HIS LEGACY is his smile, a warm, gentle smile. Life played a very rotten joke on Roy Campanella, but he never saw it that way. Self-pity was out of the question. The title of his autobiography was Lucky To Be Alive. It was not a statement of medical fact. It was a testament to his courage.
Campanella was one of the great baseball players of his time, and one of the most beloved of any time. He was 'Campy', the short, squat powerful catcher for the great Brooklyn Dodgers teams who occupy a special place in American sports lore. That was the first act of his life. Act Two began on a cold night 35 years ago - 26 January 1958 - when his car hit an icy patch as he drove home, ploughed into a telephone pole and turned this bear of a man into a quadriplegic.
As a player, he was known for the sheer joy with which he played the game. Or, as he once said: 'It takes a man to play this game, but you've got to have a lot of little boy in you.' But for those last 35 years of his life he was an inspiration. Old or young, black or white, it made no difference. When you saw Campy sitting in his wheelchair you understood that there was more to courage than facing death without blinking. He did that after the accident. He faced life without blinking for 35 years, which is a far more difficult task when your arms and legs are withered and useless.
Campanella was one of the first wave of black players who integrated baseball after the Second World War. The first was his team-mate Jackie Robinson, who joined the Dodgers in 1947. Robinson, a driven man, a ferocious competitor, a vocal enemy of the horrible bigotry of his time, transcended the narrow world of sports and became an American cultural and historical icon. Campanella showed up a year later. He was not about politics or culture or history. He was about baseball.
His Dodger teams won the National League title five times between 1949 and 1956 and he was voted the Most Valuable Player three times, a remarkable accomplishment. The fans adored their Dodgers - they are known now as 'The Boys of Summer', the title of a best-selling book about them - and Campy was one of their extra-special favourites. And the rivalry between the Dodgers and the Giants was perhaps the greatest rivalry in American sports history.
It all ended in 1957, when both the Dodgers and Giants deserted New York, the Dodgers moving to Los Angeles and the Giants to San Francisco. By then, Campy's star was fading. He was 36 and the brutal physical demands of catching had taken their toll. Then came the accident. He never played a game in Los Angeles. That didn't make a difference. He became Mr Dodger. He eventually moved west and worked for the club as a goodwill ambassador.
I started covering baseball in 1974. I'd see Campy at a game and say hello, maybe chat for minute, nothing that I can remember. This is what I do remember. It is a warm March night in Florida at the Dodgers' spring training complex. I'm walking to the press dining area and there isn't a soul in sight. The only sounds are the chirps of the crickets and the rustling of the leaves. Then I hear a hum. It's Campy, in his electric wheelchair.
As he approaches me, I say, 'Hi, Campy.' And his answer is a nod of his head and a warm, gentle smile.
(Photograph omitted)Reuse content