to the next generation of African American leadership in sports. And kudos to football.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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