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Sports Then and Now

Roy “Campy” Campanella

Posted on August 17, 2013 by Dean Hybl
Roy Campanella

Roy Campanella

The Vintage Athlete of the Month for August proved that race didn’t matter as the first great African American catcher in Major League Baseball while winning three Most Valuable Player Awards during a decade with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Roy Campanella joined the Dodgers as a 26-year-old rookie in 1948 and quickly emerged as a key reason the Dodgers won the NL Pennant five times over the next nine seasons.

Though Campanella was relatively old for an MLB rookie, he had been playing professional baseball at a high level for a decade.

Campanella made his debut with the Washington Elite Giants of the Negro National League as a 15-year-old rookie in 1937. Playing primarily for the Baltimore Elite Giants over the next eight seasons, Campanella learned the game of baseball from some of the best players of his era and officially hit .314 during his career.

He was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 and while Jackie Robinson was playing for Triple-A Montreal, Campanella and Don Newcombe spent the season with the Nashua Dodgers of the Class-B New England League to make Nashua the first racially integrated professional baseball team of the 20th Century.

Campanella spent the 1947 season in Montreal and then started the 1948 season playing for St. Paul before making his major league debut on April 20, 1948. He played so well as a rookie that he finished 21st in the National League MVP voting.

In 1949 Campanella was named a National League All-Star for the first time as the Dodgers reached the World Series. He blasted 22 home runs with 82 RBI and a .282 batting average that season and in 1950 he eclipsed the 30 home run mark for the first time as he hit 31 round trippers with 87 RBI and a .287 average.

The 1951 season was a bitter-sweet one for Campanella as he earned his first MVP award while hitting a career-high .325 with 33 home runs and 108 RBI. However, the Dodgers blew a huge late season lead and lost the pennant to the New York Giants when Bobby Thomson hit his famous “Shot Heard Round the World” to snatch the pennant away.

In 1953 the 31-year-old Campanella had career-highs with 41 home runs, a league best 142 RBI and 103 runs scored as he earned his second MVP award. However, the Dodgers lost the World Series to the New York Yankees for the third time in five seasons.

After struggling slightly in 1954, Campanella rebounded in 1955 to claim his third MVP Award. He hit .318 with 32 home runs and 107 RBI.

The Dodgers finally were able to break through and win the World Series during the 1955 season. Campanella hit .259 with two home runs and four RBI as the Dodgers won the series in seven games.

Campanella was a key member of the 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers

Campanella (second from right) was a key member of the 1955 World Champion Brooklyn Dodgers

Over the next two seasons, Campanella’s numbers started to decline and in 1957 he played in only 103 games and hit 13 home runs with 62 RBI.

While Campanella received many accolades for his offensive performance during his career, he was also one of the best defensive catchers of all-time. He threw out 57% of all would-be base stealers during his career, which ranks as the highest percentage amongst catchers in MLB history. He also was behind the plate for three no-hitters.

The Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles for the 1958 season, but their All-Star catcher would never play a game in the new city.

Campanella lived in Glen Cove, New York, on the North Shore of Long Island, while operating a liquor store in Harlem between regular-season games and during the off-season. On January 28, 1958, after closing the store for the night, he began his drive to his home. En route, traveling near 30 mph, his car, a rented 1957 Chevrolet sedan, hit a patch of ice at an S-curve on Dosoris Lane near Apple Tree Lane, skidded into a telephone pole and overturned. The accident broke Campanella’s neck while fracturing the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae and compressing the spinal cord.

The accident left Campanella paralyzed from the shoulders down. Through physical therapy, he eventually was able to regain substantial use of his arms and hands and was able to feed himself, shake hands, and gesture while speaking, but he would require a wheelchair for mobility for the remainder of his life.

Although Campanella never played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he was still embraced by his team’s new city and was a part of the organization for the rest of his life.

On May 7, 1959 the New York Yankees traveled to California to play the Dodgers in an exhibition game as part of Roy Campanella Night. The crowd of 93,103 was a then-record for a major league baseball game and the revenue was used to help defray the medical expenses for Campanella.

In 1969 he followed Robinson as the second African American player in the Baseball Hall of Fame. In 1972 the Dodgers retired the numbers of Robinson (42), Campanella (39) and Sandy Koufax (32).

Campanella passed away following a heart attack on June 26, 1003 at the age of 71.

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