Roy CampanellaJul 3rd, 2011 | By BHS | Category: Sports
1921-1993 Roy Campanella rose through the ranks of baseball’s Minor and Negro Leagues to achieve fame as a Major League catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and in so doing helped to shatter the color barrier that barred black players from the majors.
Mexican to Minor League
Campanella was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1921. His father was Italian and his mother was African American. Little is known of his early life, but by age 15 he was playing with a Philadelphia semi-professional baseball team called the Bacharach Giants. In 1937, while still in school, he was recruited by the Negro National League’s Baltimore Elite Giants for whom he played on weekends. After one year, he decided to leave school and begin playing full time with the team, and in1939 was promoted to its first-string roster as catcher. That year, he married Bernice Ray with whom he would have two daughters before their divorce several years later. In the 1941 Negro League East-West all-star game, Campanella was voted Most Valuable Player and emerged as the leading League catcher. However, a quarrel with the Giants’ owner that year led Campanella to decamp for the Mexican League’s Sultans of Monterrey where he played in 1942 and 1943. He would eventually be inducted into the Mexican League Baseball Hall of Fame.
With his return to the Giants in 1944, Campanella distinguished himself with superior hitting records as League leader in doubles that year, and Runs Batted In (RBIs) in 1945. That same year he remarried, to Ruthe Willis, with whom he would have three children, and played with an African American all-star team in an exhibition series against white Major League players. His exceptional performance led to a meeting with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and in 1946, to his signing with the Dodgers’ Class-B farm team in Nashua, New Hampshire. This was part of a strategy to gradually integrate the rigorously segregated Major League, premised on the notion that Nashua would be a tolerant place to begin the process with Campanella.
Nashua’s Class-B thereby became the first professional baseball team in the United States with an integrated roster. When Campanella temporarily took over managerial duties for the team, he became the first African American to manage professional white baseball players, and led Nashua to an upset victory with his choice of pinch hitter late in a losing game. As catcher, he achieved a .290 batting average and led the league in assists and putouts, earning Most Valuable Player (MVP) status. The Dodgers advanced him to its International League team in Montreal, Canada, in 1947 where he again was named MVP and called by a competing team’s manager “the best catcher in the business.” That same year, the Dodgers officially shattered the Major League color barrier by fielding Jackie Robinson. In 1948, Campanella was made part of the Dodgers’ Major League organization, but was deployed first to their American Association team in St. Paul, Minnesota. Over the course of 35 games in that season, he achieved a .325 batting average, 39 RBIs, and 40 hits. Brooklyn finally issued the call that year.
Major League Action
On April 20, 1948, Campanella began a career with the Dodgers as the team’s starting catcher that would last until 1957. He was among the first Blacks (along with Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby, and Don Newcombe) to play a Major League All-Star Game in 1949, and played every All-Star Game until 1956. Popularly known as “The Boys of Summer,” the Dodger teams of this period won the National League Pennant in 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956, and claimed the World Series for Brooklyn in 1955. Campanella played no small role in this illustrious record. He caught for a predominantly white pitching roster with distinction while achieving a .312 batting average in 1953 and setting a Major League catcher’s record for home runs. He was named MVP five times during his tenure with the Dodgers.
Injuries bedeviled Campanella, including a chipped bone in his left hand that led to nerve damage in 1954, affecting his performance that year and again in 1956. But the end of his athletic career came with a tragic automobile accident in 1958. Driving home to Glen Cove, New York, from the liquor store he owned and ran in Harlem during off-season periods and between games, Campanella lost control of his car on icy pavement and crashed into a telephone pole. Damage to his spinal cord and fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae deprived him of motion below the shoulders. He nevertheless pursued a long-term course of physical therapy, which eventually returned some use of this hands and arms, although he would remain confined to a wheelchair. He separated from his second wife in 1960, and after her death, Campanella married Roxie Doles with whom he would remain for the rest of his life.
Campanella continued working with the Dodgers organization after recuperating from his accident, acting as assistant scouting supervisor, special coach, and a mentor to young catchers beginning in 1959. He was inducted into the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969, joining Jackie Robinson as the second African American inducted. He relocated to California in 1978, and began working as assistant to the team’s director of community relations. Campanella died on June 26, 1993, of a heart attack, in Woodland Hills, California.
Posthumous distinctions included his listing as number 50 in The Sporting News’ 100 Greatest Baseball Players in 1999, his nomination for the Major League Baseball All-Century Team, and his inclusion in a postage stamp series honoring great baseball hitters in 2006. That year, the Dodgers created the Roy Campanella Award, designed to recognize the team member who best exemplifies Campanella’s spirit and leadership, a fitting tribute to the legacy of this exceptional athlete and integration pioneer.