L.A. Turned on the Lights for Campanella

 

Roy Campanella smacked 242 home runs as a Dodger.

Roy Campanella smacked 242 home runs as a Dodger.

By Glen Sparks

The lights sparkled in Los Angeles on May 7, 1959. Pee Wee Reese wheeled Roy Campanella onto the field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. …

Roy Campanella wrote a best-selling book called It’s Good to be Alive.

He was thankful for good reason. The good-humored, thick-bodied catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers survived a terrible one-car accident on Jan. 28, 1958. Campanella, a three-time MVP, had just closed the Harlem liquor store he owned. The slugger locked up and headed for his home in Glen Clove, New York, out in the suburbs.

Brooklyn had finished the ’57 season with an 84-70 won-loss record and in third place in the National League. Campanella, the vocal leader of the fabled Brooklyn “Boys of Summer,” hit just 13 home runs and batted only .242 in 103 games.

By that point, Campy—as just about everyone called him—was 35 years old. He had just completed his 10th season in the majors and had made eight All-Star teams.

Campy, born Nov. 19, 1921, in Philadelphia, got a late start with his big-league career. His dad was Sicilian-American, his mom was African-American. That exiled Campanella to the Negro leagues.

The Washington Elite Giants signed him to a deal in 1937. The team promptly moved to Baltimore, and Campy turned into a star. Jackie Robinson, of course, debuted with the Dodgers in 1947. Brooklyn brought up 26-year-old Campanella the following season.

A team known by some as the Daffy Dodgers and for finishing in the second division more often than not began developing some of the generation’s top talent. Besides Robinson and Campanella, the farm system produced Carl Erskine, Carl Furillo, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider and other stars.

Campanella smacked more than 30 homers four times in his Brooklyn career. He won MVP awards in 1951, ’53 and ’55. The ’53 campaign was Campy’s best. He established career highs in homers (41), RBI (142), runs scored (103), slugging percentage (.611) and total bases (317).

Willie Mays stands by Campy.

Willie Mays stands by Campy.

By that winter night in January of 1958, Campanella had mashed 242 home runs, knocked in 856 runs and had a career batting average of .276 with a .360 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage. That is how his numbers remain.

It was cold that night in New York City. He was driving about 30 mph when he hit a patch of ice hear his home. Campy’s car skidded into a telephone pole and overturned. The great player, one of the most popular in Dodgers history, broke his neck.

He was left paralyzed from the shoulders down. Eventually, through physically therapy, Campanella regained use of his arms and hands. His baseball career was over. He would never walk again.

The Coliseum would have been great for Campy. Few ballparks have ever been as goofily asymmetrical as the L.A. Coliseum, a venue built for football and track and field. The right-center wall stood 440 from home plate, the left-field wall stood just 250 feet away. Campanella, a right-handed hitter who liked to pull the ball, would surely have enjoyed a career revival.

Dodgers fans in Los Angeles would never get to cheer Campy’s short-porch home runs. But, 91,103 fans filled the Coliseum on May, 1959, and roared as Pee Wee wheeled his former teammate onto the field for Roy Campanella Night,  a special exhibition game played against the New York Yankees (Proceeds went to defray some of Campanella’s medical expenses.) Fans held bright lights in tribute to the injured catcher, sitting in a wheelchair with an LA Dodgers camp atop his head.

Understandably angry in the months after his car accident, Campanella told writer Roger Kahn in the 1972 best-seller The Boys of Summer that “I’m not gonna worry myself to death because I can’t (walk.)”

“I’ve accepted the chair,” Campy said. “I’ve accepted the chair, and I’ve accepted my life.”

Over the next decades, Campanella tutored catchers and did community relations work as a Dodgers employee. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969, he died June 26, 1993, at the age of 71. Just a week before, former Dodgers great Don Drysdale passed away in Montreal.

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