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Largest MLB crowd honored Campanella

Roy Campanella's career statistics

Campy had a lot of little boy in him
By Nick Acocella
Special to

"The wheelchair didn't stop him. There's an old saying, 'A mind is a terrible thing to waste.' And his wasn't wasted. I don't think Roy really, really believed that he was in a wheelchair at the time. Because he was so exuberant," says former major leaguer Lou Johnson on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Roy Campanella became the last important piece of the Boys of Summer Brooklyn Dodgers when he went behind the plate in 1948. He also became the melancholy symbol of those teams in more than 30 years of public appearances in the wheelchair to which he was confined following a 1958 auto accident.

Roy Campanella
Even Roy Campanella did not begin his career at such an age.
Defensively, Campy is considered the standard not only for his era but also, with the arguable exception of Johnny Bench, for the history of the National League. Offensively, he hit 242 home runs in his 10 seasons; these include a record-setting 40 as a receiver in 1953. He had a lifetime average of .276 and knocked in 856 runs.

Together with his handling of pitchers and clubhouse cheerleading role, his defensive and offensive talents netted him three Most Valuable Player awards in the fifties. In 1969, the man who said "You got to have a lot of little boy in you to play this game" became the second African-American player elected to the Hall of Fame. His former teammate, Jackie Robinson, was the first.

Campanella was born in Philadelphia on Nov. 19, 1921, the youngest of six children born to an Italian-American father, John, and an African-American mother, Ida. Subjected to taunts of "half breed" from neighborhood children, Campanella played his first organized baseball at the age of 12 with a team of newsboys sponsored by the Philadelphia Inquirer.

While playing American Legion ball, he was spotted by Tom Dixon of the Bacharach Giants, a local semipro all-black team. Dixon convinced Campanella's parents to allow the 15-year-old to travel with the team on weekends. His pay was $35 for two games.

Not long after, Campanella moved up to the Baltimore Elite Giants of the professional Negro National League. He played for them from 1937-42; at first, it was only during the summer but he joined them fulltime after he turned 16 and quit school.

In 1942, he jumped to Jorge Pasquel's Mexican League but rejoined the Elite Giants two years later. Campanella's big chance came during a black-white All-Star series in October 1945, when Charlie Dressen, managing the major leaguers, invited him to meet with Branch Rickey.

Signing with the Dodgers the following March, he was sent to Nashua, N.H., and won the MVP of the Class B New England League with a .290 average and 96 RBI. After spending the winter of 1946-47 as player-manager in Venezuela, Campanella reported to Montreal in the AAA International League, where he was voted league MVP in 1947. Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Robinson was making history by breaking the major league color barrier.

Campy started the 1948 season with the Dodgers, catching one game before being sent to St. Paul in mid-May. Recalled six weeks later, Major League Baseball's first black catcher came back with a splash, stroking nine hits in his first three starts. He was the Dodgers' regular catcher for the next decade.

From 1949 to 1957, when the franchise left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, the Dodgers won five pennants and lost two others by only the slimmest of margins. Already 27 when he completed the journey from the Negro Leagues through the minors to Ebbets Field, Campanella was bedeviled throughout his career by leg and hand injuries, accounting for precipitous drops in his production between MVP seasons.

Campanella's respectable 1949 season (.287, 22 homers and 82 RBI) helped the Dodgers win the pennant, but the team lost the World Series to the Yankees as he batted .267. After another solid season in 1950 (.281, 31 homers, and 89 RBI despite a fractured thumb in early September), Campy hit his stride in 1951 with a career-best .325 average, 33 homers and 108 RBI.

But even that MVP season was marred by injuries. In August, he suffered an elbow injury in a home-plate collision and a beaning left him bleeding from his left ear. On the last day of the regular season, he pulled a thigh muscle. This hampered his effectiveness in the opener of the three-game playoff with the Giants and kept him out of the last two games altogether. The Giants won the pennant.

Mainly because of another series of injuries in 1952, most notably a chipped elbow bone, Campanella "slumped" to .269 with 22 homers and 97 RBI. Though he went to his second World Series, he batted only .214 and the Dodgers again fell to the Yankees.

The following year was Campanella's best, establishing career marks for homers (41, including one as a pinch-hitter) and runs batted in with 142, breaking the record for RBI by a catcher, in 144 games. He also batted .312. But even a career World Series high average of .273 failed to bring a world championship to the Dodgers, who lost again to the Yankees.

The 5-foot-9, 190-pound Campanella broke a bone in his hand in an exhibition game in 1954, underwent surgery, and endured complications that left him in pain throughout the season. His .207 average reflected the plight of the team as a whole as the Dodgers slumped to second.

The next year, Campy rebounded - and won his third MVP. He was leading the league in batting in mid-June when a foul tip broke a bone in his left kneecap. Missing 17 games, he picked up right where he left off, finishing the season with a .318 average (fourth in the NL), 32 homers and 107 RBI despite sitting out 31 games. That October, he helped the Dodgers win their first World Series with two homers and four RBI against the Yankees.

In 1956, the pounding Campanella had been taking over the years caught up with him. The pain in his hands returned and, although he managed to clout 20 homers and drive in 73 runs, his average slipped to .219. He was even less effective in the World Series, another loss to the Yankees, batting only .182.

In his final season, he bounced back slightly to a .242 average, but his power numbers dropped to 13 homers and 62 RBI as the Dodgers fell to third place in their final season in Brooklyn.

Then, in the early hours of the morning of Jan. 28, 1958, tragedy struck. While driving to his home on Long Island after working a double-shift at his liquor store in Manhattan, Campanella hit an ice patch and his car slammed into a telephone pole. Despite surgery to relieve pressure on his spinal column, nothing could be done to repair the fracture and dislocation of his fifth and sixth vertebrae. Campanella, at 36, was paralyzed from the chest down.

Three days after the operation, his condition worsened when he was stricken with pneumonia and his left lung collapsed. Although the pneumonia passed, Campanella's paralysis remained unchanged.

After three months at Glen Cove Community Hospital, Campy was moved to the Rusk Institute for Rehabilitative Medicine at New York University-Bellevue Hospital. He wouldn't return home until that November.

The accident cost him more than his career. His first marriage, to Ruthe with whom he had five children, broke up as Ruthe was accused of physically and verbally abusing Campy. While they were estranged, she died of a heart attack in 1963.

Campy, who had to sell his home to pay hospital bills, was living in Harlem when he met Roxie Doles, a former nurse who later in 1963 became his second wife.

Campanella stayed in the Dodger family. At spring training in Vero Beach, Fla., he set up Campy's Corner, from which he dispensed advice to young catchers and pitchers. In 1978, he moved to California, where he continued working in the Dodgers community relations office.

On June 26, 1993 -- after 35 years in a wheelchair -- Campanella died of a heart attack at his home in Woodland Hills. He was 71.

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