Roy "Campy" Campanella, perhaps the greatest all-around catcher to play the game of baseball, died (June 26, 1993) recently in Los Angeles of an apparent heart attack at the age of 71.
There's a saying about Dodgers baseball players: "They bleed Dodgers Blue" and Campanella was one of the greatest Dodgers of them all. Flags at Dodgers Stadium flew at half staff during the game between the Dodgers and the Chicago Cubs in memory of their fallen comrade. The score-board flashed highlights of his brilliant career to a recording of Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World.
Campanella, one of the fabled "Boys Of Summer," had his brilliant career cut short in 1958 when he was left paralyzed from the chest down after a car crash. He spent the remaining 35 years of his life in a wheelchair. Despite his debilitating injuries, Campanella endured to become an uplifting role model and a source of inspiration for younger players in the capacity as a special instructor of young catchers for the Dodgers. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1969.
"Now he won't be suffering anymore," noted Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. "I loved Roy Campanella, I loved him like a brother. I'm going to miss him very much."
Son of a Black mother and a father of Italian descent, Campanella was born Nov. 19, 1921 in Philadelphia. He began playing professional ball at age 15.
Campanella was cut from the cloth of Negro League legends and blossomed in the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1948 to 1958. An awesome slugger with flawless fielding skills, Campanella quickly became a star in the major leagues.
Manager Says Campy' Was A Great Human Being
He was named Most Valuable Player three times in 1951, 1953 and 1955 and was instrumental to numerous Dodgers successes. His powerful throwing arm and ability to handle pitchers became his trademark.
Former Jet sports editor A.S. "Doc" Young wrote in the book Great Negro Baseball Stars, published by Johnson Publishing Company, that Campanella was "a natural leader," who was intelligent and well-organized as well as strong and talented. He often managed clubs he played with in Latin America and he also managed a game in the minor leagues while playing with the Nashua (N.H.) Dodgers:
"Roy became acting manager one night when the regular manager and first baseman, Walt Alston, lost an argument with an umpire. Alston had prepared for such an eventuality soon after he became aware of Roy's extensive knowledge of the game and his leadership qualities. If I'm ever thrown out of a game, I want you to run things.' The opportunity came in a game between the Nashua Dodgers and Lawrence (Mass.) Millionaires.
The Dodgers were three runs behind (in the sixth inning) when Roy took over. They scored once before the inning ended. In the seventh, with a man on base, the pitcher was due to bat. Deciding to use a pinch hitter, Roy called on (Hall of Fame pitcher Don) Newcombe, who was quite some shucks with the big stick. Newcombe responded by hitting a score-tying homer. Nashua went on to win, 7-5."
According to Young's book, then-Dodger owner Walter O'Malley was grooming Campanella to become a coach after his career was over. But his crippling injury changed those plans. However, Campanella persevered and did become a special instructor of young catchers during spring training.
Campanella told Young he loved the game of baseball and, "I can't understand why major leaguers complain about double-headers."
Perhaps his greatest season came in 1953. Campanella batted .312 and established three single season records for a catcher: most putouts (807), most home runs (41) and most runs batted in (142).
Campanella ended his career with a .276 batting average, 1,161 hits, 242 home runs and 856 runs batted in. The numbers probably would have been greater had it not been for the color barrier which kept him out of the majors until he was 26 and his career-ending accident at age 36.
"As well as being a great base ball player, he was a great human being," Lasorda concluded.
He is survived by his wife Roxie; three sons, Roy, Jr., Tony and John, and two daughters, Joanie and Ruth.