Forgotten Stories of Courage and Inspiration: Roy Campanella

Leroy Watson Jr.Senior Writer IMay 2, 2009

Some people—many people—will see that I have selected Roy Campanella as the second subject of my series and object that his story is far from “forgotten.”


I would reply that they are wrong.


Sure, any student of baseball history, as well as many casual observers, can tell you a few things about the man known affectionately as “Campy”—the five World Series appearances, three National League Most Valuable Player Awards (which was, at the time, unprecedented), and the 242 home runs. The fact that he spent the last 35 years of his life confined to a wheelchair.


However, there is so much more than that to the story of Roy Campanella.


Roy was born Nov. 19, 1921, in Philadelphia, to John and Ida Campanella. John Campanella’s parents were of Italian descent; Ida was Black. The neighborhood the Campanellas initially lived in was known, ironically enough, as Nicetown.


It was anything but nice; it was, in fact, one of the worst areas of Philadelphia at the time.


Roy’s parents were poor; all five of the Campanella children began earning money just as soon as they were able, in order to help their hard-working parents make ends meet.

By the age of nine, young Roy was cutting grass, delivering milk and newspapers on routes, and shining shoes to help the family put food on the table.

Perhaps it was then that Roy’s discipline and toughness—attributes that would boost him time and again as he grew older—began to develop.

At a very early age, Campanella developed a squat, powerful physique, while exhibiting remarkable gifts on the baseball diamond. The precocious teen was such a prodigy that by the tender age of 15—fifteen!—he had found a new way to help support the family:


He became a professional baseball player, the only place they would sign him, the Negro Leagues, as a catcher.


Campanella first started catching for his Simon Gratz High School team. This was not because of his physical attributes, but rather, his fortuitous realization that no one else wanted the position.


His instincts told him that becoming a catcher would be the surest way to make the team.


He did not play high school ball for very long. In 1937, Campanella joined a semi-pro Black team, the Bacharach Giants. In so doing, he relinquished the remainder of his high school eligibility.


It did not matter. The following year, at 16, Campy was inked by the Baltimore Elite Giants, one of the very best teams the Negro Leagues had to offer. A new teammate, Othello Renfroe, called Campy “the biggest 15-year-old boy I ever saw in my life.”


However, Campanella didn’t see himself playing baseball for a career.


"I remember I felt so lost," he told Dodgers biographer Peter Golenbock a year after his retirement. "I had no idea in the world this would be my profession. Truthfully, I wanted to be an architect."


Roy quickly got over his “lost” feeling and threw himself into baseball with remarkable zeal. He would play as many as four ballgames in a single day!


And though he was playing a game that he loved, his burgeoning reputation as an "Iron Man," despite the inevitable dings suffered behind the plate, was more financial than anything else.


“You didn’t get hurt when you played in the Negro Leagues,” he would explain years later. “You played no matter what happened to you because if you didn’t play, you didn’t get paid.”


Campy’s stellar play made him a much sought-after commodity on the barnstorming circuit. He ended up playing winter ball in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Latin America.


“I never thought about the big leagues, playing in it,” he confided to Golenbock. “Never.”


He just didn’t know how wrong he was.


After a stint in Venezuela in 1946, Campanella was summoned to Brooklyn by Branch Rickey, the Dodgers general manager.


Though Jackie Robinson had already been signed to a professional contract with Brooklyn in Oct. 1945 and was being groomed to be the first Black player in the modern Major Leagues, Rickey was determined to integrate all levels of baseball.


Rickey signed Campanella and another black player, pitcher Don Newcombe, to play with Nashua, N.H., the Brooklyn farm team in the Class B New England League.


Nashua’s roster included aging first baseman-manager Walter Alston, who would later skipper the Dodgers for 23 years and make the Hall of Fame in 1983.


Campy and Newk were the first Blacks ever in the New England League.


Campanella had made around $500 a month in the Negro Leagues; he accepted a pay cut to less than $200 a month at Nashua in 1946.


“Roy of course was better than a Class B player,” Alston stated emphatically. “But he knew why he was there. He was part of Rickey’s plan to begin integrating baseball. He knew he was going to start something important.”


It meant a steep pay cut for Campanella, but the chance to help make baseball history was too tempting to pass up, and so, he accepted.


Campanella moved up in 1947, batting .290 and being voted the Eastern League’s Most Valuable Player. He even managed a game after Alston (who had also been promoted, as manager) was thrown out by the umpire.


In that contest, Campanella used Newcombe as a pinch-hitter; Newk slugged a game-tying homer. Campy managed his team from a 5-2 deficit to a 7-5 victory.


Campanella thought he would spend the 1948 season as the Dodgers catcher, but Rickey seized his opportunity to integrate the American Association instead, signing Roy to a $5,000 contract with Brooklyn but sending him down to St. Paul after only three games—while giving Campanella a $1,500 raise for his troubles.


Still, Roy wasn’t exactly happy about the move.


“I ain’t no pioneer,” he grumbled. “I’m a ballplayer.”


At St. Paul, Campanella batted .325 and hit 13 homers in 35 games. At the end of June, Rickey called him up to the Dodgers. Roy was a part-time catcher for the balance of the year.


The following season, 1948, at the age of 26, Campanella became the regular Dodgers catcher. It was a position he would keep for 10 years.


Campanella leaned on Rickey to help him gain acceptance, until it sank in that he would have to earn his own respect.


“One of the main things (Branch Rickey) taught me: I had to get all of the white pitching staff to respect my judgment in accepting signs,” Campanella admitted after his career ended.


Along with the three MVP awards (won in 1951, ’53, and ’55), Campanella was the subject of almost universal acclaim, including this heady comment from no less than Ty Cobb, one of the original five members of the Baseball Hall of Fame:


“Campanella will be remembered longer than any catcher in baseball history.”


In the blink of an eye, everything was seemingly over.


Keep in mind, even star ballplayers typically had side jobs in the '50s and '60s. It was the only way to make ends meet.


Campanella had bought a liquor store in Harlem, which thrived. It was just over an hour's drive from his home in Glen Cove, Long Island.


Campanella and his wife, Ruthe, made the commute faithfully each day, trying to build something that would sustain the family after Roy’s playing days were over—which he knew was going to be soon, from the accumulation of injuries that were sapping him of his resplendent skills.


In the wee morning hours of Jan. 28, 1958, while driving home after shutting down the liquor store, Campy’s rented 1957 Chevrolet sedan (which you can see here) skidded on a patch of ice near the crest of a hill.


The vehicle careened out of control. As the car hydroplaned, it was no longer under Roy’s power. He could see what was happening but had zero control to avert the disaster. His car was heading straight toward a telephone pole.


Roy suffered a broken neck. The fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae suffered from compression fractures, and his spinal cord was dangerously pinched in the shattered and dislocated remains of his spinal column.


Only a four-and-a-half-hour operation, involving seven surgeons at the Glen Cove Community Hospital, was credited with saving his life. They could not, however, restore movement to his body below the shoulders.


Furthermore, he almost died from the complications of pneumonia just days later.


Campy’s life after the tragedy has often been overly-romanticized. Writers have waxed poetically about how "he never lost hope" or how he "always kept a bright outlook" despite being a quadriplegic.


This is simply not true.


Roy was transferred to the Rusk Institute for Rehabilitative Medicine in Manhattan after three months in recovery. There, he began physical therapy and learned to cope with the new life that lay ahead. He returned home in November.


In his autobiography, Campanella said, “To tell the truth, I didn’t think I was going to live those first few days.” Roy feared that he would never again be able to support his family. He foresaw a life of misery in his wheelchair.


He also admitted there were times when he felt close to losing his mind, once when watching a fly that he felt was tormenting him as he lay in his hospital bed, unable to lift a finger to swat it away.


One of his doctors, at length, had to challenge Roy’s manhood, admonishing him to work as hard at a recovery as he had on the ball field. Campanella finally began the long road to true recovery.


“This was a challenge,” he wrote later, “the greatest I ever faced. I knew I would have a long, tough fight ahead of me, but I was no longer afraid. I’m a lucky man. I thank God I’m alive.”


The statement later lent itself to the title of his touching autobiography, It’s Good to Be Alive, which would be turned into one of the most underappreciated sports-themed movies ever filmed.


By degrees, Campy made slow progress after that, even moving enough to learn to catch a baseball once again. In 1958, he became a radio show host, with a segment called “Campy's Corner.” The undertaking proved to be therapeutic.


The first few broadcasts came from his hospital room.


In 1959, he returned to a hero’s welcome at Dodgertown, in Vero Beach, Fla., for Spring Training with the Dodgers, only now as a coach for young catchers.


Roy’s valiant mental and physical improvement in the aftermath of his horrific wreck inspired millions of disabled persons and their families, prompting Dr. Rusk to declare that Campy’s contribution to the world of the incapacitated would be far more significant than anything he had ever done on a baseball diamond.


Even as Roy recovered, though, he faced obstacle after obstacle.


Ruthe Campanella was simply unable to deal with both the awesome responsibilities of his ongoing rehab effort and the loss of physical intimacy. Looking back decades later, perhaps this should not be so difficult to understand.


She separated from Roy in 1960, dying of a heart attack in 1963.


Roy’s house had to be sold in order to pay huge medical debts.


Fortunately for him, though, one of his nurses, Roxie Doles, found herself inspired by Roy’s determination and quickly became more than just someone to aid in his rehabilitation.


Newcombe, speaking years after the fact, recalled Roxie’s impact on Campy: “Roy once told me, ‘I’m helpless when I’m lying in that bed, I’m not worth anything there, and then Roxie gets me up out of there by herself. I don't know how she does it.’”


“Roy could not have lived without her,” Newcombe concluded.


They were married May 5, 1964; Campanella adopted her two children, Joni and John.

In 1991, Roy and Roxie founded The Roy and Roxie Campanella Physical Therapy Scholarship Foundation, which provides support for those living with paraplegia and funds scholarships for students who pursue degrees in physical therapy.


The fund also provides equipment, education, informational aids, as well as emotional and financial support to people living with spinal cord injuries.


Despite Roy’s star power, it has been difficult keeping the Foundation afloat. In 2003, for instance, Roxie auctioned off some of Campy’s memorabilia to help support the struggling Foundation.


But it survives and will continue to support the cause so dear to Roxie's heart, says Roxie's daughter, Joni.


Campanella was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969 on the first ballot, and was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1975.


He died of a heart attack in 1993 at his home in Woodland Hills, Calif.; he was 71. Roxie followed him in 2004, also at home, from the brutal ravages of stomach cancer, at the age of 77.


In most any measurable way, Campanella became far more famous in the wheelchair than he had been as an active player. He never complained about his disability, and he inspired the disabled and the healthy, alike.


Legendary Dodgers radio broadcaster Vin Scully once said poignantly, “Although he was a remarkable ballplayer, I think he’ll be remembered more for his 35 years in a wheelchair.”


As a Dodgers special instructor, Campanella groomed young catchers during Spring Training for some 20 years.


He worked with disabled people through the Dodgers’ community-service programs.


In 1959, the Dodgers held a benefit game at the Los Angeles Coliseum to honor Campanella and raise money for his expenses.


The game attracted 93,103 fans, thought to be (to this day) the largest crowd ever to see a baseball game.


And, of course, there was his charitable foundation.


Roy, perhaps more importantly, mastered the art of putting a smile on people’s faces.

“People look at me and get the feeling that if a guy in a wheelchair can have such a good time, they can’t be too bad off, after all,” he once said.


A forgotten story of courage and inspiration, indeed.


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