More than Jackie: Roy Campanella’s legacy

(News4usonline) – Not too many people can put three most valuable player awards on their resume. Hall of Famer Roy Campanella can. When he played, there was no one like Campanella. That’s because for 10 seasons, Campanella established himself as the best catcher in baseball. Black or white.

The son of a Black mother and Italian father, Campanella dominated the baseball landscape like no other, becoming the first Black catcher to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Campanella’s trip to the Hall of Fame began earnestly enough when he was born on Nov. 19, 1921, in Philadelphia. Soon, baseball came calling for Campanella.

Title: Baseball Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella and Mayor John F. Collins hold a ceremonial plate Creator: City of Boston Date: circa 1960-1968 Source: Mayor John F. Collins records, Collection #0244.001 File name: 244001_0540 Rights: Copyright City of Boston

That calling came from the Negro National League and the Mexican League. Campanella was so good early that he began his professional baseball career as a teenager. He was just 15 when he started his career with the Washington Elite Giants (later Baltimore Elite Giants).

Between the Negro National League and the Mexican League, Campanella toiled for nine years before his call-up to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Due to the baseball color line, Campanella wasn’t allowed to play in Major League Baseball until Jackie Robinson erased that barrier in 1947 when he made his MLB debut with the Dodgers.

When he joined the Dodgers, Campanella was the sixth acknowledged Black player to appear in the major leagues. In 1948, he made his debut with the Dodgers, becoming the league’s first Black catcher. The Dodgers were aggressive in breaking MLB’s color barrier, signing four of the first Black baseball players in the history of the league (Robinson, Campanella, Don Newcombe, and Dan Bankhead).

During his impressive, but interrupted career, Campanella’s pioneering status was solidified with him winning three league MVP awards in five years. Campanella claimed the National League MVP in 1951, 1953, and 1955.

In 1951, Campanella batted. .325, drove in 108 runs and hit 33 home runs. For good measure, Campanella also scored 90 runs. He had an even bigger year statistically in 1953. In earning his second MVP, Campanella hit .312, drove in 142 RBI and connected on pitches to hit 41 home runs. He also collected 162 hits and scored 103 runs for the Dodgers that year.

In recording his trifecta of MVP trophies, Campanella hit .318 and belted 32 home runs during the 1955 season. That year, Campanella produced 107 RBI and collected 142 hits.

For his career, Campanella batted .283, hit 260 home runs, recorded 1,017 RBI, and collected 1,401 hits. When he won his first most valuable player award, Campanella became the second black player after Jackie Robinson won the MVP award. Again, following in the footsteps of Robinson, Campanella is the second Black player to make it in Cooperstown as a Hall of Famer, right after Robinson.

In 1969, Campanella was inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame. Three years later, Campanella had his No. 39 jersey retired by the Dodgers. After his retirement, the honors poured in.

He was also elected to the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame in 1971. He was the second player of black heritage so honored after Robinson. As great as the numbers he produced, it’s a safe bet that Campanella would have done a whole more on the baseball diamond had he been allowed to do so. Unfortunately, tragedy struck.

A statue of the late and great Roy Campanella, the first Black catcher to play in Major League Baseball. Courtesy photo

After hitting a patch of ice near his home in New York, Campanella lost control of the vehicle that he was driving and crashed, leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down. The 1958 single-car accident marked an abrupt end to a stellar baseball career for a true baseball trailblazer. Campanella would remain paralyzed for the remainder of his days.

Though he would spend the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair, Campanella did not let his paralysis be the end of his life. He kept living. Campanella would eventually become an assistant to the director of community relations with the Dodgers.

Campanella passed in 1993. Though he is gone, Campanella’s contributions to the game of baseball will always be remembered. In his final MVP season in 1955, Campanella helped the Dodgers win their first World Series. After losing the first two games of the World Series against the New York Yankees, Campanella and the Dodgers rallied.

Staring down a 2-0 World Series deficit, the Dodgers beat the Yankees 8-3 in Game 3. Campanella’s two-run home run in the first inning of Game 3 got the Dodgers going. The Dodgers would go on to win Game 7 and the series. As the first Black player to win three league MVPs, Campanella’s MLB legacy in the annals of the game is well secure.

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