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The night of Jan. 27, 1958, Roy Campanella was working late at his store, Roy Campanella's Wines and Liquors, at Seventh Avenue and 134th Street in Harlem. He had sent his clerks home early after he had gotten word that his scheduled appearance that night on Harry Wismer's TV sports show had been postponed a week. No need for anyone else to stick around, he had reasoned. As long as I'm here anyway, I'll take care of things.
It had been a busy winter for the Dodgers' star catcher, who was then 36 years old. Only a few weeks before, he had been in Los Angeles with some of the other Dodgers—manager Walter Alston, shortstop Pee Wee Reese, centerfielder Duke Snider, first baseman Gil Hodges and broadcaster Vin Scully—to help sell tickets for the team's first season on the West Coast. Campanella was born in Philadelphia, played virtually all of his ball on the East Coast and became a star in Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, yet he was not exactly mourning the defection of the Bums to Los Angeles. His loyalties were not so much to the borough as to the team and its now maligned (at least in Brooklyn) proprietor, Walter O'Malley.
The Dodgers under Branch Rickey had given Campanella, at the time a nine-year veteran of the Negro leagues, the chance to play major league baseball in 1948, one year after another Dodger, Jackie Robinson, had finally broken the game's color barrier. And O'Malley, the team's president since 1950, had loaned Campy the money to open up his liquor store. The Dodgers were family, and, said Campy, "Where they go, I go." So he had leased a house for himself, his second wife, Ruthe, and their three young children in Redondo Beach, Calif., for the 1958 season.
In fact, Campanella was excited about playing in the Dodgers' temporary home at the L.A. Coliseum, a football and track stadium where the leftfield fence would be only 250 feet from home plate. After winning his third National League MVP Award in 1955, Campy had endured two subpar seasons, hitting only .219 in '56 and .242 in '57, and some observers had dared suggest that the always stocky slugger had ballooned into a fat old man. But Campanella had promised O'Malley he would play at least four more seasons, until the new Dodger Stadium was built. In the meantime, that big screen at the Coliseum looked like just the wake-up call his sleeping bat required.
Campanella was entertaining himself with such thoughts as he closed the store at midnight and, after adding up the night's receipts, locked up and stepped outside into a bitter, snowy early morning.
He had taken his station wagon in for servicing that afternoon, and when, much to his dismay, he had been told the work would take until the next day, he had rented a 1957 Chevrolet sedan. He had noticed that the Chevy, unlike his own car, did not have snow tires. And since there was snow on the ground, he knew that the drive to his new $75,000 house at Morgan's Island, on the north shore of Long Island, would take much longer than the usual 45 minutes. Campanella was a famously cautious driver. "He always drove Larry Doby and me on our barnstorming tours through the South," recalls Campy's old roommate, pitcher Don Newcombe, "and I don't think he ever got so much as a parking ticket."
Campanella was doing about 30 miles an hour on a two-lane blacktop road just outside Glen Cove, within five miles of Morgan's Island, when, entering a turn, the car hit a patch of ice and went into a skid, bouncing off a telephone pole and flipping over. Campanella was slammed against the steering wheel, whip-lashed back and thrown under the dashboard.
The crash awakened Dr. W. Spencer Gurnee, who looked out his bedroom window and saw the overturned car in front of his house. He told his wife to call the police and hurried outside with his medical bag. Campanella, trapped inside the car and fearing a gasoline explosion, had tried to turn off the ignition but found that he was unable to move his arms. He was moaning in agony and fear when Gurnee reached him. The doctor switched off the ignition and gave the accident victim a shot of morphine to ease his pain. He noted that the man did not seem to feel the needle.
Police arrived shortly afterward and, after laboring a full 30 minutes, succeeded in righting the car. There is speculation now that this was a serious mistake, since the jolt could only have complicated and perhaps worsened the driver's injuries. With the car upright, the crowd that had gathered could clearly see who was inside. There was a murmuring among these huddled neighbors and passersby: "It's Campy!"
At Glen Cove Community Hospital, seven doctors operated for four hours and 20 minutes to save Campanella's life. He had a broken neck and a severely damaged spinal cord, but the surgeons declared the operation a success, and a few of them even predicted that the patient would walk again someday. They were wrong.