Roy Campanella liked to portray himself as just another old ballplayer who loved the game and enjoyed playing and watching it and talking about it. The sociopolitical side, the serious stuff about breaking baseball's color barrier, he gladly left to his more renowned teammate, Jackie Robinson. "I never felt like a pioneer," Campy would say in his later years, "just a ballplayer."
That, at least, was his pose. In fact, Campanella was acutely aware of his place in history, and I can think of few athletes who demonstrated a keener sense of responsibility to their sport. In every regard Campy was baseball's best ambassador of goodwill. He was such a presence at the annual Hall of Fame celebrations at Cooperstown that he gave the impression he was either the mayor of the town or the curator of the Hall. He was equally impressive at Dodger Stadium, tirelessly entertaining an endless succession of visitors in his aerie above aisle 201. And he was a buoyant confidant in the clubhouse, able to communicate to modern players, as few old-timers have done, a sense of the game's rich history, of his own involvement in a revolutionary time.
Yet life was never very fair to Campanella. The son of an Italian father and a black mother, he was 26 and had already played nine years in the Negro leagues when he finally made it to the majors, with the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1948, joining Robinson, who had been called up the year before. Campy was a finished product by then, crafty and powerful, a brilliant catcher who had benefited from the tutelage of his manager with the Baltimore Elite Giants, Biz Mackey. Given his chance he quickly made up for lost time, thrice winning the National League's MVP award. In 1953 he became the first catcher to hit more than 40 homers in a season, and he led the league with 142 RBIs that same year.
And then, with terrible finality, it was all over. On a January night in 1958, Campy was driving from his liquor store in Harlem to his house on the North Shore of Long Island when his car hit an icy patch, spun out of control and after glancing off a telephone pole, rolled over. Campy suffered spinal injuries that left him paralyzed—except for minimal movement of his hands—from the shoulders down.
"Now there's a man who could truthfully say that life's kicked him squarely in the butt," said his old teammate Joe Black a few years ago. "He could be as bitter as anyone alive. But, no. What you'll find instead is someone sitting there in his wheelchair smiling and talking to everyone, reaching out to people and saying, 'Don't you dare feel sorry for me.' "
"When they put me in that wheelchair," said Campy, "I accepted it." And that was that. It was time to get on with the rest of his life. Doctors said it wouldn't be a long life; they gave him probably 10, maybe 20 years to live. And there would be much suffering. Somehow he prevailed over pneumonia, gallbladder surgery, diabetes and a tracheotomy to correct a severe respiratory problem. Always he endured bedsores, some so virulent they required skin grafts. But he still made it to the ballpark. And he put in his time with the Dodgers' community relations department, working there with his old batterymate Don Newcombe. He also gave encouragement to the handicapped, visiting hospitals and private homes, corresponding with patients all over the world. "He's the toughest s.o.b. I've ever known," Newcombe once said.
It was my privilege to spend some weeks with this extraordinary man three years ago. He was still experiencing some difficulty breathing after the tracheotomy, but, using his words sparingly, he told entertaining stories about his days with those wonderful Dodger teams of the 1950s, and of growing up in Philadelphia and playing in the Negro leagues. I was astonished when he made it all the way from Los Angeles to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame ceremonies that year. Of course, he hadn't missed an induction there since his own in 1969.
Last Saturday night Roy Campanella died of a heart attack at his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills. He was 71 and had lived 35 years after his accident, surviving, as his wife, Roxie, observed, all of the doctors who forecast his early demise. He had been a great ballplayer, one of the best ever at his position. But in the final analysis, he was an even better human being. That it should be his heart that finally gave out comes as no surprise, for it was that part of him that he gave of so freely all these years. May he rest at last in peace.