Dodgers Lost Campanella 47 Years Ago

The Dodgers had ended their 69-year love affair with Brooklyn in the fall and were preparing to move from the Big Apple to the Big Orange when Roy Campanella closed his liquor store in Harlem on a cold night in January, 1958.

On his way home, his rental car hit an icy spot in the road and skidded into a telephone pole and flipped. Campy's body slammed the steering wheel and he was trapped upside-down inside the car with gasoline dripping from the tank when the first policeman reached the scene. He had no trouble recognizing the man inside. "Why it's Campy," he said. "Yes, it's me," Roy Campanella said. "Would you please turn off the engine. I don't want to burn to death."

The date was Jan. 28, 1958, and the best catcher to ever wear Dodger Blue, a three-time National League Most Valuable Player, had just been paralyzed for life. An ambulance rushed him to Glen Cove Community Hospital, where he underwent almost five hours of surgery. But there was little the doctors could do.

Afterward the neurosurgeon who headed a seven-person medical team working on Campanella, said he "would not rule out" the possibility of his playing baseball again. That was never the case. The accident had broken his neck, injured his spine and left him a quadriplegic.

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve. I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey. I asked for health, that I might do great things. I was given infirmity, that I might do better things. I asked for riches, that I might be happy. I was given poverty, that I might feel the need of God. I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life. I was given life, that I might enjoy all things. I got nothing that I asked for but everything I had hoped for. Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered. I am among men, most richly blessed. --Roy Campanella

For the next 35 years until his death from a heart attack in 1993 at age 71, Campanella could not use his arms, hands or legs. His wife, Ruthe, left him a short time after the accident, but he was fortunate enough to marry a former nurse, Roxie, a remarkable woman who gladly shared his burdens.

The burden of leaving baseball is thunderously traumatic for aging players, more so when an accident cuts his preciously-short playing time. But Roy Campanella accepted his fate with and never known to utter a complaining word.

We talked to him at Vero Beach, not long before his death. He was looking at the sun set over Holman Stadium when we asked him if he was a bit disappointed over not reaching the major leagues until he was 28 years old, missing eight or 10 years in The Show.

"Oh, no," he said in his high, squeaky voice. "I have no complaints at all. Life has been very good to me."

He had been a catching instructor in the system and a remarkable ambassador for the game he loved and a spot just outside the clubhouse has been designated Campy's Corner for decades.

Since his time in the National League -- 1948-1957 -- there have been a number of superstar catchers -- Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson, Gary Carter and Mike Piazza -- and perhaps many younger fans don't realize just how great Campanella was. In the 1950s, though, arguments raged nonstop through New York City and the nation over whether Campy or the Yankees' Yogi Berra was better.

Playing in hallowed Ebbets Field, Campanella won three National League MVP Awards (1951, 1953, 1955), batted as high as .325, hit as many as 41 homers and had as many as 142 RBI. And remember, he didn't play a full season in the majors until he was 28 years old.

Defensively, the 5-foot-8, 200-pound strongman guided a thin Blue line of pitchers to pennants in 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955 and 1956, while tying for the N.L. flag in 1951. A pulled hamstring in the final two games of the playoff cost the club another title because if he couldn't hit or run, he would have helped Don Newcombe and Ralph Branca get out of that horrendous final inning and Bobby what's-his-name would have gone down in history as just another pretty good player.

It was the golden age of Brooklyn baseball and if Pee Wee Reese was the heart of the Dodgers, Roy Campanella was the soul.

If Campy hadn't missed the last two games of the 1951 National League pennant playoff with a pulled thigh muscle, chances are nobody would remember Bobby Thomson today.

Campanella, a son of an Italian father and a black mother, hit only .219 and .242 his final two seasons after Brooklyn won its only World Series in 1955 and its final pennant in 1956. By 1958, Campy was 36, and injuries to his hand made it difficult to hold a bat.

But he was looking forward to the 1958 season in Los Angeles and any feel that the short (250-foot) left field screen in the L.A. Coliseum would have given him one more good season, even swinging with one hand.

Campanella was the second black man elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame despite his relatively short major league career, an honor that took much too long.

On May 7, 1959, more than 15 months after the accident, the Dodgers honored Campanella with a remarkable tribute, a "night" at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Casey Stengel and his Yankees flew in for the benefit game arranged by Dodger President Walter O'Malley and an announced crowd of 93,103 -- with perhaps 15,000 more who couldn't buy tickets bursting in anyway -- watched as the stadium lights went out, Campy was pushed out onto the field in his wheelchair by Pee Wee Reese and everyone lit a match.

There wasn't a dry eye in the house.

The title of his autobiography, "It's Good to Be Alive," and his most famous quote: "You have to be a man to play baseball for a living, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too," tells the entire story of this remarkable athlete and even more remarkable man.

LA Dodgers Insider Top Stories