By In 100 Greatest, Baseball

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.

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48 Responses to No. 66: Roy Campanella

  1. tombando says:

    All of this is fine well and good. Now why is it Park F/x aren’t anywheres to be found in the Snider/Campy entries? You can bet you house if this were @ Jim Rice or Kirby that is All you’d read here…selective memory no? Campy and Duke were at least products of playing in Ebbetts as Yaz, Rice and Kirby were in their parks. But you won’t hear that here. Carry on.

    • jimburb says:

      I don’t believe that it is Joe’s intention to explain, by rote, his interpretation of each selection’s objective, statistical record, but instead to tell a story of each of these players in Joe’s inimitable style.

      As to your point, the Duke is 48th all-time in OPS (which does not adjust for park f/x), but only 74th in OPS+ (which does take into effect park f/x). Clearly Joe took this into account when ranking the Duke, though he did not explicitly say so.

      As far as Campy, he had played about 10 years in the Negro leagues prior to MLB and was acclaimed by many observers, both black and white, as being the best catcher playing anywhere at the time. Ebbets Field or no, Joe may have Campy ranked about 20-30 places too low.

    • robert magee says:

      Ops similar w/slight edge to Campy. power wise Campy only slight edge at home in terms of XBH and like many players overall home #sbetter. plus a catcher (and first rate) who had a very late start and premature end due to outside issues unrelated to his BB ability

    • murr2825 says:

      Arrgh! This series is poetry, not prose. There’s no way to properly quantify a player like Campy, much less Satchel Paige or Sadahuru Oh. Comments like this try to turn the rating of a player into a mathematical model (and there have been dozens if not hundreds in this series). Even with Major League players, known stats don’t tell the whole story; Ted Williams missed more than four seasons. What does Joe do about that?

      Joe has taken on a Herculean task in rating 100 players. Quibble if you want but I think the best approach is the simplest; read, learn and enjoy. Like I am definitely doing.

      • jordan says:

        Thank you. I want to second this comment.

        • Agreed. Also, most of us reading this remember Jim Rice and Kirby Puckett, so of course Joe is going to talk about them in a different way.

          I mean, jeez, if you read that article and you were thinking about advanced stats…I don’t get you.

          • Geoff says:

            Great point. I mean, if you’re reading an an article that’s part of a series ranking the “100 Greatest Baseball Players of All-Time,” you’d be crazy to be thinking about the most useful evidence we have for taking on such a task. If you want to quote RBI totals that you remember from the back of 1988 Topps cards, that’s totally fine, but everyone knows WAR has no place in the discussion once we put on our rose-colored glasses and start talking about Kirby and Jim Ed.

    • Spencer says:

      @tombando – you don’t seem to like anything Joe writes. What are you doing here again?

  2. scott says:

    I don’t think campy gets his due for the amazing offensive play he brought to the table playing by far the hardest position in the game that eats away your body. Can’t understand how you can claim he didn’t deserve those mvps playing the most important defensive position, playing it superbly and putting up great offensive seasons. He made his big league debut the time catchers body’s begin to detoriate. You ranked him too low, and slighted his magnificent seasons. He’s got the strongest argument as the game’s best all around catcher. Look at his age 30 and beyond seasons compared to Bench!

    • scott says:

      That said, this series is poetry, campy is dear to my heart and this is the only issue I’ve had with any entry, cause the slighting of his mvps. The the stories of monte irvin, buck leonard, etc has really touched multiple chords with me.

  3. Chad Meisgeier says:

    Another great article. I learn some every time. And, yes, we all have many faces. Love that quote.

    For my No. 66, I have my best match with Joe so far with Bert Blyleven.

  4. Gareth Owen says:

    Well by OPS+ Rice and Campanella were similar hitters. But Campy played a premium defensive position extremely well, where Rice played Fenway’s outfield to a draw, before becoming a DH.

    Of course Campanella’s Major League career started later and ended sooner, for two pretty well documented reasons, not within his control.

  5. norme says:

    I had the privilege of seeing Campy play. It’s not well accepted in this day of sabremetrics, but in Roy Campanella’s case my eyes told me that he was a dominating force. When you heard him being interviewed (often by Happy Felton for the Dodgers home pre-game show, The Knot Hole Gang) you knew that this was a bright, observant person. In his last years in Brooklyn he hand some debilitating injuries (to his hand, I believe) that impacted his offensive numbers. But, until Johnny Bench came along, no catcher that I ever saw impacted the game like Campy.
    Thanks, Joe.

  6. I was at the Campy memorial game at the Coliseum. I was 3 1/2 years old. All I remember was them turning the lights out and everybody lighting matches or cigarette lighters, this huge bowl of tiny lights.

  7. johnq11 says:

    I’ve always thought Campanella was a tad overrated. I think he played on the most beloved team during the so called golden era. I think the way his car accident and paralyzation garnered him incredible sympathy from baseball fans and media.

    But, I was a bit shocked when I saw his lifetime numbers: .276/.360/.500. Those are great numbers for a catcher but he did that at Ebbets Field which was one of the best hitting parks of his day. His neutralized numbers are: .270/.353/.487 which is very similar to Jorge Posada’s lifetime neutralized numbers: .268/.368/.465. I was really thinking he hit something like .312/.380/.520 the way the accolades rain down about Campy being the best hitting catcher of all time etc.

    He received 3 MVP awards that he didn’t deserve mainly because of a catcher’s bias in the MVP award voting at the time. Oddly his teammates should have won the awards instead. Duke Snider should have won the ’53, 55 award and Jackie Robinson should have won the 1951 award.

    I think his car accident earned him a lot of sympathy from the fans and media. It was also widely claimed that his career was cut drastically short. I can’t see that looking closely at his career. He was already 36 at the time of the accident and his last two seasons: 1956, 57 were pretty awful. Thurman Munson career was hurt much more by his early death.

    Campanella was definitely hurt by the racism of the day because he only started his major league career at 26 years but even with those years missing I see him as the 10-11th best catcher in baseball history, not a top 5 player and certainly not a top 100 player.

    I think what’s also odd in hindsight is that it took him 7 attempts to get into the HOF. I was bit shocked at this as well because I thought he was first ballot guy.

    • Mark J says:

      I dont know if I can abide your incessantly narcissistic comments for the next 65 posts in this series. Do you need to tell us what you think about every single player? You must be a joy at dinner parties. Tact is a life skill, bro. Jesus.

      Every post in this fantastic series is followed by myriad comments that basically amount to, “blah blah blah, I think XYZ, blah blah blah.” Did it ever occur to some of you guys that we do not care what you think? Opinions are like keisters, fellas…

      • BobDD says:

        I’ve always thought that opinions are the most interesting thing about other people. I’ve enjoyed most of the conversations I get into on this site. I show up about every day looking for bits from my favorite writer and freely comment on more articles than not. I love it. I cannot understand why you would read the comments section if you hate to hear what other people think. Personally I’d rather encourage others to dive in and freely share your opinions; just don’t ake the disagreements that will follow personally.

      • johnq11 says:


        Did it ever occur to you that your not “required” to read any of my posts?? If you find them so “incessantly narcissistic” why would you bother to read them in the first place??

        Also, what is the point of having a “comment” section if not to leave comments and opinions?? It’s odd that you think it’s “narcissistic” to simply leave a comment and state an opinion when the writer is clearly soliciting opinions by having a comment section. The whole point of having a comments section is to exchange ideas and opinions.

        Your dinner parties must be a joy as well as everyone is required to remain silent and refrain from stating a personal opinion or preference.

        Why don’t you just read Joe’s essays on each player and avoid the comment section if detest peoples comments so much?

      • Which hunt? says:

        You don’t have to read anybody’s post.

      • Spencer says:

        Took the words right out of my mouth Mark J.

      • Guest says:

        I find @johnq11 as insufferable as the next guy, but in fairness, he spouts off after almost every post, it’s not limited to this series.

    • Cuban X Senators says:

      “I was bit shocked at this as well because I thought he was first ballot guy.”

      From the first 5 electees in 1936 until 1962 there were 0 “first ballots guys”. The question for all those years, as players retired was “is this guy good enough that he should jump in line in front of all the players who have been waiting?” Players waited, probably as much because of a sense of decorum in “well, Bill Terry’s been waiting since the place opened, DiMaggio can wait a few years” as “no one should have that honor apart from original 5” — and certainly not because many thought, “Bill Terry’s a better player than DiMaggio.” But up until 1962, wait everyone did.

      The artificially constructed “First Ballot Hall of Fame” portal is not the same one that existed during Campy’s first elections. It has been rebuilt since 1962. And maybe a few times since. And it’s gatekeepers are guarding something different than those in the ’50s did.

      • johnq11 says:

        Well, you’re off a bit but I understand what you mean by the first ballot comment.

        Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson were all “1rst” ballot guys in 1936. Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson were 1rst ballot guys in 1962 and started the new precedent.

        I’m not sure you’re point about Roy Campanella because he first appeared on a ballot in 1964, 7 years after he retired, two years after the Feller and Robinson 1rst ballot election. Ted Williams was the next 1rst ballot guy in 1966 and Campanella didn’t get elected until 1969.

        I’m surprised somewhat that it took Campanella 5 attempts and 2 run off elections to get in.

        • Cuban X Senators says:

          I’ll just point out that, while you assert that I’m off, johnq, you did not point out anywhere that I was.

          • johnq11 says:

            Well, your comments make it sound as if Campanella first appeared on the ballot in the 1950’s not 1964, two years “after” the first ballot precedent was established in 1962.

            “The artificially constructed “First Ballot Hall of Fame” portal is not the same one that existed during Campy’s first elections. It has been rebuilt since 1962.”

            I’m frankly surprised it took him 5 attempts because of the way he was revered during the 1970’s in the NYC area when I was first following baseball.

          • mrgjg says:

            I’m not speaking for Cuban as much as elaborating on what I believe his intent was. Even though Robinson and Feller broke through the “1st ballot” wall in 1962, it didn’t really open up the floodgates. As you say, it was another four years before the next 1st ballot guy, and that was Ted Williams. Three years later it was Musial. Next was Berra in ’71, followed by Koufax in ’72..

            Basically in those years unless you were thought of as an alltime great, you weren’t getting in on your 1st ballot. Whether in hindsight, we think they were overrated doesn’t matter; at the time they were considered among the greatest ever. Jeez, Eddie Mathews took five ballots to get in, Duke Snider eleven. I think it really started changing in the ’80s when guys like Brooks Robinson, Lou Brock, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell etc.made it on their first try that it was a changing of the guard so to speak.
            Being a “1st ballot guy” was no longer any kind of an equalizer. Unfortunately, the pendulum has since overswung in the opposite direction.

    • scott says:

      Just ignore the defense of the player who has an impact on every pitch, and has the highest pickoff percentage ever during a time when steals were rarely attempted. Also if you use bench as a comparison, bench’s best season was at 24, and was the lesser catcher after age 30 than campy. Catchers age in dog years, so campy missing 4-6 years in mlb because of racism is huge.

      • adam says:

        You’re calling johnq a troll because he disagreed with Joe and your opinions on Campanella’s ranking? Really?

        Now the opening comment from tombando….that’s a troll.

        • johnq11 says:

          Thanks adam.

          I’m not trolling nor was it my intention to troll. I really dislike people who just casually throw out the word “troll” rather than respond directly to my comments.

          Joe P. is a great baseball writer and I wish I had 1/10th of his writing talent or 1/10th of his work ethic & motivation. I would never try to sabotage one of his pieces because I respect him too much.

      • invitro says:

        “has the highest pickoff percentage ever during a time when steals were rarely attempted.”

        A high pickoff percentage has the most value when steals are *often* attempted. Campanella’s pickoff percentage is not of high value, and anyway, it is included in his dWAR.

  8. Wilbur says:

    Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe started their minor league career at Nashua, New Hampshire, where they were relatively well-accepted by the residents.

    Rickey had first wanted to place them at their Class A team in Danville, Illinois in east-central Illinois, but team and league officials demurred, fearing the fans and players in the Midwest Three-I League would not accept their presence.

  9. Which hunt? says:

    This was the best one yet, Joe!

  10. Geoff says:

    Sheesh, are people here so worried that Joe’s feelings will be hurt that they have to rush to his defense every time someone writes a comment that runs counter to something he’s written?

    I imagine nearly all of us are here because we find Joe’s writing to be immensely entertaining, interesting, thought-provoking, etc., but that doesn’t mean we’re not allowed to disagree with him occasionally. Frankly, I think johnq11 absolutely nailed it with his assessment of Campanella’s career. If the argument is that the difficulties he faced as a result of his role as a pioneer earn him extra credit (or some presumption that his performance would have been better had he had lighter skin because he wouldn’t have been forced to deal with racism), that may in fact be a fair argument. I tend not to put much stock in it because it’s so difficult to quantify, and because the effect of these things vary widely from person to person, but it could certainly be that had Campanella been born 25 years later he would have had Johnny Bench’s career.

    However, I don’t think his actual on-field performance merits a ranking anywhere near this high. He probably didn’t deserve any of his three MVP awards, and the one he won in 1955 was a joke, roughly akin to if Freddie Freeman had won the MVP this past season. Implicit in Joe’s article is an assumption that Campanella lost a great deal of value at the beginning and end of his career. I’m inclined to agree that he lost several productive seasons from ages 22-25, but based on his performance from 26-28, I can’t see how you can reasonably argue that he would have been more than a 3-4 win player those years. At the time of the accident, however, Campanella may very well have been done as a productive player. He was basically a replacement level player at 34-35, so it’s hard to believe he had much left in the tank.

    None of this takes away from the enjoyment I’ve gotten from reading this series, or Joe’s work in general. Heck, learning a bit more about Campanella may well have been more enlightening than the capsule for whatever player winds up being excluded from this list as a result. This doesn’t mean I’m not going to express my disapproval if/when Duane Kuiper cracks the top 10.

  11. johnq11 says:

    Geoff, Good points.

    I want to reiterate that it was never my intention to disrespect or usurp Joe in this series. Maybe I go on too long and my posts are too long, for that I apologize.

    I grew up in the NYC area during the 1970’s and two of the first baseball memories I have is watching “Bang The Drum Slowly” at the theaters and “It’s Good To Be Alive,” the Roy Campanella t.v. movie with Paul Winfield, Louis Gosset jr. and Rubby Dee.

    Roy Campanella was revered like a God back in those days. You would go to Shea Stadium for Old Timer’s day and he would come out in his wheelchair and the whole house would stand and people would be crying. I mean grown men were emotionally moved by seeing this man in a wheelchair. The old timers would go on about how had the car accident not happened Campanella would have been the greatest catcher in baseball history, etc. Basically it was either Yogi Berra or Roy Campanella as the greatest catcher of all time and then they would say that Bench had a shot at getting into the top 3.

    It’s odd but I don’t remember those old timer’s ever talking about how he missed 4-5 years because the racial segregation of the day. It was always the car accident.

    But when I went back recently to check his lifetime numbers I was kind of shocked at how poor his ’54, 56-57 seasons were.

    If you look at his numbers from 1954-1957 (His age 32-35 seasons) they average out to .249/.335/.448, 21 HR, 73 Rbi, 48 runs scored, 97 hits and about 390 at bats. Again that’s at Ebbets field and that’s with a very good 1955 put into the mix.

    I seriously thought with all his accolades batting in Ebbets Field in the 1950’s that he was something like a lifetime .307 hitter with a .380 on base percentage not a lifetime .276 hitter with a .360 on base percentage.

    Even if he hadn’t gotten into the car accident he was most likely done as a productive major league catcher.

    His durability in the major leagues was somewhat suspect as well. He only toped 130 games in a season 3 times in his career. He was slow as he grounded into 143 double plays in his career.

    There was a catcher’s bias for the MVP back in those days but his 1955 MVP makes no sense. Mays was the best player in the N.L. but Snider should have won the MVP.

    Snider hit .309/.418/.628, led the league in RBI (136) & Runs scored (126), hit 42 HR. Those numbers for back then should have won him the MVP easily. Campanella was very good .318/.395/.583, but he only played 123 games and had 522 plate appearances.

    Snider should have won in 1953 as well. Either J. Robinson or S. Musial should have won in 1951. J. Robinson finished 6th to Campanella’s 1rst???? Even Monte Irvin would have been a better choice. Actually I think J. Robinson is vastly underrated because people mainly concentrate on him breaking the color line and not his outstanding baseball skills.

    • norme says:

      johnq, regarding Campy’s poor numbers in ’54 and ’56-7 it should be pointed out that he was playing with some hand issues that often made him a one-handed hitter. It was painful to watch.

    • Regarding the points above:

      1. It’s easy to say Campy’s 1948-1950 numbers mean he wouldn’t have been all that great if he’d come up earlier but how true can that be? Based upon his Negro league numbers, there’s no reason not to believe that if he’d come up early in 1946, as a white player would have, he wouldn’t have reached the 1951 level by 1948, and by 1951 he was a devastating offensive force. Which means four years of offensive production which were certainly CLOSE to MVP level if not all the way there, at a level of offense which only Bench and Piazza have even approached, followed by two more such years in 1953 and 1955.

      And all of this overlooks the fact that without the war and racism Campanella almost certainly would have come up earlier than 1946, possibly as early as 1943. No player’s biography, except possibly Musial’s, is anything resembling normal in that era because of the war. But if you look at what Campanella did starting at age 26 in mid-1948, I don’t see how you can believe he wouldn’t have had seasons at ages 23-25 that would look a lot more like his 1951 season than his actual 1948-1950 years.

      2. We have become accustomed — lucky us — to superb defensive catchers. We’ve seen Bench and Pudge and now Yadi, and there have been many others who were close as well. But Roy Campanella was as good in his day as any of them, and with the arguable exception of Jim Hegan none of his contemporaries were even close. It didn’t matter as much when nobody stole bases, to be sure, but it was there anyhow, and even though it didn’t matter as much, everyone was aware of it.

      3. If you have a problem with black players with no MLB statistical record like Bullet Joe Rogan being in the top 100, fine, that’s an defensible position. But if you believe that adjustments to how we perceive players who were kept out of the game through no fault of their own are necessary, why penalize Roy Campanella because he was lucky enough to get to play, but only after his career path had been damaged? It’s the same argument I see regarding Minnie Minoso. Yes, his MLB numbers don’t scream Hall Of Fame on their own, but consider the circumstances — he didn’t make the majors until age 26. Aren’t we entitled to pad his resume with what we can reasonably assume would have been there? Same with Campanella. And if you give him those years, I don’t see how you can say he belongs in the discussion with Berra and Bench as among the very best.

    • Martin Siegel says:

      I think your comments are better than Posnanski, who wrote the article. You are dead right about how Snider was ignored by the writer, as well as the fact that Ebbetts Field was akin to a miniature ballpark. Almost all sports writers are sycophants. The best part of that era was the comparison of Campanella with Berra, Reese with Rizzuto, and Snider, Mays and Mantle. (Snider again unfairly got the short straw.)

  12. Jim LonierKB says:

    I guess Joe overlooked this, but there actually was a movie made about Roy Campanella called “It’s Good to Be Alive” with Paul Winfield playing Campie.

    • mrgjg says:

      A good example of why it’s always a good idea to read the comments prior to posting. At the very least, the one you can actually see while you’re posting yours.

  13. MisterMj says:

    I’ve always wondered how people during Roy’s day reacted to his mixed background – father was Sicilian and mother was African-American. Did that help him? Did it hurt him?

    • NormE says:

      As a fan during “Roy’s day” I don’t recall it being a factor. The fans, I think, thought of him as first a Dodger and second as a black man.

  14. Man, odd story by Joe and odd thread of comments. Joe focused on what seemed like insignificant criticism (he did not like to be criticized and had a mild dark side to his otherwise great and friendly side) and then closed it out with the accident. I don’t know about the numbers, and I don’t remember seeing him play, but I am pretty confident that Campy was a great ballplayer and a great positive force for baseball (a black catcher adored by writers and fans!!) and for blacks in baseball — and for the disabled after his accident. Hail to Campy. Probably deserves a higher rating than 66.

  15. If you’re wondering why Campanella got MVP votes when he wasn’t called up until July 2 in 1948, it’s because on July 2 the Dodgers were eight games under .500, tied for last place, and on September 1 they were in first place by half a game. They went 41-18 in that stretch. They had a so=so September and the Braves proceeded to go on a tear, but people noticed when it was that the Dodgers took off.

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