Roy Campanella (November 19, 1921 - June 26, 1993) is widely considered one of the greatest catchers of all time, and could easily be taken as the best ever, given the fact that he lost nearly a decade of Major League playing time to racism with Major League Baseball refusing to allow African-Americans entry into the league until 1947. And then, at 35, he lost several more years of his career to a near-fatal automobile accident that claimed not only his remaining playing days, but also the use of his legs for the rest of his life. As a child of the Great Depression, Roy was forced to work as a young boy in order to help his family make ends meet, but he did also excel in football, basketball and baseball during his high school years. Baseball, however, was his passion and Campanella signed with the Bacharach Giants as a 15-year old and then moved on to the Baltimore Elite Giants. He quickly became one of the Negro Leagues’ best catchers, rivaling future Hall of Famer Josh Gibson, and in 1941 we was named the MVP of the East-West All-Star Game. Roy spent two seasons playing in Mexico in 1942 and 1943 amidst a contract dispute before returning to the Giants in 1944. After appearing in an exhibition series at Ebbets Field against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Dodgers manager Charles Dressen arranged for Campanella to meet with general manager Branch Rickey, who immediately invited the husky backstop a contract. Though he politely declined, feeling this was a ruse, he would later ink his name on a contract with Dem Bums and ultimately follow in the footsteps of color barrier breaker, Jackie Robinson. Despite taking a substantial pay-cut from $600 catching for Baltimore, Campanella accepted the $180 monthly stipend to play for the Nashua (NH) Dodgers for a chance to play in the Major Leagues. That year with Nashua, following the ejection of manager Walt Alston, Campanella took over the managerial reigns, thus becoming the first African-American to manage in professional organized baseball.
In 1947, as Rickey and Robinson controversially made history as Jackie became the first African-American player to don a Major League uniform, Roy was posting and MVP season with the Montreal Royals of the International League, having already captured the 1946 Eastern League MVP award. So, in 1948, to the chagrin of Branch Rickey, who hoped Campanella would break the color barrier in the American Association, Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher inserted Campanella behind the plate on Opening Day. Despite Rickey’s reluctance to showcase Campy’s catching skills, Durocher’s move putting Roy behind the plate proved to invaluable as slugger Gill Hodges moved to first base and Jackie Robinson was moved to his natural second base position, creating one of the National League’s most potent lineups. He led All NL catcher is caught stealing percentage that rookie year at 69.39% - still among the top ten in MLB history. In 1949, Campanella broke camp as the everyday catcher and he once again led National League backstops with a 58.5% caught stealing rate while batting .287 with 22 home runs and 82 RBI. Campy was tapped as an All-Star for the first of eight straight years. Taking the field in the fourth inning of the 1949 Mid-Summer Classic, Roy began a streak of consecutively caught innings that would last until the eighth inning of the 1954 All-Star Game. That same year, 1949, after the call up of hurler Don Newcombe, Roy and his battery mate became the first all African-American battery in MLB history. But the best was yet to come as Campy helped lead Dem Bums to the World Series before they fell to the cross-town rival New York Yankees in five games.
In 1951, after finishing fourth in batting (.325) and total bases (298) and third in home runs (33) as well as leading the NL in caught stealing percentage for the fourth straight year, Roy was tapped as the NL MVP for the first of three wins. With the Yankees’ Yogi Berra capturing the same award in the American League, it was the first time in history that a pair of catchers won the MVP awards for their respective leagues in the same year. Campanella would win the award in 1953 as he led the NL in RBI (142) and 1955 when he led the Dodgers to the franchise’s first World Series victory over the Yankees. With Roy in the lineup, the Dodgers faced the Yankees five times in the World Series (1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, 1956) and won only the 1955 Series. Unfortunately for Roy, the catching position was brutal on the body and repeated hand injuries began to take a toll on him. When the Dodgers closed the 1957 season in Brooklyn with relocation on the horizon, Roy anticipated a full recovery from all injuries heading into the 1958 season at the Los Angeles Coliseum. However, Campanella was involved in a near-fatal car accident on January 28, 1958 that paralyzed him from the chest down, ending his storied baseball career. He would eventually regain the use of his arms, but he remained in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Roy Campanella’s 10-year career ended with him having collected 1,161 hits, 627 runs, 242 home runs and 856 RBI while batting .276 in slightly more than 1,200 games. Behind the plate, he was stellar as he led the National League five out of ten years in caught stealing and retired with the greatest caught stealing rate (57%) in Major League history. In 1969, Roy Campanella was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and also received the Bronze Medallion from the City of New York. Though the accident claimed his playing days, Campy was able to continue with the Dodgers organization as a scout and eventually worked in Los Angeles as the assistant to the director of community relations.