Historical Markers
Roy Campanella Historical Marker
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Roy Campanella

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Simon Gratz High School, 18th St. & Hunting Park Ave., Philadelphia

Dedication Date:
May 29, 1996

Behind the Marker

                               "I never want to quit playing ball. They'll have to cut this uniform
                                off of me to get me out of it."
                                                                        -Roy Campanella

It took something far more drastic than cutting off his uniform to force an end to Roy Campanella's Hall of Fame career when he was just thirty six years old. On a January morning in 1958, Campanella was driving home to Long Island from the liquor store he owned in Harlem. His car hit a patch of ice. It skidded off the road, hit a telephone pole, and flipped. Campy survived, but was partially paralyzed. But even this tragedy couldn't really cut a Major league uniform off Campy's back, not after this young catcher had worked so long and so hard to fit into one in the first place.

Roy Campanella in catcher's gear
Roy Campanella in catcher's gear
The son of an Italian father and an African-American mother, Campanella was born in 1921 and grew up in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia. The family was large, and by the time he was ten, Roy worked to help support them, earning money delivering papers and milk, shining shoes, and cutting grass. He thought one day he might become an architect. But he was already earning a name for himself as a burgeoning ballplayer, climbing the ladder from a team of local newsboys known as the Nicetown Giants to the semi-pro Bacharach Giants, to his niche behind home plate with the Baltimore Elite Giants in the Negro National League when he was just sixteen.

Campy loved catching. And at a compact 5-foot-8 and 200 pounds, he seemed built for the job. Catching was his chance, he said, "to be in the thick of the game continuously," and it was in the thick of the game that he thrived. By twenty, he'd hear his name whispered in the same awed breaths reserved for the legendary catcher markerJosh Gibson. Campy's salary jumped to $3,000 a year. The game had taken him beyond the edge of what he'd imagined possible. And it was about to take him further still, because a path was about to open for this certified giant of the Negro leagues to become a Dodger in the predominantly white player Major leagues.

Here's how it happened.

After the 1945 season, Campanella joined a barnstorming tour against an assortment of Major leaguers managed by Brooklyn Dodger skipper Charlie Dressen. Dressen liked what he saw in Campy - on the field and off of it - and sang his praises to Dodger general manager Branch Rickey. Intent on integrating the Major leagues, Rickey had just signed Jackie Robinson to a minor league contract and offered one to Campanella, as well. Despite a huge pay cut, Campy signed eagerly and played the 1946 season with Nashua, the Dodgers' Class B farm club in the New England League.

"Roy, of course, was better than a Class B player," said Walter Alston, Campy's Nashua and later Dodger manager. "But he knew why he was there. He knew he was going to start something important." And Campy did exactly that. He hit .290 that year, was named the league's MVP, and even managed a game when an umpire tossed Alston. The next year, when Jackie Robinson was called up to the majors from the Dodgers' Triple A farm club in Montreal, Campanella headed for Montreal and won another MVP award. Rival manager Paul Richards, on his way to a long career managing in the majors, proclaimed Campy "the best catcher in the business." In any league. Period.

Still, Rickey had one more stop for Campanella before he could join the Dodgers in Brooklyn: St. Paul in the American Association. Rickey tapped Campanella to start the 1948 season by integrating that high minor league, but Campanella bristled. "I ain't no pioneer," he protested, "I'm a ballplayer." He continued protesting loudly - with his bat. And by the end of June, twenty-six-year-old Roy Campanella had been heard. He hit two home runs for the Dodgers against the New York Giants in his first big league game.

Roy Campanella  in Wheelchair
Roy Campanella in Wheelchair
He was just getting started. Over the next ten seasons, Campanella filled the game with his exuberant play. An eight-time All-Star, he hit 242 home runs, led his team to five World Series, and won a trio of National League MVPs - a feat only matched by baseball giants Mike Schmidt and Barry Bonds. His smart approach to the game merited respect and admiration. "Sometimes," said Alston, "you won simply because he was there." And even when injuries slowed him down in his last few seasons, he still took the field with unalloyed joy. "It's a man's game," Campy loved to say, "but you have to have a lot of little boy in you to play it."

After a car accident in 1958 that left him marker paralyzed, Campy's spirit managed to stay alive within him, and he eventually followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles. If there was ever any question of his popularity and his place in baseball history, it was confirmed one night in 1958 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, when 93,000 fans honored him during the largest one-game crowd in Major league history. It might have seemed like a dream to Campy. Years after he'd helped integrate the game and reigned for a decade as the pre-eminent National League catcher of his era, Campanella looked back on the days when he was young, when only young white kids could dream Major league dreams. "I never thought about the big leagues, playing in it," he recalled. "Never."

Campanella remained a Dodger until he died in 1993. He worked in the organization's community relations department and instructed young catchers for more than two decades.
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