Campanella's boyish enthusiasm was baseball's joy, in any color AN APPRECIATION

June 29, 1993|By Stan Hochman | Stan Hochman,Philadelphia Daily News

PHILADELPHIA -- Maybe Roy Campanella once said, "You gotta be a man to play baseball for a living, but you gotta have a lot of little boy in you, too."

Maybe he didn't.

You never know. New York had seven newspapers in the '50s. Seven beat writers scrambling for something fresh, seven columnists hovering around the batting cage, eavesdropping, lusting after the hard angle, willing to bend a phrase here, a quote there.

Roger Kahn, in his splendid book, "The Boys of Summer," has Campanella chirping during a World Series, "There's nothing a boy likes better than a circus, and to play this game good, a lot of you's got to be a little boy."

Campanella had little-boy hobbies, electric trains, tropical fish. He played the game with a little boy's supper-can-wait enthusiasm.

He probably said it. Definitely meant it. Never thought for a moment that "boy" was a racist buzzword that might catch him hell from both sides.

Campanella died Saturday at 71, having spent almost half his life locked in a wheelchair. Iron bars do not a prison make, nor spoked wheels and a web of canvas.

He played Joe Frazier to Jackie Robinson's Muhammad Ali. Robinson broke the barriers, first black in big-league baseball. Campy was next.

Robinson was loud, angry, swaggering. Campanella was soft, warm, waddling. Trumpet. Cello.

Writers took sides. Teammates took sides. Fans took sides.

Robinson danced off first base, taunting the pitcher. Campanella would hit a foul ball, then stoop to pick up the other catcher's mask and hand it to him.

They bickered. Robinson argued for an end to segregated hotel arrangements when the Dodgers played in St. Louis.

When the Chase Hotel relented, Campanella told Robinson, "They didn't want me at first, so I'm not going over now. I've got my pride."

Robinson argued him out of that stance.

"I'm no crusader," Campanella said, knowing the reaction Robinson would draw from owner Walter O'Malley.

Years later, looking back, Campanella said about Robinson: "Deep down, I believe we were always friendly."

Campanella outlived Robinson in spite of the accident that left him trapped in the wheelchair, a quadriplegic, for 35 years.

His outer strength saved his life that wintry night when his rented Chevy skidded on an ice-slick highway and slammed into the telephone pole. His inner strength kept him going for the next 35 years.

He was strong. Attention ought to be paid to that strength, even if he wasn't in the front lines, lobbing grenades in the war for social change.

Today's stars shun controversy, but they do it for all the wrong reasons. They don't want to blow the endorsement money.

The pay was piddling, the perks included a case of Wheaties after a homer, maybe 12 bars of Lifebuoy soap, a suit if you could hit Abe Stark's compact sign in right-center.

Campanella's father was white, his mother black. He faced prejudice at a different stance than Robinson. He chose to deal with it differently, and it was his personality, his enthusiasm that spurred him through a Hall of Fame career.

The Dodgers won five pennants in 10 years. Campanella was the Most Valuable Player three times.

All right, so one of those MVP baubles was tainted. A Philadelphia writer listed Campy twice on his ballot, and the catcher finished ahead of teammate Duke Snider by five votes.

Today's players, black and white, ignore the history of the game. Maybe a handful know how splendid a catcher Campanella was.

The Dodgers moved to Los Angeles the year Campanella broke his neck. The Coliseum, short porch in left, Campanella might have hit 62 homers that year.

He never squawked about that missed opportunity. He never cursed the fates. He never sought sympathy.

He looked back fondly on those Brooklyn teams. When the Dodgers staged a night for him in May 1959, it was Pee Wee Reese who wheeled him out to home plate while the Coliseum fans lit matches.

The greedy franchise managed a stroke of nobility, employing Campanella through the years, bringing him to spring training, asking him to work with the catchers.

I interviewed him on the 25th anniversary of Robinson's raucous rookie season with the Dodgers. He was gracious, he was wary, he was soft-spoken.

Too many layers of bitterness had formed over the years, and he saw no reason to peel them back, those stiff, unyielding wallpapered memories. He preferred to paint over them. Whitewash, the extremists sneered. And the criticism bounced off him like another clatter of foul tips.

His first uniform was from the Nicetown Colored Athlete Club. That tells you how long ago it was.

Campanella used to reminisce about catching three doubleheaders in one day in Venezuela. Maybe it happened, maybe it didn't.

Ernie Banks prattled, "Let's play two," and his teammates sneered.

Kirby Puckett seems to be enjoying himself out there. Name me another five guys like that and you can have my copy of "The Boys of Summer."

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