No. 66: Roy Campanella
Sometimes, it seems, the Jackie Robinson story is told as a “Once upon a time and happily ever after story.” You know exactly how this fairy tale goes:
Once upon a time, black players were not allowed to play in the Major Leagues. There were many great dark-skinned baseball players at the time — some African American, some Latino — but they were barred. They were called shiftless and inferior and too simple to play with Major League players. There were some who realized the wrongness and unfairness of this but they were too muted and outnumbered to change things. Nobody knew if it would ever change.
Then one day a baseball man named Branch Rickey — who many years before as a college coach had seen a talented black catcher denied a room at a hotel — went looking for a black player with the talent, guts and will to be the first to play in the Majors. He found a brilliantly gifted and fierce young man named Jackie Robinson, who was playing his first year of baseball in the Negro Leagues. Baseball was probably Robinson’s third-best sport, behind football and track, but he was a force of nature in every game he played. And he had a sense of justice that is rare in people.
Branch Rickey told Jackie Robinson that he would endure terrible things as the first player. Name-calling. Threats. Pitches thrown at his head. But, Rickey promised, he would endure them. And he would not fight back.
“Don’t you want a player with enough guts to fight back?” Robinson asked.
“I want a player with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey responded.
Robinson proved to be a great player from the start — rookie of the year his first season, most valuable player his third — but he was an even greater symbol. Years before Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, before Martin Luther King had his dream, before four students sat at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro and asked to be served, Robinson demanded and gained respect. People grew to look past the color of his skin and admire him not only for his baseball skill but also his character.
And baseball lived happily ever after.
There is truth in the fairy tale. But, the fairy tale is not true. And the least true part is the happily ever after part. Jackie Robinson would become an American hero and would be taught about in schools and celebrated in movies and that is exactly as it should be. But the world did not just change because of him. Baseball did not just change because of him. There are other stories, not nearly as well known, about those times and who how they wrecked people.
For instance: Do you know who was the first black pitcher in the Major Leagues. Satchel Paige is a good guess … but it isn’t right. Have you heard of Dan Bankhead? He was from Alabama, one of five baseball playing brothers, a Marine during World War II, and he had such a good fastball and curve that Rickey himself scouted Bankhead. Bankhead was also a superb hitter. Unlike Robinson, he did not go to the minor leagues — he was called straight to Brooklyn from the Memphis Red Sox of the Negro Leagues. He was not prepared for the fury. He gave up eight runs in his first game (though he also hit a home run in his first big league at-bat). He never got a foothold in the big leagues.
“See, here’s what I heard,” Buck O’Neil would say, “Dan was scared to death that he was going to hit a white boy with a pitch. He thought there would be a riot. Dan was from Alabama … he heard all those people calling him names, making those threats, and he was scared. He’d seen black men get lynched.”
Do you know who was the first African American to hit a home run in the American League? Larry Doby is a a good guess … but it isn’t right. Willard Brown was an extraordinary player who could do pretty much everything on a baseball diamond. In Puerto Rico they called him Ese Hombre — The Man — and it was said that Brown was the only man who could hit home runs to the places Josh Gibson reached. Before games, Gibson and Brown would have a running bet on who would hit the longer home run. Willard Brown won his share of those bets.
But when he went up to the St. Louis Browns — he and his Kansas City teammate Hank Thompson went up together — they were little more than a publicity stunt. “Naturally we believe these colored boys will help us at the gate,” Brown GM Bill DeWitt told reporters. It didn’t work out that way. Attendance did not go up. Two days after Brown joined the team, a teammate named Paul Lehner did not show up for a game in protest. When Brown hit that first home run, he actually used the bat of a teammate named Jeff Heath. When Brown got back to the dugout Heath smashed the bat against the dugout wall.
Brown hit .179 in just 21 games and went back to play for Kansas City in the Negro Leagues, which he would always say was where the better baseball was being played anyway. He’s in the Hall of Fame now.
The point is that the fight did not end with Jackie Robinson.
The point is that it was hard, very hard, in those early years. It was no fairy tale.
And Roy Campanella’s effect on baseball, while perhaps less forceful than Robinson’s, demands to be celebrated.
* * *
Roy Campanella was the sixth African-American player in the Major Leagues, if you are counting. There was Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and the aforementioned Hank Thompson, Willard Brown and Dan Bankhead. Then Campy.
The question of how successful African Americans would be in the American League was still an open one as the 1948 season began. Robinson had been brilliant, of course, but Doby had hit just .156 in only 29 games, and Thompson*, Brown and Bankhead had washed out. There were still those saying integration would never work.
*Hank Thompson, like Brown, was a victim of the disarray and dysfunction of the Browns. He returned to the Major Leagues in 1949 for the Giants and was a fine player for the next six seasons, posting a 123 OPS+ and twice drawing MVP votes.
Branch Rickey wanted to be cautious with Campy. So many prejudices had built up that every small step forward seemed like jumping over a canyon. Campy was a catcher. There had never been a black catcher in the Major Leagues. Could a black man handle the responsibility of being at the hub of all the action? The Dodgers already had a popular catcher named Bruce Edwards, who had been an All-Star in 1947. Rickey decided to send Campanella to St. Paul and let things play themselves out.
Campanella was already 26 years old by then and already, certainly, the best catcher in the world. He had been taught defense by Negro Leaguer Biz Mackey — probably the greatest defensive catcher of the day — beginning when he was 15 years old. He had spent many hours talking baseball with Negro Leaguer Josh Gibson, probably the greatest offensive player of the day. At 21, Campanella was already so great that the Pirates invited him to a Major League tryout. That was 1943 — three years before the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson. The tryout was canceled like numerous others.
The next year, 1944, Campanella was otherworldly. The few stats dug up by the Hall of Fame Negro Leagues committee show him hitting .440. He was impossibly durable; he had once caught four games in one day, and he routinely caught two our three. He was a defensive dynamo with preposterous quickness on bunts and an uncommon knack for blocking low pitches. And what an arm. His first five years, he led the National League in catching base stealers. His rookie year, he threw out an almost unbelievable 69%.
Campy had also been the New England League MVP his first season in the Dodgers minor league system so there was no doubt of his readiness. Perhaps the most remarkable part of that season was manager Walter Alston declared if he was ever thrown out of a game, Campanella would become the team’s manager. That’s how amazed Alston was by Campy’s sense of baseball. Alston was thrown out in the sixth inning of a game in June of 1946, and Campy became the first black man to manage in white organized baseball.
So, yes, he was ready, past ready, but he was sent to St. Paul anyway to stew a little longer while things settled out. Campy hit .325 and slugged .715 in 35 games there. Meanwhile Bruce Edward struggled with an injury. Campanella was called to the big leagues on April 20 for three games. In his first at-bat, a pitcher named Ken Trinkle hit him in the ribs. This was the time. Campy was called back to the Majors on July 2 and got three hits in four at-bats.
On Independence Day, he hit his first big league homer off of Ray Poat and then, in the bottom of the ninth, with the Dodgers down three runs, hit another homer, this one off Monty Kennedy. He was so irrepressible and such an obviously wonderful player right away that even though he hit .258 in 83 games that rookie season, he received MVP votes.
Jackie Robinson fought the times in a way that’s pretty easy for us to follow, in a way that makes for good cinema. He was ferocious and aggressive and impassioned, and this matched the times. Campy was different, harder to grasp. He dealt with it all with geniality. He told stories. He laughed broadly. He seemed to know exactly how to pierce through and get to baseball’s sentimental core. “To be good,” he used to say, “you’ve got to have a lot of little boy in you.”
The writers adored him. He won three MVP awards in five years. He had terrific seasons all three years, of course, but his extraordinary popularity played a huge role in the awards. Teammate Jackie Robinson was probably the better player in Campy’s first MVP year, teammate Duke Snider better the second and third. Campy, though, had the writers’ hearts. He was a round man who looked older than he was — the legendary writer Red Smith, would often say, “Baseball is a game for small boys and colored gentlemen” — and he was simply irresistible to almost everybody.
“But the old gentleman’s roundness, like the outward geniality, was deceptive” Roger Kahn wrote in The Boys of Summer. “When Campanella took off his uniform, there was no fat. … He would second guess a manager and then deny what he had said. He accepted no criticism and his amiability was punctuated by brief combative outbursts.”
Kahn covered those Dodgers, of course, and he readily admitted that he veered toward Jackie Robinson. He UNDERSTOOD Robinson, shared his rage, but Campy was a mystery. Kahn conceded that he too was sometimes taken in by Campy’s stories, but then would watch Campanella retrieve other catcher’s facemasks after foul balls, watch Campanella talk with batters “as though he was running for office,” see Campanella entertaining the writers with one joyful story after another and then angrily deny something he said. It confounded him. ‘There’s a little Uncle Tom in Roy,” he would quote Jackie Robinson saying.
“It’s the two faces Carl,” he quoted himself telling pitcher Carl Erskine. “If you want to be a happy-go-lucky guy, fine. But if you’re angry at society, which colored guys have every right to be, then let it how.”
“We probably all have a lot of faces,” Erskine replied.
Erskine, I think, got it right. No one compares with Jackie Robinson. He was a man who stood out of time, a fighter, a pioneer. Roy Campanella was someone else. He was faced with the same challenges, the same unfair world, and he overcame by laughing, by deflecting, by hiding some of his feelings and unleashing others.
In Campanella’s second year, he became the every day catcher and worked closely developing his friend Don Newcombe — they made up the first black batter in baseball history — and the Dodgers went to the World Series.
In his third year, he hit 30 home runs for the first time and threw out about two-thirds of the few foolish enough to try and steal off him.
In Campy’s fourth year, he hit .325/.393/.590 with 33 home runs and won the MVP.
In his fifth year, he helped develop a young pitcher, Joe Black, who won Rookie of the Year and was third in the MVP balloting as the Dodgers went back to the World Series.
In his sixth year, Campanella led the league in RBIs, hit 41 home runs, and the Dodgers went back to the World Series again. Another MVP award.
In his seventh year, he struggled with some injury — but in his eighth, he hit .318 with 32 home runs and the Dodgers finally, for the first time, won the World Series. Third MVP. He hit two homers in that World Series.
Point being — he was a great player year after year in extremely difficult times. How does a person overcome the discrimination and spitefulness? Campanella prevailed in his own way. He would be a harder man than Jackie Robinson to make a movie about. But, if done right, it would be an incredible movie.
In 1958, Campanella was driving driving home in New York when his car hit a patch of ice and skidded into a telephone pole. He was just 37 years old at the time, still more or less an every day catcher, and the accident paralyzed him. He would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. The next year, the Dodgers played the Yankees in a special exhibition game to honor him at the Los Angeles Coliseum. More than 93,000 people attended.