There are so many things for which Al Campanis could be remembered.

He befriended and played alongside Jackie Robinson during his minor league career. He signed Willie Davis and Tommie Davis among other major league stars. He was the architect of four pennant-winning teams during 20 years as the Los Angeles Dodgers general manager.

But Al Campanis is remembered for none of those things. He is remembered for one night on national TV -- an appearance on "Nightline" -- during which he stepped on his tongue in the heat of an interview and was branded a racist.

On April 6, 1987 -- a few days before the 40th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut in the major leagues -- Campanis was invited to join Ted Koppel to discuss the historic breaking of baseball's color line.

That Campanis agreed to appear on the show was hardly a surprise. He'd been a close friend of Robinson and a champion of integration. "(Campanis) did more for black players, more for Latin players, than anybody," then-Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda told The Associated Press.

He viewed this as another chance to celebrate the game's greatest step forward. He wasn't expecting an adversary at the microphone, but, remember, this was Koppel doing the interview.

Koppel was a serious newsman -- this was back when they still existed -- and he was renowned for grilling world leaders and politicians. He asked hard questions and demanded straight answers.

Still, it will always be a mystery why he bared his fangs at Campanis.

After beginning the interview by acknowledging the historic significance of the occasion, Koppel suddenly changed course and demanded to know why there weren't any black managers, GMs or owners in the major leagues at that time.

Campanis, who clearly was stunned, never professed to be a spokesman for MLB's hiring practices. He wasn't even the final decision-maker for the Dodgers, never mind the league.

Here's what he should have said: "I'm not in a position to answer that question -- ask the commissioner or the owners." But he gamely -- some would say foolishly -- tried to answer the unanswerable.

Big-league managers needed experience, he said. That often meant starting in the minors, where pay was modest and patience was required.

But that answer wasn't enough for Koppel, a bulldog who eyed Campanis like a slab of top round.

"Is there still that much prejudice in baseball?" Koppel asked, more accusation than question.

It was the sort of ambush journalism that would have made Mike Wallace proud. Campanis had been told he would be asked about his friend, Jackie Robinson, not cross-examined about bigotry in baseball.

Unprepared for his moment in the klieg lights, Campanis stammered hopelessly. He said some black candidates might lack the "necessities" -- an expression that would haunt him until his death 11 years later. He subsequently explained that he meant necessary experience, but it didn't come out that way.

Koppel offered Campanis a chance to rethink his comments, but it was like giving a baby seal a chance to escape after having clubbed it senseless.

The baseball man, swimming in perspiration, was unable to think straight. So he mumbled some incoherent nonsense about natural abilities, about blacks finding it difficult to swim because they lacked buoyancy.

He subsequently was cast as a bigot. His baseball career was toast. Two days later, the Dodgers fired him.

And Koppel? He hosted "Nightline" for 19 more years.

No one said life is fair.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@cctimes.com.