Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella
By Neil Lanctot
Simon & Schuster, 2011
List Price: $28.00
A seat belt. The simple safety device we take for granted today might have allowed Roy Campanella to walk away from the wreck that altered his life in January 1958. The car, a rented Chevrolet sedan, survived the collision with minimal damage. But seat-belt use wasn’t the standard of the day, and seat belts were optional in most vehicles of the era.
The crash itself could easily have been avoided. Had Campy been home in bed at 3:34 a.m., instead of returning from a late-night rendezvous with a still-unidentified woman, he would have made the transition to Los Angeles that spring with the rest of his Dodgers teammates. The hour, more than the weather conditions cited by Campanella when he talked about the accident the rest of his life, likely did him in. In his new book “Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella,” Neil Lanctot cites speculation that the Hall of Fame catcher fell asleep at the wheel shortly before his car slammed into a telephone pole.
The wreck did not take Campanella’s life but did end his playing career. Campanella never walked again, though after extensive rehab he was able to regain minimal use of his arms. Lanctot details his long, depressing recovery, largely spent strapped in a device that allowed him to be rotated throughout the day to ward off bed sores. For a stretch the normally upbeat Campanella ordered his room be kept dark and refused to read any of the encouraging letters sent in by thousands of fans.
Eventually Campanella embraced the challenge of living again. The story of his visit to Yankee Stadium for the 1958 World Series is told in the prologue. The following spring, the Dodgers honored him with a day at the Los Angeles Coliseum, drawing a then-record 93,103 for an exhibition contest against the Yanks. Campy, who never played in front of the L.A. crowd, made a short speech and was serenaded with a three-minute ovation. Broadcaster Vin Scully compared the moment to the unforgettable goodbyes of Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth.
In time, Campanella became something of a spokesman for the disabled, using his celebrity to draw attention to the cause of so many who were like him but did not have a public forum. In this later phase of his life he also grew more comfortable speaking out about the racial barriers he had faced. Born to a white, Italian father and an African-American mother, he was relegated to playing in the Negro Leagues until the Dodgers recruited him as part of Branch Rickey’s Great Experiment.
Most of “Campy” is devoted to his playing career, from his days with the Elite Giants in the Negro National League to his time in the Dodgers minor league system, and finally in Brooklyn, where he played 10 seasons, capturing three Most Valuable Player awards. Lanctot even covers his time playing in winter leagues in Puerto Rico, Cuba and Venezuela.
Of course it was his time with Brooklyn that earned Campanella his place as one of the game’s greats. Signed shortly after the Dodgers inked Jackie Robinson, he likewise made his minor league debut in 1946, playing in Nashua, N.H. The following year he moved to Montreal, where Robinson had spent the ’46 campaign. Campanella reached Brooklyn in 1948, becoming the club’s second black player.
As happy as he was to reach the majors then, he had hoped to be there half a decade earlier. In 1942, Pirates owner William Benswanger indicated a willingness to let Campy and a couple of other Negro League players try out with Pittsburgh. Under pressure from members of the public as well as his fellow owners, Benswanger changed his tune. Integration had to wait a few years until Rickey was ready to make it work.
Campanella, though obviously disappointed, never let it affect his attitude once he was a Dodger. He was uncomfortable making waves, and this eventually drove a wedge between him and Robinson, who was much more willing to confront racial issues. On top of a money disagreement that arose during a barnstorming tour in 1949, their approaches to dealing with race eventually turned them from close friends into distant, and often acrimonious, teammates.
Lanctot tracks their souring relationship and its rebirth years later, when Robinson reached out to his old buddy after Campanella’s views on segregation shifted more in line with his own. Their reconciliation allowed them to share the spotlight with Sandy Koufax in 1972, when the Dodgers retired the jerseys of three of the franchise’s all-time greats. Robinson died later that year.
Lanctot faced several challenges in documenting Campanella’s life, not the least of which was his habit of rounding off the truth for the sake of a good story. In fact, Campanella was prone to telling multiple versions of events at different points in his life. Another hurdle was the lack of cooperation from Campanella’s family and certain teammates. Lanctot writes in the acknowledgments that he attempted to speak with Campy’s children for two years before finally being told they wouldn’t help.
The thrice-married Campanella had a complicated relationship with his children, particularly two daughters from his first marriage. A television movie that aired on CBS in 1974, “It’s Good To Be Alive,” was panned by his son, Roy Jr., for having portrayed Ruthe Campanella, Roy’s second wife, as an alcoholic monster. Roy Jr. claimed at the time that the movie was slanted to make his father “into a more sympathetic figure. He’s being made to look as good off the field as he was on.” You don’t need to read too far between the lines to come away with the impression that he and his siblings may just not have had many nice memories to share when Lanctot came calling.
In spite of those difficulties, the book provides a balanced view of one of baseball’s greats. Lanctot does a terrific job of detailing each of Campanella’s 10 big league seasons without getting repetitive (a challenge all baseball biographers face—and many struggle with), even as he winds through several injury-plagued disappointments at the end of his career. “Campy” is a strong read, and has staked its place as one of this year’s notable biographies.
James Bailey reviews books for Baseball America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.