This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history. For an explanation, please see this post.
Were we to give Al Campanis credit for all his accomplishments in baseball operations, he would rank much higher than this, perhaps in the top five. Among other things, he was a legendary scout, a brilliant scouting director, and one of baseball’s most influential instructors. He did this over a two decade career with the Dodgers before assuming control of the baseball team in late 1968. For this exercise, we will ignore all of that and consider his years as GM (1969-1987) when he won four NL pennants, and the 1981 World Series.
Campanis had a brief major league career (seven games for the 1943 Dodgers) and a minor league career most interesting for his role in helping Jackie Robinson break in with the 1946 Montreal Royals. In fact, Dodger GM Branch Rickey requested the Campanis go to Montreal to work with Robinson on infield play (the two men formed the double play combination). Campanis spent a few more years playing and managing in the system before beginning work full time for the major league club.
Once Walter O’Malley took control of the Dodgers in late 1950 he put Buzzy Bavasi in charge of the big league team and Fresco Thompson in charge of the farm system. For the next eighteen years the two men remained at their posts, and Campanis worked with them doing seemingly everything that needed to be done. Starting as a scout, he created the first tryout camps in Puerto Rico and Cuba (he was fluent in Spanish, along with French, Greek and Italian), opening a pipeline to Latin America for the Dodgers (which other teams followed); signed Roberto Clemente and Sandy Koufax, among many others; and devised a 60-to-80 scouting scale (which was later expanded to 20-to-80).
He ran “Dodgertown” at Vero Beach, a first-of-its-kind camp the Dodgers used for their minor leaguers and for spring training. He turned his course material (derived from the teaching of Rickey) into the book The Dodgers’ Way to Play Baseball, an influential instructional used across the country and world for 25 years. The Dodgers earned a reputation as the best organization in baseball beginning in the 1950s, and Campanis was the living embodiment of the “Dodger Way,” a term he coined.
He was named scouting director (a role he was already performing) once the team moved to LA in 1958, and he developed a system-wide manual for scouts that was far head of its time. The Dodgers were leaders in amateur talent acquisition before the draft (leading to four pennants and two Series victories between 1959 and 1966), and masters once the draft was in place. In 1968 Bavasi left to become president of the expansion Padres and O’Malley promoted Thompson to GM. A few months later, Thompson died, and O’Malley turned to Campanis.
After a long run of success, the Dodgers dropped well below .500 in both 1967 and 1968, having lost Sandy Koufax, Maury Wills, and many of the key players from their mid-1960s run. The team rebounded back over .500 in 1969 and stayed there for a decade, a run of success with two primary causes.
First, with the onset of amateur draft in 1965, Campanis continued the Dodgers’ great run of amateur talent acquisition, overseeing several great drafts including the greatest draft year in history in 1968, when the Dodgers selected 234 future bWAR. After selecting Bill Russell, Charlie Hough and Steve Yeager in the previous two years, in 1968 Campanis landed Ron Cey, Dave Lopes, Steve Garvey, Doyle Alexander, Joe Ferguson, Geoff Zahn, and Bill Buckner. Since the average draft traditionally yields about 28-30 WAR, the Dodgers got nearly eight years’ worth of value in one year.
Second, from 1970 through 1976 Campanis made a remarkable series of trades, one excellent deal after another without really making a bad one.
In October 1970 he traded two role players for Dick Allen. After one great season, Campanis turned around and traded Allen for Tommy John, who had several excellent seasons in Los Angeles. Campanis traded for Al Downing (getting a 20-win season in return). He acquired Frank Robinson (surrendering Doyle Alexander, who had a fine career ahead of him), and (as he did with Allen) traded Robinson a year later in a package that included Andy Messersmith, who had three great seasons pitching in Dodger blue.
In December 1973 Campanis made two great trades. First he dealt longtime centerfielder Willie Davis to the Expos for relief pitcher Mike Marshall. The next day he traded pitcher Claude Osteen for centerfielder Jimmie Wynn. In 1974 Marshall pitched a record 102 games and 210 innings in relief, winning the NL Cy Young Award, while Wynn hit 32 home runs with a 151 OPS+. The 1974 Dodgers broke through with 102 wins and the NL pennant. After getting one more All-Star season out of Wynn, Campanis flipped him to Atlanta for Dusty Baker — Wynn was finished, while Baker gave the Dodgers eight years of solid play.
Campanis also acquired Burt Hooton for nothing in 1975, Pedro Guerrero in a minor league trade the same year, and then Reggie Smith in 1976. All three gave multiple years of star play for Los Angeles.
Between 1970 and 1976, the Dodgers finished second six times (five times to the Reds) and won the pennant in the other season. The Big Red Machine was a tough mountain to get over, but the Dodgers finally did so by winning back-to-back pennants in 1977 and 1978. Those star-filled clubs were primarily led by Campanis draft choices (Garvey, Lopes, Russell, Cey) and trade acquisitions (Baker, Smith, Hooton, John). They were an excellent team, though they lost both World Series to the Yankees.
The Dodgers finally won the Series in 1981, with a team heavily fortified with the additions of Guerrero, Jerry Reuss (acquired in a 1979 deal) and Fernando Valenzuela, signed in 1979. The Dodgers system was still churning out prospects, winning the Rookie of the Year award four years in a row beginning in 1979. After a near miss in 1982, the Dodgers won the division in both 1983 and 1985, losing the NLCS both times.
In early 1987, Campanis appeared on the ABC news program Nightline, to mark the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s debut in the major leagues. Unfortunately, Campanis made some incendiary comments about the qualifications of African-Americans to serve in baseball management. Though he apologized and many friends came to his defense, his quotes were disturbing enough that the Dodgers let him go a day or two later. His career in baseball was over. It was a sad way to end another wise great career in the game. (The year after he left, his team won the World Series again, their last at this writing.)
In 18 seasons, Campanis’s Dodgers won six division titles and finished second in eight seasons, three times by a single game. After years of working in the organization to help develop major league players, Al Campanis did a fine job once given control of the big league team.
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To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.