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Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella

Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella

3.4 14
by Neil Lanctot

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Neil Lanctot’s biography of Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella—filled with surprises—is the first life of the Dodger great in decades and the most authoritative ever published.

Born to a father of Italian descent and an African- American mother, Campanella wanted to be a ballplayer from childhood but was barred by color from the major


Neil Lanctot’s biography of Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella—filled with surprises—is the first life of the Dodger great in decades and the most authoritative ever published.

Born to a father of Italian descent and an African- American mother, Campanella wanted to be a ballplayer from childhood but was barred by color from the major leagues. He dropped out of school to play professional ball with the Negro Leagues’ Washington (later Baltimore) Elite Giants, where he honed his skills under Hall of Fame catcher Biz Mackey. Campy played eight years in the Negro Leagues until the major leagues integrated. Ironically, he and not Jackie Robinson might have been the player to integrate baseball, as Lanctot reveals. An early recruit to Branch Rickey’s “Great Experiment” with the Brooklyn Dodgers, Campy became the first African-American catcher in the twentieth century in the major leagues. As Lanctot discloses, Campanella and Robinson, pioneers of integration, had a contentious relationship, largely as a result of a dispute over postseason barnstorming.

Campanella was a mainstay of the great Dodger teams that consistently contended for pennants in the late 1940s and 1950s. He was a three-time MVP, an outstanding defensive catcher, and a powerful offensive threat. But on a rainy January night in 1958, all that changed. On his way home from his liquor store in Harlem, Campy lost control of his car, hit a utility pole, and was paralyzed below the neck. Lanctot reveals how Campanella’s complicated personal life (he would marry three times) played a role in the accident. Campanella would now become another sort of pioneer, learning new techniques of physical therapy under the celebrated Dr. Howard Rusk at his Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. As he gradually recovered some limited motion, Campanella inspired other athletes and physically handicapped people everywhere.

Based on interviews with dozens of people who knew Roy Campanella and diligent research into contemporary sources, Campy offers a three-dimensional portrait of this gifted athlete and remarkable man whose second life after baseball would prove as illustrious and courageous as his first.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Considered by many to be one of the greatest catchers in baseball history, Roy "Campy" Campanella is as interesting for what he did off the field as for his accomplishments within the baselines. And Lanctot, who has written extensively on the Negro Leagues, does justice to the tale. Born in 1921 in Philadelphia to a Sicilian father and African-American mother, Campanella saw his love for baseball pay off at an early age when he joined a club in the Negro Leagues at age 15. His early baseball years, which also took him to Mexico and Cuba, not only gave him exposure to the ugly racism of the time but also the experience that he needed for the Brooklyn Dodgers to sign him in 1946. From there, Campanella won the MVP award three times and led the Dodgers to an emotional World Series win in 1945 after so many previous failures against the Yankees. Lanctot truly captures the reader by delving well past the statistics, analyzing the rocky relationship with teammate Jackie Robinson and the horrific car accident in 1958 that left him paralyzed. Lanctot paints Campanella as an extremely likable person, yet doesn't hold back when speaking about subjects like Campanella's failed marriages and infidelity. Impeccably researched, it's a defining book on "the only person in baseball history about whom absolutely no one had a bad thing to say." (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"Campy, a rich and thoroughly enjoyable book, may well alter [reader's] attitudes about a man who might be the most overlooked star in Dodgers history."

—Russ Stanton, Los Angeles Times

“As a black American and a quadriplegic, Roy Campanella faced double-barreled discrimination with courage and determination. Neil Lanctot's authoritative, even-handed Campy strips away the myths and captures the joys and struggles of a superb ball player who was a true pioneer both on and off the field."

—James S. Hirsch, author of Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend

“Neil Lanctot has written a powerful, richly detailed account of one of the most fascinating sports figures America has ever produced. He captures every detail and every nuance of this beloved man and brilliant athlete. Campanella is unforgettable. So is this book.”

—Jonathan Eig, author of Luckiest Man: The Life and Death of Lou Gehrig and Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season

"A thorough portrait, rich in detail, shimmering with warmth."

—Stan Hochman, The Philadelphia Daily News

"Hall-of-Famer Roy 'Campy' Campanella's life story has never received the comprehensive treatment that it deserves — until now. Neil Lanctot's assiduous research and crisp style produce a compelling biography on one of baseball's most captivating and irrepressible personalities. Grade: Home run."

—Mark Hodermarsky, Cleveland Plain Dealer

"Campy is a fine behind-the-scenes recounting of baseball personalities and Campanella's limited but courageous life in a wheelchair."

—Dick Kreck, The Denver Post

"With the publication of Neil Lanctot’s superb biography, Campy, Roy Campanella is no longer the greatest player about whom there is no definitive biography."

—Allen Barra, The Newark Star-Ledger

"Lanctot is meticulous in putting together the first truly comprehensive biography of a baseball great."

—Chris Foran, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Fans of the sport and that era will certainly find plenty to chew on in this solid biography."

—Budd Bailey, The Buffalo News

"Lancot writes fluidly about dignity and pettiness, warmth and controversy, and triumph and despair. It’s a deeper, richer portrait that is stunning in its detail. It’s a compelling read.”

—Bob D'Angelo, Tampa Bay Tribune

Library Journal
The first clue that this is not the usual account of a baseball great is the cover photo depicting a forlorn if not troubled soul. Indeed, as the subtitle makes plain, there were two Roy Campanellas: the public one, best known for his multiple MVP career with the Brooklyn Dodgers, after years in segregated baseball, whose life was marked by a courageous battle after a paralyzing 1958 car accident, and the private one who confronted teammate Jackie Robinson and lived a long life after the car crash, an event that Lanctot (Negro League Baseball) describes from a fresh perspective. Richly documented and meticulously compiled, this definitive biography bares the soul of a boy of summer who symbolizes a distant period but who lived through an epochal transformation of the game and the country. Compelling reading for all baseball and biography fans.—G.R.
Kirkus Reviews

The author ofNegro League Baseball(2004) returns with a thorough, generous biography of a Negro League star, catcher Roy "Campy" Campanella (1921–1993), who joined the Dodgers shortly after Jackie Robinson.

For many pages, Lanctot offers few negative words about Campanella. The son of a blue-collar white man and an African-American woman, he grew up when Jim Crow still reigned in the South and conditions in the North were only marginally better. As a child, he quickly fell in love with baseball, a sport his athletic gifts fitted perfectly. He had feline reactions and could run, throw, hit for power and average and handle pitchers well. But as the author ably illustrates, stardom came after long tuition. Although his gifts were so prodigious that he was playing professionally at age 15, he worked ferociously hard and played whenever and wherever he could. On the road in the Negro League (and even later), he suffered enormous indignities—denied service in restaurants, hotels and other businesses—but somehow retained an ebullience that Lanctot highlights throughout. His teammates, black and white, liked and admired him—though the author focuses on Campy's deteriorating relationship with Jackie Robinson, a tension Lanctot attributes to differences in education (Robinson attended college) and in impatience with the pace of the civil-rights movement (Campy took a long time to become more assertive politically). Competition was also a major factor, since both men enjoyed celebrity and adulation. Lanctot, pricking any balloons of legend floating over Campy, continually mentions cases of inconsistency between the legends and the historical record. Painful reading, indeed, are the many pages Lanctot devotes to Campy's car accident (it left him a quadriplegic) and the arduous, stressful, depressing aftermath.

A bit tendentious early on, but a sharper critical lens makes the final sections memorable and wrenching.

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Read an Excerpt


FOR SOME CITIES, a World Series game is an all too rare event to be savored and debated for years afterward. But for a New Yorker in 1958, the Fall Classic was a predictable part of the October calendar, as humdrum as a Columbus Day sale at Macy’s or candy apples at a neighborhood Halloween party.

The great catcher Roy Campanella was a veteran of the October baseball wars. Between 1949 and 1956, his Brooklyn Dodgers had taken on the New York Yankees five times, coming up empty all but once. On Saturday, October 4, Campy was returning to Yankee Stadium for yet another Series game, but everything had changed since the last time he’d set foot in the House That Ruth Built. The Dodgers no longer played in their cozy ballpark in Flatbush but in a monstrosity known as the Coliseum a continent away. And Campy no longer played baseball at all because a January automobile accident had left him a quadriplegic. For the past five months, he had doggedly worked with the staff and physicians at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation on Thirty-fourth Street in Manhattan to learn how to function in a wheelchair. He had now sufficiently progressed to leave the hospital on weekends.

His doctors had encouraged him to accept Yankee co-owner Del Webb’s invitation to attend Saturday’s game at the Stadium, although Campy was initially not so sure. He had not appeared in public since his accident, nor had he sat on anything except a wheelchair. Nevertheless, he set aside any lingering anxiety to make the early-afternoon car ride to the Bronx, where box seats behind the Yankee dugout had already been set aside for Roy, his wife, two of his children, and a male attendant.

When the family station wagon arrived at Yankee Stadium, Campy could not help but think of the times he had suited up in the locker room in the past. He had never liked hitting at the Stadium, but he had enjoyed his fair share of glory there, whacking a key single in the deciding game of the Negro National League championship game as a teenager in 1939 and a more crucial double in game seven of the World Series in 1955, the year the Dodgers finally bested the Yanks. Today, he would just be another fan.

Campy soon discovered his wheelchair was too wide for the Stadium’s narrow aisles. He had no choice but to be bodily carried by his attendant, two firemen, and a policeman. “I felt like some sad freak,” he later recalled. “It was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me. I felt ashamed.”

But the fans whose glances he so desperately wanted to avoid soon began to shout out encouragement. “Hi, Slugger!” one greeted him. “Attaboy, Campy!” yelled another. “Stay in there, Campy, you got it licked.” Before long, virtually every one of the 71,566 present realized that the fellow with the neck brace and “tan Bebop cap” being carried to his seat was three-time MVP Roy Campanella. “By some sort of mental telepathy thousands in the great three-tiered horse-shoe were on their feet and when the applause moved, like wind through wheat from row to row, I doubt if there were many there who didn’t know what had happened,” wrote Bill Corum of the Journal-American. “It was a sad thing. Yet it was a great thing too, in the meaning of humanity. No word was spoke that anybody will know. Yet it had the same effect as that moment when a dying Lou Gehrig stood on this same Yankee diamond and said … ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world.’”

Down on the field, the top half of the second inning took a backseat to the heartfelt hoopla in the stands. With the count 1-1 on Milwaukee’s Frank Torre, Yankee pitcher Don Larsen stepped off the mound as the players in both dugouts craned their necks to see what was causing the commotion and then began to join in the ovation themselves. Upon spotting Campy only a few yards away, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra flipped his mask and waved, while home plate umpire Tom Gorman offered “a clenched fist in a ‘keep-fighting’ gesture.”

Campanella, who had vowed beforehand that he “wasn’t going to cry,” struggled to keep his emotions in check. He smiled back at Yogi (who “kept looking back and hardly could resist the temptation to run over and shake Campy’s hand,” said one reporter) and winked at the mob of photographers who gathered at his seat. For the rest of that warm October afternoon, he tried to focus on the game, even trying to eat a hot dog without success, but he could not stop thinking about the outpouring of love he had just experienced. “It’s hard to explain the feeling that came over me. I don’t believe any home run I ever hit was greeted by so much cheering,” Campanella said later.

It was the first time he had received such applause in a wheelchair, but it would not be the last. For the rest of his life, his presence, whether in a major league ballpark or in front of a Manhattan deli, would evoke similar responses. He was no longer just a ballplayer but a symbol of something much more.

© 2011 Neil Lanctot

Meet the Author

Neil Lanctot is an historian who has written extensively about baseball. He is the author of two books, most recently Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution.  His writing has also appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, and several other journals and anthologies.  He lives in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

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Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella 3.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A very thorough biography of Roy Campanella, with plenty on his Negro League days and a surprising look at the darker side of his personal life. Recommended.
Innisfree More than 1 year ago
This is a well written, well researched book that is sure to please baseball fans, history buffs, or those who are simply curious and want to learn more about Campy and his times. It's extremely readable, in the vein of Laura Hillenbrand's book on Seabiscuit. Definitely recommended.
MerlinDB More than 1 year ago
Gets bogged down at times in detail, but a good read, especially for those of us who had the opportunity to see this graceful catcher in action.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thorough and even-handed look at the Dodger great. Easy to read.
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