Roy Campanella wasn’t one to wallow in his hardships.
But if anyone had a right to be bitter, it was the stocky catcher from Philadelphia. Forced to endure unspeakable racial taunts as a minor leaguer, “Campy” persevered to become the best catcher in the big leagues from 1948 to 1957, only to have his career end tragically on an icy road on Long Island in January 1958.
The happy-go-lucky backstop started his professional career at the tender age of 16 in the Negro Leagues with the Washington Elites (the team moved to Baltimore the following campaign). He would star in the Negro Leagues and Mexican League for several seasons, before being signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946.
While Jackie Robinson was assigned to the Dodgers’ Triple-A affiliate Montreal Royals in 1946, “Campy” and black right-hander Don Newcombe were assigned to Brooklyn’s Class B club in Nashua, New Hampshire, making the club the first U.S. team to field a racially integrated lineup.
Subjected to racial taunts during the season, Campanella generally let the words bounce right off of him. In contrast to Robinson’s fiery and intense nature, “Campy” was sometimes criticized for being too passive. His approach, however, seemed to work. He batted .290 with 13 homers in 113 games in Nashua, and impressed his manager, Walter Alston, intellectually and defensively.
One of Campy’s greatest assets was his powerful throwing arm, so when he hurt his arm the following spring, he initially concealed the injury. He later came clean when legendary Dodgers GM Branch Rickey questioned his arm strength. Fortunately, his shoulder injury healed and the promising catcher was assigned to the Montreal Royals. Though he’d hit over .300 for most of the season, a late-season slump lowered his batting average to .273 (to go along with 13 homers and 75 RBIs). In his book “Baseball’s Fabulous Montreal Royals,” William Brown writes that Campanella lost 50 pounds toiling for the Royals in 1947. Campanella’s bubbly personality made him popular amongst his teammates. Brown writes that Campanella would later describe his year in Montreal as the turning point of his career and the legendary catcher would laud the city for its role in integrating baseball.
Campy graduated to the big leagues in 1948 and won three National League MVP awards (1951, 1953, 1955) over the next eight seasons. In 1953, he set a big league record for most home runs by a catcher in a season with 41, and he led Brooklyn to their only World Series title in 1955. Aside from his offensive heroics, the eight-time all-star threw out 57 per cent of baserunners trying to steal against him, a record that still stands today.
During his playing career, Campanella also owned and ran a liquor store in Harlem. On January 28, 1958, after closing his store, he was driving to his Glen Cove, Long Island home, when his car slide on some ice and careened into a utility pole. The Dodgers catcher broke his neck and was left paralyzed from the waist down. He would never play for the Dodgers in their controversial new home in Los Angeles in 1958.
After the accident, Campy, who penned an autobiography that was made into a TV movie called “It’s Good To Be Alive,” worked in several different capacities in the Dodgers organization. In 1969, he became the second black player ever inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. He died of a heart attack at his Woodlands, Calif., home on June 26, 1993.