This Day in Dodger History - January 28, 1958

In perhaps the blackest day in Brooklyn/Los Angeles history, Roy Campanella was paralyzed in a car accident that left him in a wheelchair until his death some 35 years later. Many felt that his high, arching drives would have cleared the Coliseum's 250-foot left field fence with such frequency that he would have broken the Major League home run record.

However, his courage in the face of such a tragedy, left a lasting legacy with all who knew him. When a rookie reporter approached him at Vero Beach as he sat in his wheelchair watching the sun go down and asked if he regretted the fact that he was unable to play in the major leagues until he was 26, Campanella replied in his high, soft voice, "Oh, no. Everything worked out fine. I consider myself very fortunate to have played as long as I did."

Roy Campanella had just finished his most difficult season in he major leagues. His 35-year-old body had been wracked with injuries after a brilliant 1955 season (.318-32-107) that had earned him his third Most Valuable Player Award.

Bone chips in his right hand and a broken kneecap, added to a broken hand cut his 1956 season to .219-20-73 and he improved only slightly in 1957 to a .242 average with 13 homers and 62 runs batted in. He had played in 100 games for the ninth straight season after arriving in the majors at the relatively old age of 26.

He had made a couple trips to Los Angeles, attending a welcome luncheon for the Dodgers who were moving to the West coast. He also had looked for, and apparently found, a place for his family to live in Lincoln Park but he was going to return in February to show it to his family before signing off on it.

January 27th was raw and windy. Campanella had agreed to appear on a television show to benefit the Harlem Branch of the YMCA hosted by Harry Wismer following the Monday night fights and was to make final arrangements later that afternoon.

He drove his Chevrolet station wagon to the dealer to have it tuned and since they couldn't finish the job in one day, he had rented a 1957 Chevrolet sedan for a day.

The scheduled television appearance was cancelled by Wismer because their had been no publicity previous and he told Campanella, "Why don't we do it next Monday and with the proper publicity, we should make more money for the Y?"

Campanella agreed, closed his liquor store at 134th Street and Seventh Avenue at Midnight, then stayed to clean up, leaving sometime around 1:30 in the morning on January 28.

The drive home was slowed by the snow and the suburban areas had not be completely cleaned off, leaving slippery patches of snow and ice.

He was driving carefully when he came to an S-curve just a few miles from his home. He suddenly lost control, sliding toward the right side of the road and striking a telephone pole.

Has he been driving his own, heavier, station wagon, perhaps it would not have happened but the lighter car was harder to control.

Campanella swerved enough to miss a head-on collision with the telephone pole, striking it with the right front fender. The car bounced off the pole and turned over, landing on it's right side. The collision knocked him forward and down on the floor on the passenger's side.

His head apparently hit the dashboard and his body jackknifed, wedging him under the dash and on the floor. He blacked out for a time, then awakened to realize the car was still running. He reached up to turn off the ignition but realized he could not move his arms.

The sound of the crash awakened a number of people in houses around the area and the police were called. Campanella was still awake when the officer arrived and told him to turn off the ignition before the car caught fire.

Then he blacked out for good and it took nearly a half-hour to get the car back on it's wheels, bracing Campanella so he wouldn't move, and removing him from the wreck. He arrived at the hospital at 4:30 and the doctors confirmed that he had a fracture and dislocation of vertebrae five and six.

The doctors operation to relieve the pressure on the spinal cord but it was nearly severed and they had to fight just to save his life, a battle that continued for a number of weeks.

Dodger President Walter O'Malley was one of his first visitors and told him, "All I'm interested in right now is for you to walk again, I don't care whether you ever play ball for me again. Walk and I'll be satisfied. Another thing -- you'll never have to work about a job. You have on with the Dodgers the rest of your life. If you can walk, you'll be a full-time Dodger coach. If not, you'll work for the organization in the front office. That's a promise." He finally left the hospital in May, then spent three months in a rehab hospital just sitting in his room because he had caught a bad cold and they could not let him start his rehabilitation until that had been taken care of. He finally was allowed to leave the hospital for a weekend on September 4 and able to go home and not return on November 7.

He went to spring training with the Dodgers in 1959, helping to coach a young catcher named Johnny Roseboro. He spent evenings sitting outside the kitchen, an area that to this day is still named "Campy's Bullpen."

Then Walter O'Malley came to him and asked if it would be all right to have the Dodgers and Yankees play and exhibition game in the Los Angeles Coliseum on May 7 with all proceeds going to Campanella. An all-time record crowd of 93,103 attended the game and an estimated 20,000 more roamed around outside the Coliseum trying to get inside.

Before the game he was introduced to the crowd who stood and gave him a thunderous ovation. He said, "I thank God that I'm alive to be here. I want to thank each and every one of your from the bottom of my heart. This is something I shall never forget as long as I live. It is a wonderful tribute. I thank God I'm alive to see it. Thanks a million."

Between the fifth and sixth innings, Dodger Captain Pee Wee Reese pushed Campanella's wheelchair stopping between second base and the pitcher's mound. The lights were turned off and on a signal by the public address announcer, every one in the park lighted matches, turning the huge stadium into a birthday cake of blinking lights.

Later in the 1959 season, Roy Campanella and his family moved to Southern California where he lived until his death on June 26, 1993. He had been active in the Dodgers Community Relations program and had attended spring training nearly every year until the end.

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