Campanella proved to be a special catch

John Steadman

June 30, 1993|By John Steadman

There was an artistic elegance to the way Roy Campanella handled a catcher's mitt. As a young boy, the year was 1945, we watched intently from the old wooden grandstand as the Baltimore Elite Giants played at Bugle Field (named for a coat and laundry company). It took only a thimble of awareness to realize he belonged in the major leagues -- and would have been except for being born with what was then considered the wrong complexion.

Organized baseball hadn't yet lifted the racial barrier so Campanella was confined to the Negro National League. The Elite Giants signed him in 1937 when he was only 14 years old for the grand sum of $60 a month. He had earlier delivered milk from a horse and wagon for the Supplee Dairy in his native Philadelphia.

Campanella went on to easily become the most famous of all Baltimore Elite Giant players, later earning the Most Valuable Player award three times in the National League as a Brooklyn Dodger and the ultimate -- enshrinement in the Hall of Fame.

It was all hard work. Then, at age 36, on a January night in 1958, the rented automobile he was driving, while his own was being repaired, went into a spin on a highway of ice and the ensuing accident left him a quadriplegic. He would spend the rest of his life, until he died at 71 on Sunday morning, in a wheelchair.

The Dodgers "discovered" Roy when he was with the Elites, and the man who recommended him to general manager Branch Rickey was a perceptive scout, a one-time catcher, Clyde

Sukeforth, who was astounded with his ability to catch the ball with natural finesse and to throw with a wrist and forearm snap that was strong and accurate.

Campanella had 2 1/2 years in the Dodgers system, playing at Nashua in the New England League, Montreal in the International and St. Paul in the American Association. When Ty Cobb, always sparing in praising players other than himself, saw Campanella he insisted he'd be "remembered more than any other player of (( his time."

From a historical standpoint, Roy was the first black catcher in organized baseball and the first to manage, when Walter Alston was ejected from a game in Nashua in 1946. That initial year in the Dodgers' farm system found him taking an enormous cut in salary. He made $1,017.50, which was the going rate in what was then a class "B" league. He left the Elites and a higher contract ($3,000) for the chance to try the promise of a greater opportunity.

"There were times with the Elites when I caught three games in one day and night," he once said. "In fact, I remember catching four games. It was an afternoon doubleheader in Cincinnati and another doubleheader in Hamilton, Ohio, that night. But I loved it, including the travel, even if it was by bus, but most of all just playing baseball."

In the files of the Dodgers is a 1948 letter Campanella wrote to Al Campanis, then a Dodgers instructor, about switching to the outfield because the catching position seemed well stocked with Bruce Edwards, Bobby Bragan and Gil Hodges.

The opening sentence to Campanis read: "First of all, I want to thank you again for your help and your friendship. You're one good Greek." Then he went on to ask, "Do you think I'd have a better chance to make the club if I tried out as an outfielder? . . . I've played it a little bit in the colored league. . . . What do you think? Would I just be kidding myself?"

The answer was forthcoming early the next season when Campanella was recalled by the Dodgers. The first complete game he caught was against the Boston Braves, and his pitcher, Rex Barney, delivered a four-hit victory. It would have been a blunder of momentous proportions if the Dodgers had used him any place but behind the plate.

Although catching is a vulnerable job, there's no telling what he might have put into the record book if he wouldn't have had to endure almost continual injuries to his hands. Yet he never begged off. "If I can walk, I can play," he insisted. In 1956, with a numb left hand and a broken right thumb, he forced himself to stay in the lineup to help the club win the pennant on the final day.

Talking about his average, which dipped to .219 that season, Campanella said, "I still hit 20 home runs that year practically with no hands." Roy Campanella never complained. He rationalized that in everyone's life there were good and bad breaks and what's dealt must be accepted.

NTC The beauty of the man, plus his craftsmanship as a catcher, gave him a special identity.

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