A new biography examines the public and private lives of the great Brooklyn backstop Roy Campanella.

By Walter Licht

CAMPY: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella 
By Neil Lanctot C’87, faculty
Simon & Schuster, 2011. $28.00.

If you grew up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and were an avid Brooklyn Dodger fan—how could you not be?—you had a favorite player and were ever prepared to defend your choice. There was no dearth of characters to choose from: Jackie (Robinson), Duke (Snider), Pee Wee (Reese), Newk (Don Newcombe), Oisk (Carl Erskine), not to mention Hodges or Furillo (never, respectively, Gil or Carl). If the kids on the block adamantly disagreed about our top picks in the endless banter about our beloved Dodgers, there was unanimous consensus on the second favorite: Campy (as in Campanella, never referred to by his first name, Roy).

Campy was our catcher, the rock of the team (he was built like a squat boulder): indomitable (especially in the face of injuries), a fierce swinger at the plate, an unfailing clutch hitter, ably in charge of pitchers and pitch selection, steadying the temperamental (notably Newk), and gunning down runners foolish enough to try stealing bases. He stirred our affections, to be sure, but never our passions. Compared to the many distinctive personalities among the Dodgers, Campy appeared affable, collected, and non-controversial.

Had we had Neil Lanctot’s exhaustive and engaging new biography, we might have held different opinions. Campy emerges here as a complicated individual, with an interesting early history and a character that is heroic but not without personal woes and deficiencies.

On the whole, he could not have a better biographer. Lanctot, who teaches in the history department at Penn on an adjunct basis, is also the author of Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution [“Arts,” Sep|Oct 2004], a definitive study of the business of black professional baseball from the 1920s through the integration of the white major leagues in the late 1940s. Lanctot is an expert on the world of sport that Campanella inhabited before joining the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, a year after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier.

Campanella was born in 1921 in the heavily industrialized Nicetown section of Philadelphia, the son of a second-generation Italian working-class father and an African-American mother from Cecil County, Maryland. Though Lanctot can tell us little about how the couple met or what it was like for an interracial couple to cope in the Quaker City (where race relations were hardly “brotherly”), we find out that Campy did grow up on an integrated block, and that he took to baseball at an early age, modeling himself after white catchers who played in the nearby stadiums of Philadelphia’s Athletics and Phillies (he claimed he never attended a Negro League game during his childhood). Throughout his life, he was comfortable walking along the color line.

In school and sandlot leagues, Campy emerged as such a proficient and powerful hitter that he was recruited by the Baltimore Elite Giants of the National Negro League at the tender age of 15 (he would also slowly emerge as a skillful catcher). The portrait of the Negro leagues that Lanctot paints in this and his first book might best be described as Disorganized Baseball. Rival leagues—the handiwork of less-than-scrupulous sports entrepreneurs—regularly appeared and disappeared, keeping few records, rarely signing contracts with ballplayers, and often scheduling more exhibition and barnstorming games than league ones. As he follows Campy from Baltimore to Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Venezuela, and other ports of call, Lanctot takes us on a vivid tour of this horsehide circuit, which featured a remarkable cast of African-American athletes. For those already familiar with Campy’s exploits as a Dodger—which ended with the tragic car accident on January 28, 1958 that would leave him paralyzed for life—Lanctot’s chapters on Campy’s 10 years in segregated baseball are fresh and revealing.

In the last chapters of the book, Lanctot provides a blow-by-blow account (literally and sometimes overwhelmingly) of Campy’s stellar record as a Dodger and his critical contribution to a team that finally won a World Championship for its fans in 1955 (coming ever so close in previous years). Three overarching stories emerge from the welter of detail: Campy’s icy relations with Jackie Robinson; his personal derelictions as husband and father; and the physical and psychological pain he suffered as a quadriplegic until his death in 1993, all the while trying to maintain the genial and big-hearted public presence that had become his trademark. 

Though Campanella’s name is often overlooked in discussions of baseball’s long-overdue desegregation, it figured in all the behind-the-scenes discussions about signing stars from the Negro leagues that occurred among a few baseball executives in the late 1930s and early 1940s. By then public pressure was mounting; in 1942 news stories even broke that he might be invited to a tryout with the Pittsburgh Pirates, an opportunity that never materialized. Ultimately, Dodger General Manager Branch Rickey chose the much younger and less baseball-tested Jackie Robinson to be the first African American to enter the major leagues.

Contrary to contemporary press accounts, though, it was not Campy’s supposed resentment of Robinson or a feeling that Rickey had misled him that drove a divide between the two players. As Lanctot makes clear, Rickey had already decided to go with Robinson, offering no promises to Campy; more important, Robinson and Campanella remained strong allies and friends up until a break in 1949—when, during a barnstorming tour, Campy began to resent Robinson’s greater take of the proceeds and his increasingly imperious ways and outspokenness, especially with regards to civil-rights protest. Robinson even began to speak disparagingly of Campanella in public. The two great ballplayers could not have been more different in background and temperament, and once the falling-out commenced, they remained distant until their reconciliation in 1964.

Lanctot has done yeoman work in sifting through all the folklore and refashioned remembrances surrounding the Dodgers and Campanella; he distinguishes fact from myth through prodigious newspaper and archival research and fact-checking interviews. Yet even though Lanctot interviewed more than 120 people, none of Campy’s surviving children agreed to cooperate. The reasons for that are not hard to fathom. Campy’s basic abandoning of his first wife and children, his ugly divorce from his second, and his rebuffing of overtures from long-lost grandchildren late in his life all contributed to a legacy that is hard to reconcile with the personable figure of memory. Campy had probably been with a mistress into the early morning hours of January 28, 1958, when he drove home late and, tragically, fell asleep at the wheel.

This reviewer will add a story. We woke up that morning to radios blaring the news of Campy’s accident. No one could concentrate at school—rumors spread that he had died—and we were allowed to go home at noon to listen to the latest reports. Campy would live, but the ending of his baseball career was an extra blow to us: Only a few months before, we had learned that there would be no opening day at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers were gone.

Walter Licht is Annenberg Professor of History at Penn.

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