American baseball player
Known as "Campy" by his friends, colleagues, and fans, Roy Campanella is considered by many to be the best baseball catcher in the history of the game. He is often mentioned in the same breath as the great catcher Yogi Berra , who played for the opposing professional league, the American League. Named the National League's Most Valuable Player three times in the 1950s, Campanella was a pioneering African American player at a time of deep racial prejudice that had prevented blacks from playing in the major leagues until only a year before Campanella joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948. Campanella played on the same team as the first African American major leaguer, Jackie Robinson , who broke the color barrier in 1947.
Not only was Campanella one of the first African Americans to play in the major leagues, he also paved the way for other blacks to play in the position of catcher, a spot until then still off-limits to non-white players. As former fellow Dodger Dusty Baker later told Larry Whiteside of the Boston Globe, "In the days when he caught, catching was basically a white position…. Catching was a thinking position that most of America didn't think people like Campanella could handle. He broke the mold. Because of the mentality of the country, the mentality of baseball, to be black and an MVP meant he had to be head and shoulders above anybody else in the league."
Campanella's career lasted until 1958, when he was paralyzed in an automobile accident. From then on, a total of 35 years until his death, he was confined to a wheelchair. He managed to stay in the game of baseball, however, as a coach and advocate for young baseball players. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969, and he died of a heart attack in 1993.
A Born Catcher
Roy Campanella was born in Homestead, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1921. His mother, Ida, was African
American, while his father, John, was an immigrant from Italy. As a boy, Campanella worked in his father's produce business and also helped his brother to deliver milk. He first seriously played the game that was to make him famous while still in high school. The position of catcher was a natural for him even then, since at five feet, nine and one half inches, he was relatively short, and at 190 pounds, was fairly heavy. Also, he discovered when trying out for the Simon Gratz High School team, no one else wanted to play catcher.
Campanella was just 15 years old in 1937 when he first played professional baseball. This was when he dropped out of school to become a member of the Bacharach Giants, based in Brooklyn, New York. Not long after, he joined the Baltimore Elite Giants, a team of the Negro National League. He remained with the Negro Leagues for nine years, playing each season for $3,000 a season. He played an often-grueling schedule with the Elite Giants, once playing four games in a single day. Also in the Negro League, Campanella learned to play in spite of injuries that would have stopped a lesser player. "You didn't get hurt when you played in the Negro league," he was later quoted as saying by Robert McG. Thomas Jr. of the New York Times. "You played no matter what happened to you because if you didn't play, you didn't get paid." During the off-seasons, in the winter, Campanella played for Latin league baseball teams in Latin America. His ability to speak Spanish was a major asset there, and he was often called upon to manage the teams on which he played.
Campanella advanced to the major leagues in 1948, when he began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers' major league team. This was only a year after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues. Campanella had actually been approached by Dodgers president Wesley Branch Rickey about joining the team in 1945. But Campanella had refused the offer, thinking that Rickey was trying to recruit him for a Negro League team he was said to be putting together. In reality, the supposed Negro League team was a cover masking Rickey's efforts to recruit black players for the Dodgers. Rickey made his offer a little more plain the following season, and this time Campanella accepted.
The year was 1946, and Campanella's first assignment with the Dodgers was on the organization's minor league Class B farm team in Nashua, New Hampshire, where he was paid about $200 a month. This represented a drastic cut in pay, but the chance it gave him to play for the major leagues was too good to pass up. Campanella quickly became one of the team's top players, and a favorite of local fans, who often presented him with gifts of chickens when he pitched winning games.
Campanella played a total of 113 games with the Nashua Dodgers, scoring a .290 batting average. Dodger president Rickey moved Campanella up to the Class AAA team in Montreal, where, in 1947, he played catcher for 135 games, hit 13 home runs, and scored a.273 batting average. This was the same year that Jackie Robinson became the first black player to play in the major leagues. Campanella was following in Robinson's footsteps; Robinson had only the year before played on the Montreal team.
An African American First
After a brief stint on the St. Paul, Minnesota Class AA team, Campanella was finally moved up to the Brooklyn Dodgers' major league team in 1948. This made him the first African American catcher in major league baseball, and the fourth African American player in the major leagues. Jackie Robinson had preceded Campanella the year before as the first African American major league baseball player. Robinson was then followed by two other African American players, Larry Doby and Dan Bankhead, before Campanella joined the major leagues.
Wearing the number 39 that he was to bear throughout his career, Campanella stepped up to the plate his first night playing as a Brooklyn Dodger, and hit a home run. Also that night, he hit a double and two singles, firmly establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with. Just as he had in the Negro Leagues, Campanella grit his teeth and played through numerous potentially serious injuries during his nine seasons with the Brooklyn Dodgers. For instance, in 1954, an injury rendered two fingers on his left hand immobile, and he played anyway. "I can grip a bat and I can grip a ball, and that's all that counts," said Campanella, according to Thomas.
|1921||Born on November 19 in Homestead, Pennsylvania|
|1937||Drops out of school to join his first professional baseball team, the Bacharach Giants of Brooklyn, New York|
|1937||Joins the Baltimore Elite Giants, a team of the Negro National League|
|1946||Signs with the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers, beginning his career with the organization in the minor leagues|
|1948||Joins the Dodgers' major league team|
|1958||Paralyzed in an automobile accident, which ends his baseball playing career|
|1959||Publishes autobiography, It's Good to Be Alive|
|1978||Rejoins Los Angeles Dodgers payroll as a coach and Community Services worker|
|1993||Dies of heart attack near his Woodland Hills, California home|
It's Good to Be Alive
Roy Campanella's autobiography, It's Good to Be Alive became the basis of a television movie in 1974. Directed by noted television actor Michael Landon (perhaps best known for his starring role on the Little House on the Prairie TV series), the 100-minute movie was broadcast for the first time on February 22, 1974. This first showing featured an introduction by Campanella and his family.
Paul Winfield plays the part of Campanella, and the movie opens with the 1958 auto accident that ended Campanella's career as a baseball player. Focusing more on the remarkable process by which Campanella created a new life for himself than on the baseball career that made him famous, the film chronicles the collapse of Campanella's marriage as a direct result of the accident, his physical rehabilitation, and his return to a productive life as a baseball coach and inspirational speaker. It's Good to Be Alive remains available on both videocassette and DVD from larger video outlets.
In 1951, Campanella was honored with Most Valuable Player status, a designation that was again bestowed upon him in 1953, when he had what some commentators thought of as his best year. In that year, Campanella had a .312 batting average, and broke three records for a catcher. These were: most putouts in a single season (807), most home runs for a catcher in a single season (41), and most runs batted in within a single season (142). Campanella was named Most Valuable Player a final time in 1955. By the end of his career, Campanella had played in five World Series, and had been named a National League All-Star a total of eight times.
A Career Cut Short
Even at the height of his career, however, Campanella realized that he could not play baseball indefinitely, and so he opened a Harlem, New York liquor store with which he planned to support his family after his retirement from playing baseball. The store was a success, and was soon a prosperous business. The day he was forced to retire from baseball came sooner than Campanella planned, however. Early in the morning of January 28, 1958, as he was driving back to his Glen Cove, Long Island home from the liquor store, the car he was driving skidded on a slick road, crashed into a telephone pole, and overturned.
Campanella described the crash in a Los Angeles Times interview that was later quoted by the St. Petersburg Times. "It had snowed a little that night, and the roads were a little wet and icy. I was about five minutes from my house when I hit some ice driving around a curve. I hit my brakes and the car slid across the road, hit a pole and turned over. I tried to reach up to turn the ignition off because I thought the car would catch fire, but I couldn't move my arm."
Although he survived the crash, he suffered two fractured vertebrae. Five surgeons at Glen Cove Community Hospital worked four and a half hours to save his life. They succeeded in this, but his spine was permanently damaged; he remained paralyzed from the shoulders down. He would never be able to walk or swing a bat again.
At the time of his accident, Campanella held a .276 batting average in the major leagues. His major league career total was 1,161 hits in 1,215 games, including 627 runs and 242 home runs, and 856 runs batted in. Many later speculated that, had it not been for the racism that had kept Campanella out of the major leagues until he was 26 years old, and for the auto accident that ended his career prematurely at the age of 36, those numbers would have been much higher.
A New Life
After a ten-month hospitalization, Campanella underwent rehabilitation at New York University-Bellevue Medical Center's Rusk Institute—a process as grueling as any training in his baseball career. At the end of it, he was able to move his arms, and regained partial use of his hands.
The worst was not yet over. Campanella's wife Ruthie, unable to cope with the loss of physical intimacy imposed by the accident, left him. Campanella was also forced to sell his house to cover debts incurred as a result of the accident. Only three months after Campanella's accident, his team moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, California, to become the Los Angeles Dodgers. Campanella said many years later that his one regret in life was that he wasn't able to go with the Dodgers to their new home.
But Campanella persevered, never flagging in his optimism. He rebuilt his life, eventually marrying his nurse, and building up his liquor store business and his career as a television and radio personality. In the process of putting his life back together, Campanella became a tremendous source of inspiration to handicapped and other people around the country. As Thomas of the New York Times wrote, "his gritty determination to make a life for himself in a wheelchair won him even more fame and admiration than he had enjoyed as a baseball star."
|Brooklyn: Brooklyn Dodgers.|
Campanella's many fans showed their appreciation of him on May 8, 1959 at an exhibition game at the Los Angeles Coliseum between the Dodgers and the Yankees dedicated to the former star. Over 93,000 spectators showed up, a baseball attendance record that remained unbroken at the time of Campanella's death, more than 30 years later. At one point during the proceedings, Campanella was wheeled to home plate, the stadium's lights were dimmed, and the fans lit matches in Campanella's honor. More importantly to the star who had fallen on hard times, he netted $75,000 from that night's proceeds.
Campanella stayed active in baseball by coaching teenagers; in 1967, he took a job coaching boys from housing projects in New York City. Many of those he coached went on to play for college and professional teams. In 1969, Campanella, again following in Jackie Robinson's footsteps, became the second African American to be inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In a speech on the occasion, he thanked Branch Rickey for starting his major league career. The Chicago Sun Times quoted Campanella, "Mr. Rickey is the one I owe everything to. This election completes my baseball career, and there's nothing more I can ask in life."
But Campanella's career in baseball was not over. In 1978, Campanella went back on the Dodgers payroll, selling his liquor store and moving to Woodland Hills, California to rejoin his old team. Among his duties at his new job was coaching Dodgers catchers at spring training in Vero Beach, Florida, and working for the organization's Community Services department.
He remained in the public eye with these activities, and remained beloved of Dodgers fans and players who recognized his positive outlook and ongoing contributions to the sport of baseball. Most of all, he was seen to epitomize the spirit of fun that he felt was essential to playing an organized sport. "It's a man's game," said Campanella, according to the St. Petersburg Times, "but you have to have a lot of little boy in you to play it."
Gone But Not Forgotten
Roy Campanella died of a heart attack near his home in Woodland Hills, California, on June 26, 1993. "As well as being a great baseball player," said Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda in Jet magazine, "he was a great human being." And, as former Dodger player and later San Francisco Giants manager Dusty Baker recalled in the Boston Globe, Campanella "was a guy who motivated me. He never complained. He would never alibi. Even though his body didn't function well, he was mentally as sharp as a tack. You could listen to him for hours and hours telling stories about baseball and life. Stories about Jack Robinson and Jim Gilliam and the Negro Leagues. He was just fascinating to be around." Campanella is survived by his wife Roxie and five children: Roy Jr., Anthony, John, Joni Roan, and Ruth Effort.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY CAMPANELLA:
It's Good to Be Alive. Boston: Little Brown & Company, 1959.
"Dodgers Legend Campanella Dies." Chicago Sun Times (June 27, 1993): Sports Sunday, 3.
Donnelly, Joe. "Courage in Dodger Blue; Baseball Mourns Campanella, 71." Record (June 28, 1993): D1.
"Greatest Dodger of Them All." St. Petersburg Times (June 28, 1993): 1C.
"Hall of Fame Catcher Roy Campanella Dies at 71." Jet (July 12, 1993): 14.
Pearson, Richard. "Famed Dodgers Catcher Roy Campanella Dies." Washington Post (June 28, 1993): D8.
Thomas Jr., Robert McG. "Roy Campanella, 71 Dies; Was Dodger Hall of Famer." New York Times (June 28, 1993): B8.
Whicker, Mark. "Campy: Simply One of the Best." Buffalo News (June 28, 1993): Sports, 2.
Whiteside, Larry. "Campanella Broke Mold; Apprciation." Boston Globe (June 28, 1993): Sports, 25.
"Biography: Roy Campanella." HickokSports.com. http://www.hickoksports.com/biograph/campanel.shtml (November 13, 2002).
"It's Good to Be Alive." All Movie Guide. http://www.allmovie.com (November 19, 2002).
"Roy Campanella." cnnsi.com. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/baseball/mlb/all_time_stats/players/c/43016/ (November 20, 2002).
Sketch by Michael Belfiore
Awards and Accomplishments
|1949-56||Named to the Major League All-Star Team|
|1951, 1953, 1955||Named National League Most Valuable Player|
|1953||Set major league record for most home runs by a catcher in a season (41)|
|1953||Set major league record for most runs batted in by a catcher in a season (142)|
|1959||Published book It's Good to Be Alive|
|1969||Inducted as the second African American baseball player into the Baseball Hall of Fame|
Belfiore, Michael. "Campanella, Roy." Notable Sports Figures. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407900088.html
Belfiore, Michael. "Campanella, Roy." Notable Sports Figures. 2004. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3407900088.html
Hall of Fame catcher, Roy Campanella (1921-1993), was one of professional baseball's African American pioneers. Playing with Jackie Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers, Campanella won three Most Valuable Player awards in a 10-year career that was cut short by a crippling automobile accident.
Campanella was one of many stars on the powerful Dodgers teams of the early 1950s, nicknamed "the Boys of Summer." Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Jackie Robinson, and Pee Wee Reese got more attention. But Campanella was the heart and soul of the team, its most valuable player, and an astute handler of the Dodgers pitching staff. Something of an amateur psychologist, he knew when to coddle and when to needle his pitchers. "He was always doing something to help you win a game, whether it was digging out a low pitch, throwing out a baserunner, or hitting a home run," said Dodgers manager, Walt Alston. For his own part, Campanella professed an undying affection for baseball. "It's a man's game, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you to play it," he often said.
Roy Campanella was born on November 19, 1921 in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood known, ironically, as Nicetown. His father was Italian and his mother was African American. His parents worked hard and the five children pitched in to help. By the time he was nine, Roy was cutting grass, delivering newspapers, shining shoes, and delivering milk to earn money for family needs.
Despite his short, stocky stature, Campanella was powerfully built and a gifted athlete, especially at baseball. He played throughout his youth and showed tremendous promise, but his career was blocked by professional baseball's color bar. Though Campanella had an Italian surname, his skin was dark and his future seemed destined to be in the Negro Leagues, the home of so many great black players in the first half of the twentieth century.
At the age of fifteen, Campanella signed with the Baltimore Elite Giants, one of the Negro League's top teams. Teammate Othello Renfroe said he was the "biggest fifteen-year-old boy I ever saw in my life." The team's shortstop, Pee Wee Butts, would get mad because Campanella would throw the ball so hard to second base during infield practice. Campanella's parents, who were devout Baptists, wouldn't let him play on Sundays. Young Roy did not, at first, consider a career in baseball. "I remember I felt so lost," he told Dodgers biographer Peter Golenbock. "I had no idea in the world this would be my profession. Truthfully, I wanted to be an architect." But when the Giants asked Campanella's parents to let him leave school in the eleventh grade so that he could play full-time, they agreed.
For the next decade, Campanella excelled in the segregated world of black baseball, barnstorming on buses across the country and playing winter ball in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America. He was such a natural leader and had such an astute baseball mind that he often managed clubs he played for in Latin America. Campanella figured he was destined to stay in the Negro League throughout his entire career. "I never thought about the big leagues, playing in it," he told Golenbock. "Never."
Crashing the Color Bar
Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color bar when he signed a professional contract with Branch Rickey, president of the New York Dodgers, in October 1945. Robinson was groomed to be the first black player in the modern major leagues, but he spent the 1946 season with Montreal, then a Class AAA minor-league team. Rickey was determined to integrate all levels of baseball. He signed Campanella and another black player, pitcher Don Newcombe, to play with Nashua, New Hampshire, a Brooklyn farm team in the Class B New England League. The manager of Nashua was Alston, who would later manage the Dodgers.
Campanella was making about $500 a month in the Negro Leagues, but he accepted a pay cut and played for $150 a month at Nashua. "Roy of course was better than a Class B player," Alston said. "But he knew why he was there. He was part of Rickey's plan to begin integrating baseball. … he knew he was going to start something important." Campanella batted .290 and was voted the Eastern League's most valuable player. He even managed a game after Alston was thrown out by the umpire. In that game, Campanella used Newcombe as a pinch-hitter and he slugged a game-winning home run. The next year, when Robinson was promoted to Brooklyn, Campanella stepped up to Montreal and had another strong season.
Campanella thought he would open the 1948 season as the Dodgers' catcher, but Rickey had other plans. He sent him to St. Paul, Minnesota, to be the first black player in the American Association, another minor league circuit. "I ain't no pioneer," Campanella grumbled. "I'm a ballplayer." At St. Paul, Campanella batted .325 and hit 13 homers in 35 games. At the end of June Rickey called him up to the Dodgers. In his first game, Campanella hit two home runs against the New York Giants, and got nine hits in his first twelve at-bats. At the age of 26, he was installed as the regular catcher and kept the job for ten seasons. Campanella at first relied on Rickey to help him win acceptance. "One of the main things he taught me: I had to get all of the white pitching staff to respect my judgment in accepting signs," Campanella recalled.
Bulwark of the Dodgers
During Campanella's ten years with the Dodgers, they won five National League championships and finished second three times. Brooklyn was a powerhouse club filled with all-star caliber players. Most of them had more speed, more power, and more spectacular defensive opportunities than Campanella. But the solid, brainy catcher was such a mainstay of the team's success that he was voted the league's Most Valuable Player in each of the three seasons in which he batted over .300.
The muscular Campanella was a strong offensive force, even in the years when his batting average was low. He hit more than 30 home runs four times. In 1953, he hit 41 home runs and had a league-leading 142 runs batted in. During the eight-year stretch between 1949 and 1956, he averaged 28 home runs a season. His most important contributions were defensive ones. He had a strong and deadly arm. "Sometimes you won simply because he was there," Alston said. "They wouldn't try to steal on him. That keeps a guy on base and helps keep your pitcher's concentration on the batter."
Campanella was a genius when it came to keeping pitchers concentrated on their work-a catcher's most important role. He nurtured a great pitching staff that included Don Newcombe, Johnny Podres, Preacher Roe, Carl Erskine, and Clem Labine. "Just seeing him back there made you a better pitcher," Podres said. Campanella did not hesitate to criticize his pitchers if he felt that was needed to motivate them. "He knew that sometimes if he got me mad I'd pitch better," Newcombe said. "So he'd come out [to the mound] … and give me some needling. He knew when to do it and how." Golenbock said: "His most important attribute was that he had the respect of his pitchers, who trusted his judgment implicitly."
During his best years, Campanella was frequently compared to Yogi Berra, his counterpart as catcher with the perennial American League champion New York Yankees. Berra also won three MVP awards, in 1951, 1954, and 1955. Some believe Campanella might have won a fourth MVP in 1954, if he hadn't suffered an injury to his left hand. He played even though it was partially paralyzed and eventually required surgery.
Campanella was behind the plate when the Dodgers played in the World Series in 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956. They were losers each year except in 1955, when Brooklyn won its only world championship. Podres pitched a 2-0 shutout in the decisive seventh game and gave credit to his catcher. "That win was half Campy's," Podres said. "He never called a better game. He saw how my stuff was working and he seemed to know what the Yankee hitters were looking for."
Injuries plagued Campanella in 1956 as he batted only. 219 and again in 1957 when he played in only 100 games and batted .242. "Campy's catching skills began to erode after a careless doctor cut a nerve in his right hand while performing an operation," Golenbock said. But Alston claimed that his career was far from over because "he was still the soundest defensive catcher in baseball."
Career Cut Short
The 1957 season was the Dodgers' last in Brooklyn. The club was moving to Los Angeles the following year. It would do so without its star catcher. On the night of January 28, 1958, Campanella was driving to his home on Long Island when his car skidded on a slick road, struck a telephone poll, and turned over. Seat belts had not yet become standard safety equipment. The great catcher suffered multiple fractures and dislocations in the vertebrae in his neck and was permanently paralyzed from the shoulders down. He would never walk again.
Campanella ended his career with a .276 batting average, 242 home runs, and 865 runs batted in. If it hadn't been for the color bar that delayed his entrance to the leagues and the accident which ended his career prematurely, he likely would have posted home run and RBI totals to rival the best catchers of all time. In 1959, the Dodgers staged a benefit game at the Los Angeles Coliseum to honor Campanella and raise money for his medical expenses. The game attracted 93,103 fans, thought to be the largest crowd ever to see a baseball game. That year, Campanella published an autobiography, It's Good to Be Alive. When the book was re-released in 1995, Publishers Weekly said it "packs more uplift than any inspirational sports bio."
In some ways, Campanella became more famous in the wheelchair than he had been on the baseball diamond. He never complained about his injury, and became an inspiring figure. "Although he was a remarkable ballplayer, I think he'll be remembered more for his 35 years in a wheelchair," said Dodgers broadcaster, Vin Scully. The Dodgers hired him as a special instructor, and for 20 years he helped groom many young catchers during spring training. He also worked with disabled people through the Dodgers' community-service division. He was expert at cheering up people. Campanella once said: "People look at me and get the feeling that if a guy in a wheelchair can have such a good time, they can't be too bad off after all." Scully observed: "He looked upon life as a catcher. He was forever cheering up, pepping up, counseling people."
In fact, Campanella's life was not always easy. His first marriage dissolved and his house had to be sold in order to pay huge medical debts. In 1963, Campanella marrried a nurse named Roxie Doles. Throughout his ordeals, he remained extremely close to the five children from his first marriage: sons Roy Jr., Anthony, and John and daughters Joni and Ruth.
Campanella was voted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. He died of a heart attack at his home in Woodland Hills, California, on June 26, 1993, at the age of 71. That evening, flags at Dodger Stadium flew at half-mast and the scoreboard showed highlights of Campanella's career. Alston, his mentor, remembered him this way: "I've never seen a more enthusiastic guy on a ball field, one who got more sheer joy out of playing."
Campanella, Roy. It's Good to Be Alive, University of Nebraska, 1959.
Golenbock, Peter. Bums: An Oral History of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Putnam, 1984.
Honig, Donald, The Greatest Catchers of All Time, Brown, 1991.
Jet, November 19, 1984; July 17, 1989; July 12, 1993; November 15, 1996.
People, July 12, 1993.
Time, July 12, 1993. □
"Roy Campanella." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404707327.html
"Roy Campanella." Encyclopedia of World Biography. 2004. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3404707327.html
Campanella, Roy 1921–1993
Roy Campanella 1921–1993
Professional baseball player
Arguably the greatest catcher in the history of baseball, and certainly one of the game’s best all-around players, Roy Campanella’s raw talent was so singular as a youth that he began his career at the age of 15. He learned the ins and outs of catching from one of the very best: the great Biz Mackey, catcher for the Negro League’s Baltimore Elite (pronounced “E-light”) Giants. Barred from regular major league baseball because of his color, Campanella played the first ten years of his career in the Negro Leagues, from 1936 through 1945. He was the fourth African American to be signed to a professional contract in 1946, and the first to integrate the American Association of the Major Leagues, in 1948. Following two years in the minors, Campanella joined the parent Brooklyn Dodgers, where he became a full-fledged star on a team full of stars, including Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Pee Wee Reese.
In the course of his career, Campanella played in All-Star games three times in the Negro League, and played on All-Star teams eight consecutive years in the majors, from 1949 through 1956. He played on five National League pennant teams and helped lead the Dodgers to their World Series win in 1955 over the New York Yankees. He was voted MVP in 1951,1953, and 1955. He was a remarkable player.
Campanella’s brilliant career in baseball ended abruptly in January, 1958, on the eve of the Dodgers’ move to California. His car skidded off the road and overturned, pinning him in the wreckage and breaking his neck. His spinal cord was irreparably damaged. A quadriplegic overnight, he would spend the rest of his life in a motorized wheelchair. But Campanella’s indomitable spirit and zest for life would not allow him to give up. Although he would never walk again or play the game he so loved, he did return to the world, working as a pitching and catching coach for the Dodgers during spring training, as well as serving as a community relations ambassador for the organization.
Roy Campanella was born November 19, 1921 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the youngest of four children born to Ida Mercer Campanella, a black woman, and John Campanella, a white Italian American who worked in the fresh produce trade. He would eventually own his own fruit and vegetable market. When Roy was seven, the family moved to Kerbaugh Street in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia, where he grew up. The Campanellas were strict parents,
Born Roy Campanella, November 19, 1921, in Philadelphia, PA; died June 26, 1993, in Woodland Hills, CA, of a heart attack. One of four children of Ida (Mercer) Campanella and John Campanella (a produce market owner): married Bernice Ray, January 3, 1939; divorced; children: Joyce, Beverly; married Ruthe Wills, 1945 (deceased); children: David, Anthony, Roy, jr., Depayton (Princess); married Roxie Doles May 5, 1964; adopted her children, Joni and John.
Career: Professional baseball player; catcher: semipro, Bacharach Giants, 1936;catcher, professional: Baltimore Elite Giants, 1937–1942; Monterrey, Mexico, Mexican League, 1943; Baltimore Elite Giants, 1944, 1945: catcher, professional, minor league: Nashua, NewHampshire (NLE), 1946; Montreal (Canada) Royals (IL), 1947; St. Paul, Minnesota, Saints(AA), 1948; catcher, professional, major league: Brooklyn Dodgers, 1948–1957; owner, liquorand wine store, Harlem, New York, 1951–1959; special pitching and catching coach, radioannouncer, Brooklyn Dodgers, c. 1959–1978; assistant to Don Newcombe, Dodger CommunityRelations, c. 1978–1990.
Awards: Member, All-Star East-West games, Negro National League, 1941, 1944, 1945; National League MVP, 1951, 1953, 1955; National League All-Star teams, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956; catcher, The Sporting News Major League All-StarTeams, 1949, 1951, 7953, 1955: The Sporting News Outstanding National LeaguePlayer, 1953; World Series, Brooklyn Dodgers, 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956; World Champions, Brooklyn Dodgers, 1955; honoree, Roy Campanella Night, Los Angeles Coliseum, May 7, 1959; National Baseball Hall of Fame, 1969; Black Athletes Hall of Fame, 1975.
although not unkind. Roy played stickball and baseball as a youth. By the time he finished ninth grade at Gillespie Junior High, he was thinking more about playing professional baseball than spending the next three years at Simon Gratz High. During the summer of 1936, just before he turned 15, Campanella was approached to play semi-pro ball with the Bacharach Giants, a Philadelphia team. Although Ida Campanella resisted, wanting her son to finish school, she was gradually persuaded by the amounts of money Roy was being promised. Thirty-five dollars to catch two weekend games was a lot of money in the midst of the Depression.
Before long Roy was taking time off from school to travel with the Bacharach Giants, and by his junior year he decided to quit altogether. When he met Biz Mackey, the great catcher was looking for an understudy to train. Taking a pay cut, Campanella jumped at the chance to play for the Baltimore Elite Giants, a highly respected professional team in the Negro National League. He joined the Elite Giants in 1937 and began to learn the finer points of catching from a master.
Campanella played for Tom Wilson’s Elite Giants from 1937 to 1942. He played in the All-Star East-West game in 1941 and was named MVP of that game. He married for the first time in 1939. The first Mrs. Campanella was a Philadelphia girl named Bernice Ray, and the couple had two daughters: Joyce in 1940, and Beverly in 1941. Campanella’s long absences strained the marriage, however, and they agreed to separate. They divorced a few years later. Campanella received his draft notice in April, 1941, but received a deferment that allowed him to continue to play ball. After Pearl Harbor he was playing winter ball down in Puerto Rico when he was notified he had been reclassified and had to return to the States immediately. He assembled tank parts until the spring of 1942, when he rejoined the Elites.
Campanella had been fined by owner Tom Wilson for jumping the club to play in a special benefit game. Campanella felt the fine was unfair, and when the owner of the Mexican League offered him a chance to play for more than twice what he made with the Elites, he took it. He spent 1943 playing for Monterrey, helping the team win their first league pennant. He returned to the Elites in 1944 when Wilson, desperate for a decent catcher, forgave the fine. Campanella played in the All-Star games again in 1944 and 1945. Larry Moffi and Jonathan Kronstadt noted in their book, Crossing the Line, “During his career with Baltimore, Campanella…managed twice to nudge all-time great Josh Gibson off the Negro League all-star team.”
Campanella had been scouted by the Dodger organization and they were impressed by his power and speed. Jules Tygiel wrote in the introduction to the 1995 edition of Campanella’s book It’s Great to Be Alive, “We were all in on scouting Campanella,’ recalled Dodger scout Clyde Sukeforth. ‘You couldn’t go wrong there.’” Campanella was signed to the Dodger club in 1946. He was the fourth black to integrate major league baseball, following Jackie Robinson, John Wright, and Don Newcombe. Roy Partlow and Don Bankhead came immediately after Campanella. Tygiel wrote in 1995 that “contrary to the legend that portrays Jackie Robinson as the only man who could have withstood the rigors of baseball’s ‘great experiment,’ Campanella could just as easily have become the focal point of baseball integration.” According to Tygiel, Dodger president Branch Rickey actually considered Campanella over Robinson “and at one time planned to announce the signing of Robinson and Campanella simultaneously. But Rickey, in part due to the pressures of New York City politics, selected Robinson and chose to let him stand alone.”
In 1945 Campanella had married Ruthe Wills and adopted her son David. When he was signed by the Dodgers in 1946, the family moved north. His two daughters remained in Philadelphia with their mother.
The Dodgers sent Campanella first to their Class B club in Nashua, New Hampshire, where, along with pitcher Don Newcombe, he played the 1946 season in the New England League. According to Donald Honig’s The Greatest Catchers of All Time, “Campanella batted .290 and was voted the league’s most valuable player.” He was sent to the top Dodger farm club at Montreal in 1947. Expecting to play with the Dodgers in 1948, Campanella was told he needed to first integrate the American Association. Protesting that he was a baseball player, not a pioneer, Campanella nevertheless went to St. Paul and became the first black to play in the American Association in 1948. After a month, he was brought up to the Dodgers, where he became the first black catcher in the major leagues, and stayed until 1958.
Campanella was an undisputed asset to the team. He embarked on a ten-year career in the major leagues that was so dazzling that it still feels immediate today. He was a member of the all-star team for eight consecutive years-from 1949 through 1956. As Honig noted, “Playing on what was virtually an all-star team, Campanella had to share the headlines with the speed, power, or defensive splendor of one or the other of his teammates. But when it came to selecting the most critically important man on this sterling roster, three times the sportswriters went to Campanella, voting him the league’s most valuable player in 1951, 1953, and 1955.” His statistics were impressive. According to Riley, he batted .325 with 33 home runs and 108 RBIs for the MVP honor in 1951. In 1953 he earned it with a .312 batting average, 41 home runs, and 142 RBIs. A .318 average, 32 homers, and 107 RBIs were good for the title in 1955.
Campanella was chosen to be the catcher in four of The Sporting News Major League All-Star teams, in 1949, 1951, 1953, and 1955, and was named The Sporting News Outstanding National League Player in 1953. He helped lead the Brooklyn Dodgers to five pennant wins, in 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956, and helped the Dodgers beat the New York Yankees for the World Championship in 1955. Campanella himself picked 1953 as his most memorable year. “Nineteen-fifty-three was the best year I ever had in baseball,” he wrote in It’s Good to Be Alive. “Free of injuries for the first time in several years, I hit everybody and everything.” He added that his greatest compliment came from Ty Cobb in 1955. Campanella wrote, “He was quoted as saying that I would be remembered more than any other player of my time; that someday I would be rated with the greatest catchers of all time. I appreciated that coming from such a man.”
Campanella had a temperament ideally suited to the role of catcher. Sweet, unflappable, and humble, he handled a nearly all-white pitching staff and soon earned their respect and friendship. Honig wrote, “Campanella nurtured a pitching staff that included [Don] Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Clam Labine, and left-handers Johnny Padres and Preacher Roe, all of whom extolled their great catcher.” From Padres: “Just seeing him back there made you a better pitcher.” From Newcombe: “He was something of the psychologist… . He knew that sometimes if he got me mad I’d pitch better, so out he’d come in the middle of a game…and give me some needling. He knew when to do it and how.” Padres gave credit to Campanella for his contribution to the 1955 World Series win over the Yankees. Padres pitched a 2–0 shutout in game seven of the series. “The win was half Campy’s,” Honig quoted Padres as saying. “He never called a better game. He saw how my stuff was working and he seemed to know what the Yankee hitters were looking for. I don’t think I shook him off but once or twice the whole game.”
Campanella’s glorious career came to an end in 1958. It was January, and he had stayed late at the package liquor store he had purchased as a financial hedge in 1951. He had left the store in Harlem and was close to home in Glen Cove, Long Island, when the car hit a patch of ice and skidded off the road. He was not speeding, but he was unfamiliar with the car. It was a rental; his own was in the shop. The car overturned, pinning him inside, breaking his neck. He was paralyzed from the chest down. Ron Fimrite wrote in Sports Illustrated in 1990 that a team of “seven doctors operated for four hours and twenty minutes to save Campanella’s life.” After three months in the hospital, he was transferred to the Rusk Institute in Manhattan for physical therapy and to learn to cope with the new life that lay ahead.
Campanella wrote in his autobiography, “to tell the truth, I didn’t think I was going to live those first few days…following the accident’ He was full of fears, wondering what would become of him, how he would support his family. Filled with despair, he admitted there were many times when he was close to hysterics. After a stern talk from one of his doctors, urging him to work harder at a recovery, Campanella began the long road back. “This was a challenge,” he wrote, “the greatest I ever faced. I knew I would have a long, tough fight ahead of me, but I was no longer afraid.” Turning to God for help, he noted, “It’s quite a nice thing to have God on your side-and I know He is on mine…. I’m a lucky man. I thank God I’m alive.”
Campanella made slow but steady progress after that, even learning to catch a ball again. In 1958 he was offered the opportunity to become a radio show host. The show was called “Campy’s Corner,” and it proved to be good therapy. The first shows were broadcast from his hospital room. Then he was offered a position with the Dodgers as a part-time coach and radio announcer for home games. In 1959 he returned to Vero Beach, Florida, for spring training with the Dodgers, in his new role as a coach.
Campanella’s mental and physical progress following his accident was an inspiration to millions, prompting Dr. Rusk to speculate that Campanella’s contribution to the world of the disabled was likely to be far more significant than those he had ever made on a baseball diamond. From 1959 until about 1990, Campanella continued to work for the Dodger organization, first as a coach, and later as a community relations man. He and his second wife separated in 1960, and following her death, he married Roxie Doles, a former nurse and neighbor. They were inseparable for the rest of his life.
In 1959 the Dodgers honored him at a preseason game designated Roy Campanella Night. According to USA Today in 1999, “Attendance at the Los Angeles Coliseum was 93,103, which remains the record for a big league game.” Campanella was inducted on the first ballot into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969, and was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1975. Campanella died of a heart attack in 1993 at his home in Woodland Hills, California.
When considering the storied life of Roy Campanella, it is easy to fall into pondering the “what ifs” that inevitably arise in such a discussion. What if there had been no racial barrier in major league baseball? What might he have accomplished had he spent the first ten years of his career in the majors as well? What if he, not Robinson, had been chosen to break the color line? What more might he have accomplished had he not had the tragic accident in 1958? It is tempting and easy to speculate. But the fact is that despite these obstacles, Roy Campanella accomplished amazing things anyway. Indeed, it is probably his many awe-inspiring successes which cause us to dream of what more might have been, if only Campanella had gotten a fair shake out of life. Campanella himself, however, accepted whatever life had to offer him, with gratitude, grace, and immeasurable dignity.
The African American Almanac, Eighth Edition. Edited by Jessie Carney Smith and Joseph M. Palmis-ano. Detroit: Gale, 2000.
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Baseball. Edited by David L. Potter. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Campanella, Roy. It’s Good to Be Alive. New York: Little, Brown, 1959. Reprinted, with introduction by Jules Tygiel, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
Cohen, Stanley. Dodgers! The First 100 Years. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1990.
Honig, Donald. The Greatest Catchers of All Time. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown Publishers, 1991.
Moffi, Larry, and Jonathan Kronstadt. Crossing the Line: Black Major Leaguers, 1947–1959. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1994.
Notable Black American Men. Edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit: Gale, 1999.
Peterson, Robert. Only the Ball Was White. New York: Oxford University Press, 1970.
Ritter, Lawrence and Donald Honig. The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time. New York: Crown Publishers, 1981.
Jet, July 12, 1993, p.14; November 25, 1996, p.22.
Sports Illustrated, June 27, 1983, p.40; September 24, 1990, p.94; July 5, 1993, p.70.
People Weekly, May 19,1986, p.141; July 12, 1993, p.97.
Time, January 15, 1990; July 12, 1993.
USA Today, January 31, 1999.
—Ellen Dennis French
French, Ellen. "Campanella, Roy 1921–1993." Contemporary Black Biography. 2000. Encyclopedia.com. (May 28, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2872700022.html
French, Ellen. "Campanella, Roy 1921–1993." Contemporary Black Biography. 2000. Retrieved May 28, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2872700022.html