Friday, October 5, 2007

Campy: The Story of Roy Campanella

All I really knew about Roy Campanella was that he was on a U.S. Postal Service commemorative
"Baseball Sluggers" stamp along with Hank Greenberg, Mickey Mantle and Mel Ott.

Then, I found Campy: The Story of Roy Campanella written by David A. Adler and illustrated by Gordon C. James. As I almost always do before purchasing a new picture book, I'll read it in the store to decide whether or not I think it's a keeper. Before reading this book, I had just assumed that Ray Campanella was Italian American. I was only half right...

The book begins with the L.A. Dodgers game on May 7, 1959, when each ticket proclaimed "I was there the night they honored Campy."

For Roy Campanella, their beloved "Campy", it was a long journey to that night of tribute..

We learn that Roy was born in 1921 in Homestead, Pennsylvania to an Italian American father and an African American mother. In 1928, the family of six moved to the Niceville area in Philadelphia, which, in the segregated 1920s was actually "a mixed community, a comfortable place for the Campanellas." Mr. Campanella was a produce vendor, and Roy would help his father, even after getting a job, at age twelve, delivering milk.

Roy liked to play stickball with his friends after school, and he would sometimes get to watch the Philadelphia Athletics from the roof of a house outside the ballpark. Roy decorated his room with pictures of his baseball heroes, including Josh Gibson, "the black Babe Ruth".

Roy played baseball on a boys' team sponsored by a local newspaper, and eventually began playing on men's teams - he was, after all, "big for his age and a good athlete." Roy was a catcher, just like his hero, Gibson.

Campy reminds us that baseball was a segregated sport in the 1930s. Roy joined the Baltimore Elite Giants, part of the Negro Leagues, in 1937 at the age of 15. He lived baseball the entire summer, playing "as many as four games a day" and living on the team bus. The day after his 16th birthday, on November 27th, Campy quit school.

"To do that," he later wrote, he knew he "should at least be grown-up enough to go into the world and earn his way." Campanella felt he could do this, as a full-time professional baseball player.

He played over the next several years on the Elite Giants, and on teams in Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Cuba.


After the 1945 season, Roy Campanella met with Branch Rickey, president of the all-white Brooklyn Dodgers system. "Your record is good...a hard worker who loves baseball, a man who gets along well with people," he told Campanella. "Play for me."

Campanella thought he was talking about creating a new Dodgers team in the Negro Leagues, but he wasn't. He meant one of the many white Dodgers teams in the Minor Leagues, maybe even its top team, the Major League Brooklyn Dodgers.

One week earlier Branch Riley had signed another African American, Jackie Robinson. Rickey wanted to get the best players he could for the Dodgers, no matter what their race. And he wanted to end the segregation of baseball.

In March 1946, Campanella signed with the Dodgers.

One of the Minor League teams refused to take him because of his race.

But the one in Nashua, New Hampshire, was glad to have him.

Roy Campanella love baseball. He didn't pay attention to the ugly racial shouts from players on other teams or from people in the stands. Words didn't upset him. He just enjoyed the game. But physical attacks did bother him. When one player threw dirt in his face, Campy warned him to stop or "I'll beat you to a pulp."

The following season, in 1947, Jackie Robinson was promoted from the Dodgers' Minor League team in Montreal to the Major League Dodgers in Brooklyn. Campy was promoted to the Montreal team.

In 1948, Campanella began the season with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but was moved to a Minor League team in the American Association, to break the color barrier. Later that season, he was sent back to Brooklyn. At that time, in July, the Dodgers weren't doing well. But Campy played well, the team began winning and finished third. In 1949, they came in first in the NL.

Campy was a great player on one of baseball's very best teams.

He was chosen the league's all-star catcher eight years in a row. In 1951, 1953, and 1955, he was chosen as the league's Most Valuable Player. In five of the ten years Campy played for the Dodgers, the team finished first in the National League. Each time they faced the New York Yankees in the World Series.

Knowing he wouldn't be able to play ball forever, Campy made plans to support his family after baseball by opening "a wine and liquor store in New York City" in 1951. In the early hours of January 28, 1958, tragedy struck.

"I was tired and it was cold and late, but I drove carefully," he later wrote. "There were big patches of ice in the road....I suddenly lost control. The car wouldn't behave....I fought the wheel. The brakes were useless....I saw this telephone pole right where I was headed....I just did hit it....The car bounced off and turned completely over, landing on its right side."

He viewed those days immediately after the accident as the worst of his life, and he thought he "was a goner."

He couldn't walk or hold a ball, and at first, he didn't want to see anyone, not even his children. Soon, though, his attitude changed. He compared the fight ahead to baseball. "When you're in a slump, you don't feel sorry for yourself...You don't quit."

Campy never walked again, but he still loved baseball. He was able to watch TV from his bed. He watched the Dodgers. He called Charlie Neal, a friend and former teammate, and gave him batting tips. Neal listened and starting hitting better. Campy had a new job: as a spring training coach for the Dodgers.

Even though Campanella was confined to a wheelchair, that didn't stop him from living a full life.

He had a radio program, Campy's Corner, and his own television show, and he held baseball clinics for teenagers.

"He was still Campy," Yankees catcher Yogi Berra later said, "still a special person. He'd always have that big smile despite what happened to him."

Roy was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. He became a role model for how he dealt with his disabilities. He wrote he had "a life such as few people have been fortunate enough to live."

One of his legacies is the Roy and Roxie Campanella Physical Therapy Scholarship Foundation, which he set up with his third wife. "It provides equipment, support, and encouragement for people with disabilities like Campy's and help for people studying to work with the disabled."

Roy passed away on June 26, 1993. At his funeral, Tom Bradley, the Mayor of Los Angeles, said "He had the force of personality to influence us all. Each of us will be bigger, stand taller, reach a little higher because we knew Roy Campanella."

The back of the book contains important dates in Roy's history, as well as citations for the quotes included in the book and a list of suggested reading about Campanella.

Campy is recommended for children ages 6 to 9. While this book does address some of the racial injustices he faced, unlike Jackie's Bat, that is not the primary focus of the story. Through Campy's life story, children can see how the disabled are capable of living full and rewarding lives. Even if you're not a baseball fan, this would be a nice addition to your children's book library.

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