One winter night, sixty years ago, the first African-American catcher to play Major League Baseball was driving his car. As he approached a patch of ice, his life would never be the same. The car Roy Campanella was driving hit a pole and overturned, breaking his neck and leaving him paralyzed. His baseball career was over at age 35.
Early in the 1959 season at L.A. Coliseum (the new home for the recently transplanted Brooklyn Dodgers) honored the pioneer catcher with ‘Roy Campanella Night’. Just over 93 thousand fans were in attendance, the largest crowd to ever attend an MLB game.
At just 15 years old, Campanella started playing in the Negro National League in 1937.. He played a total of nine seasons before breaking into MLB. He hit .314 with an OPS of .827.
In 1948, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Campanella to play in their AA farm team and soon thereafter he was brought up to the big leagues and became the sixth African-American to break the MLB color barrier; the first-ever at catcher.
When Campanella joined the Dodgers, they were fledgling in last place. After his arrival Brooklyn’s record improved from 27-34, to 84-70. At season’s end, Campanella led all catchers in percentage of runners caught stealing. By 1950, Campanella was considered the best catcher in baseball.
Campanella was short, but built like a sumo wrestler; stocky with massive arms. Despite that, was incredibly nimble and could throw like a Saturday night special. Many pitchers regarded Campanella as one of the best catchers they ever threw to.
Teammates in general loved Campanella. He played as well as watched the game with unbridled enthusiasm; even when things didn’t go his way.
Yet, he wasn’t without some critics; one from an unexpected source. Teammate Jackie Robinson did not feel Campanella kept with the cause of racial integration in baseball, commenting that Campanella was a little too ‘Uncle Tom’-ish (to paraphrase).
It didn’t matter. Campanella was instrumental in bringing the Dodgers their first World Series championship in 1955. Having one of the best seasons in his career, Campanella produced a 5.7 WAR, hit 32 home runs, and posted a wRC+ of 150. He also had a career-low 7.9% K-rate and a .922 fielding percentage.
Spring training 1954 set off a chain-reaction of events that would complicate Campanella’s career. He injured his left hand and wrist attempting to break up a double play. He had surgery early in that season with a prognosis of 8-10 weeks of recovery.
Foolishly, he returned in less than a month, which resulted in his worst ever offensive output. Campanella later admitted that he played with a significant level of numbness in that hand. Regardless, the ’54 Dodgers were much more successful when Campanella was in the lineup.
Injury problems with his glove hand continued through the 1956 season. His performance both at bat and behind the plate took a drastic dip. In Campanella’s last four seasons, his WAR was 0.7, 5.7, 1.2, and 1.2.
Following what would be his last season catching in MLB, the Dodgers had moved to Los Angeles. Campanella, despite not wanting to relocate, was optimistic about his prospects that coming year as his hand seemed to feel better than it had in years.
The car accident that befell Campanella, once considered the best catcher in baseball, resigned him to life in a wheelchair. Although he was able to regain feeling and usage of his arms, from the chest down he was paralyzed.
Campanella kept himself in baseball any way he could, working in scouting, public relations, and as a special adviser to the Dodgers during spring training.
After a 10-year MLB career that saw him land 3 MVP awards, 8 All-Star appearances, and a World Series ring, Campanella was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1969. In 1972, the Dodgers retired his #39, along with Robinson’s #42 and Sandy Koufax‘s #32.
Even though Campanella was paralyzed for nearly 40 years (living much longer than most paraplegic’s) he continued to live a good life.
Then in 1993 he was befallen by a heart attack at the age of 71.
‘The Cat’, as he was nicknamed, left a legacy behind that inspired dozens of future catchers of all races. It’s another case of ‘what could have been’ if the race barrier come down long before it did. Campanella would have had a much longer and fruitful MLB career. Nevertheless, you can’t speak to many catchers and not have them bring up Campanella’s name at some point.