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Ron Fimrite
September 24, 1990
Three decades after his crippling accident, Roy Campanella is still getting the most out of life
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September 24, 1990

Triumph Of The Spirit

Three decades after his crippling accident, Roy Campanella is still getting the most out of life

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Campanella was a dangerous hitter, and he had had the benefit of Biz Mackey's expert tutelage in the catcher's craft. "I could tell as soon as I saw him play that he was already a great player," says Bavasi, Campy's future boss in Brooklyn. Nashua's playing manager, Walter Alston, saw yet another quality in Campanella—leadership. At a team meeting early in the season, Alston told Campy that since he was older and more experienced than the other players, he would be the assistant manager. "If I'm ever thrown out of a game, I want you to run things," Alston said. Campy got that chance in mid-June when, in the sixth inning of a game with the Lawrence (Mass.) Millionaires, Alston was ejected for arguing a called third strike. Two innings later, with a runner on base and the Dodgers trailing by a run, Campanella called on his roommate, Newcombe (a .311 hitter and 14-game winner that year), to pinch-hit. Newcombe hit a home run to win the game. As the first black manager in organized baseball, Campanella had a perfect 1-0 record.

In 113 games that season, Campy hit .290 With 13 homers and 96 RBIs and led all New England League catchers in putouts and assists. "He was the best player in the league," says Bavasi. "Nobody could touch him." Campy's rookie season in white baseball had been mostly without racial incident, although the Lynn, Mass., team did give him and Newcombe some trouble. Instructed by Rickey to ignore epithets and physical threats, Campanella offered no apparent response when a Lynn batter tossed dirt in his face. "As strong as Roy was, I shudder to think what he could have done to that guy if he'd been allowed to retaliate," says Newcombe. Instead, from behind his mask, Campanella said quietly but in a tone of voice that left no room for misinterpretation, "Don't you ever do that again."

Campanella advanced to Triple A ball the next year and led the International League's catchers in putouts and assists. In 1948 he joined Robinson on the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was, on the heels of the mercurial Jackie, a different sort of black player—tough, yes, but fun-loving, even-tempered and gentle. "He brightened the clubhouse," says Duke Snider. "I know he helped me relax. He'd sit around and tell all those stories about his days in the Negro leagues. He was comical, just great to be around."

Campy's sweet disposition was mixed with uncommon "baseball savvy," as Erskine calls it. "You never shook Campy off," says Don Drysdale. "That's not entirely true," says Erskine, now the president of an Anderson, Ind., bank. "That's because Roy told us to shake him off sometimes. It wasn't that we were disagreeing with his calls. He just wanted us to shake our heads to make the hitter think we were having trouble making up our minds."

Campy also hit 30 or more homers four times and drove in more than 100 runs and hit over .300 three times in his 10-year major league career. And he loved every inning of it.

"To play this game good," Campy used to say, "a lot of you has to be a little boy."

The Campanellas live in a four-bedroom stucco house in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills. The children are all gone. Roy II is a producer in Beverly Hills; Tony is an urban renewal supervisor in Cape May, N.J., and Ruth is a stockbroker in New York City. Roxie's two children, whom Campanella adopted, are Joni Roan, an educational administrator, and John, a security specialist, both of whom live in Los Angeles.

The house is on one level, and the street outside is straight and flat. "Roy can go out and drive his wheelchair all the way around the block," says Roxie. "All the neighborhood children come out to see him. They all love him, and he loves them. It's important for Roy to stay active, to feel independent. I've always kept him busy, because as long as he's with people, he doesn't have time to think about himself. And, you know, he helps other people who've been paralyzed. They come from all over to see him. We get calls and letters. When we were still living in New York, we took in a paralyzed boy who wouldn't take his therapy. Roy got him going, and in no time he'd learned how to feed himself. That boy's doing just fine now. Roy's gone to hospitals, spoken before groups. He's given all kinds of people a new lease on life."

Campanella is in his trophy room. On the wall above him are his three Most Valuable Player plaques, as well as countless other trophies and citations. "At first, I didn't even play high school baseball," he says. "I loved the game, but I was playing football and basketball and running track at Simon Gratz High in the Nice-town section of Philadelphia, where I grew up. Then one day the physical education teacher and baseball coach, George Patchen, asked me to go out for the team. When I reported to him, I noticed there were four circles drawn down on the field—one each for pitchers, catchers, infielders and outfielders. The other circles were all full of boys. Nobody was standing in the catchers' circle. I figured that was my best chance of making the team, so I stepped into it. I was only in the ninth grade.

"Nicetown was a mixed neighborhood. We were a mixed family. My father, John Campanella, was born in Pennsylvania, but his parents came over from Sicily. He and his brothers owned a grocery store, and we had our own house. My mother, Ida, was a black Baptist, very religious. She wouldn't let me play ball on Sundays. One day when I was walking home from junior high, this boy yelled at me, 'Hey, you half-breed.' I hit him, but I didn't know what he meant by that, so I ran home and asked my mother what a half-breed was. She told me that meant she was black and my father was white. I didn't even know what color my father was. He was just my daddy.

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