- The Washington Times - Monday, January 24, 2005

The baseball star was traveling from his liquor store in Harlem to his home on Long Island when the rental car skidded on an icy patch, rammed a telephone pole head-on and flipped. Nobody wore seat belts then. The driver’s body slammed the steering wheel. His head whipped forward, then back.

The first policeman to reach the scene had no trouble recognizing the man inside. “Why it’s Campy,” he said.

“Yes, it’s me,” Roy Campanella said with a groan. “Would you please turn off the engine. I don’t want to burn to death.”

The date was Jan.28, 1958, and one of the best catchers in baseball history had just become paralyzed for life. An ambulance rushed him to Glen Cove Community Hospital, where he underwent 4 hours of surgery. But there was little the doctors could do.

Afterward Dr. Robert Sengstaken, the neurosurgeon who headed a seven-person medical team working on Campanella, said he “would not rule out” the possibility of his playing baseball again. That was balderdash. The accident had broken his neck, injured his spine and left him a quadriplegic.

For the next 35 years until his death from a heart attack in 1993 at age 71, Campanella could not use his arms, hands or legs. His wife, Ruthe, left him a short time after the accident, but he was fortunate enough to marry a former nurse, Roxie, who gladly shared his burdens.

Those burdens were heavier than most of us could ever know, yet Roy Campanella accepted his fate with equanimity and remained a beloved ambassador for the game he loved. The title of his autobiography, and a subsequent TV movie starring Paul Winfield, said it all: “It’s Good to Be Alive.”

So did Campy’s most famous quote: “You have to be a man to play baseball for a living, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too.”

Some found it fitting that Campanella’s career ended before the transplanted Dodgers played their first game in Los Angeles — as if the Good Lord wanted Campy to remain a Brooklyn Dodger for life. But why would the Good Lord have wanted a good man to spend the rest of that life in a wheelchair?

In the spring of 1983, Campanella was being wheeled about the Dodgers’ spring training camp in Vero Beach, Fla., by Tommy Davis, a two-time National League batting champion who considered this an honor. After Davis was called away momentarily, Campy turned to a nearby sportswriter and said softly, “Excuse me, sir, but I’m awfully hungry, and there’s an apple in my jacket. Could you get it for me?”

I did, and I considered it an honor.

Given the distance of half a century — and the exploits of more recent superstar catchers like Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Thurman Munson and Gary Carter — younger fans today might find it difficult to appreciate how great Campanella was. In the 1950s, though, arguments raged nonstop through New York City and the nation over whether Campy or the Yankees’ Yogi Berra was better.

Playing in tiny Ebbets Field, Campanella won three National League MVP Awards (1951, 1953, 1955), batted as high as .325, hit as many as 41 homers and had as many as 142 RBI in an era when nobody had heard of steroids. And, oh yes, the Dodgers won five pennants in his 10 seasons and missed two others on the final day.

Defensively, he was a squat (5-foot-8, 200-pound) fortress who cajoled and cussed a string of mostly ordinary Dodgers pitchers into doing their darndest. If Campy hadn’t missed the last two games of the 1951 National League pennant playoff with a pulled thigh muscle, chances are nobody would remember Bobby Thomson today.

How good was he at handling pitchers? The late Rex Barney, a control-challenged Dodgers hurler in the late 1940s and a cherished P.A. announcer for the Baltimore Orioles decades later, once recalled how he lost a no-hitter after shaking off a sign from Campanella.

“He came stomping out to the mound and told me in that squeaky voice, ‘Don’t ever shake me off. I’m smarter than you are. Just do what I tell you.’” Barney said. “I got the message.”

Yet Campanella, a son of an Italian father and a black mother, was no firebrand off the field. Placid by nature, he accepted the fact of segregation in the 1940s and 1950s while teammate Jackie Robinson was speaking out and demanding change at a time when not many others were.

“Darn it, Campy, don’t you ever get mad?” Robinson would fume.

“Aw, Jackie, I’m just a ballplayer,” Campy would reply. “It’s the onliest thing I know.”

Campanella was about through as a ballplayer when the accident removed any doubt. Hampered by injuries, he batted only .219 and .242 his final two seasons after Brooklyn won its only World Series in 1955. By 1958, Campy was 36, and the years of squatting behind the plate in the Negro Leagues and the majors had taken their toll. Yet he was planning to try again that season, this time while wearing a royal blue cap bearing the unfamiliar letters “LA.”

In 1969, much too late, Campanella was the second black man elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame despite his relatively short major league career. Of course, Robinson was the first — just as he had become, in 1947, the first black man in 63 years to play major league baseball.

No one who hasn’t been there can possibly understand what it is like to be a quadriplegic. In his classic memoir “The Boys of Summer,” author Roger Kahn asks Campanella how he found the courage to go on.

“At first, lying in bed, I didn’t realize I was paralyzed,” Campy replies. “I thought in a few weeks I would be well and go to spring training. I tried to move my right leg. My right arm. No reaction. I tried to move my left arm. My left leg. No reaction. … After a lot of days, I began to wonder to myself, ‘I can’t move anything.’ … I’m a good one for prayers. I prayed to the Good Lord to let me accept whatever was happening.”

On May 7, 1959, more than 15 months after the accident, the Dodgers honored Campanella with a “night” at the Los Angeles Coliseum. As a crowd of 93,103 listened and wept, Campy addressed them from his wheelchair: “I thank God that I’m living to be here.”

Then the stadium lights went out and everyone lit a match — an unforgettable tribute to an unforgettable man whose spirit soared far above and beyond his wrecked body.

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