Roy Campanella, role model

June 30, 1993

To play in the big leagues, you got to be a man, but you got to have a lot of little boy in you, too.

-- Roy Campanella

He was a winner, on the field and off. Not only did Roy Campanella wind up in baseball's Hall of Fame for his prowess on the ball diamond, he turned himself into an All Star off the field as the courageous example of what it takes to enjoy life after suffering a crippling injury.

All his life, he encountered setbacks, but they never got him down. Racial segregation kept him from the major leagues until he was 26, yet he made the most of the opportunity when it arrived. His All Star catching career came to a tragic end in 1958 when his car ran off an icy road, leaving him a quadriplegic. But instead of self-pity, he re-created his life as an ambassador for the handicapped, a motivator of youth and a coach of professional ballplayers.

Roy Campanella was a superb role model. He helped dismantle baseball's racial barriers, on the minor-league and the major-league levels. He established himself as the top catcher of his era -- some believe the best at his position ever.

His accomplishments as a baseball player speak for themselves: An All-Star in six of his 10 seasons; Most Valuable Player three times; a single-season record (for a catcher) of 41 home runs and 142 runs batted in; an astute handler of pitchers; a flawless and agile fielder, and the linchpin of the fabled Brooklyn Dodgers in their glory years, when the "Boys of Summer" won five National League pennants in eight years between 1949 and 1956.

His on-field brilliance put him in the Hall of Fame, but he deserved even better. Racial segregation cost him at least a half-dozen more years in the majors, years he spent in the Negro Leagues, including a stint on the Baltimore Elite Giants.

Yet all this was preliminary to Mr. Campanella's great triumph over his physical handicap. That 1958 car accident left him paralyzed below the shoulders. He fought back with the optimism and fortitude he always had as a player and racial pioneer. He coached the catchers for the Dodgers every spring training. He ran his liquor store. He handled community relations work for the Dodgers. He never let his handicap get him down.

Roy Campanella died last weekend at 71. His courage and his faith in the joy of life are an abiding inspiration. He was a true All Star.

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