Roy Campanella: A study in contrasts

You have to be a man to be a big league ballplayer… but you have to have a lot of little boy in you, too.
Roy Campanella

Neil Lanctot’s book, Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella, provides ample evidence that Campanella had plenty of man in him, and also lots of boy. It goes well beyond his on-field exploits, however, exploring Campy’s stance on segregation in baseball and society in general, his family life, and his post-baseball existence as a quadriplegic.

Campanella showed early on that he was a man-child on baseball pastures. Be cause he was mature in the game well beyond his years, his talent allowed him to compete, and succeed, against players ages 17 to 20 when he was merely 14 years old. The next year, he starting earning his first salary (a whopping $25 a month) as a player in the Negro Leagues, facing off against men of all ages—and he couldn’t have been happier.

Throughout the growth of his skills—and a remarkable growth in his salaries—Campanella maintained a boyish enthusiasm for the game. As he progressed from a second-string catcher in the Negro Leagues and winter ball in Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Venezuela (learning to speak Spanish along the way) to becoming a three-time MVP during his his 10-year major league career, Campanella’s effervescent personality, indefatigable desire and unquenchable passion for baseball remained unchanged.

However, while Lanctot clearly shows that Campanella loved to play baseball, there were aspects of the game he struggled with. Jealousy and anger from teammates, riding the bench for long stretches early on in his career and riding the bus for what seemed like interminable trips throughout the country were just the beginning of the difficulties Campanella had to deal with.

The greatest challenge was the treatment all black players—in the Negro Leagues, minors and majors—received in the South. Denied entry into restaurants and hotels, shunned by cab drivers, and forced to endure harsh verbal assaults from Southern whites, Campanella did his best to block out these injustices and focus on the game on the field. He was always thankful for what baseball provided him and never wanted to seem unappreciative. Still, the abusive treatment he and his fellow black teammates faced was too awful to shrug off.

Campy shows that while Campanella promoted the stance that things were getting better and would continue to do so gradually over time, his attitude contrasted sharply with the man we all know as the first black player in modern baseball history. Jackie Robinson began his career as a quiet, proud ballplayer who endeavored not to make waves, but later he became much more outspoken over time in advocating equality for black ballplayers.

Their different approaches toward racial justice unfortunately drove a wedge between these two supremely talented teammates. While the two men respected each other’s play on the field greatly, off the field they clashed frequently—usually through the press instead of face-to-face. Over time they associated with each other less and less, Campy’s laid-back philosophy frustrating the more activist Robinson.

Campanella’s passion for baseball exceeded all other pursuits. He placed it far ahead of schoolwork as a youth, and later the game even surpassed his commitment to his family. Campy’s Winter League excursions often involved just him, with his wife and children staying behind in the States.

His combined passions for the game and for another pursuit further divided Campanella from his wife. He enjoyed the company of other women, and being away from home so frequently fostered an environment in which he could fulfill his baser needs. The complications of these actions led to not only two divorces for Campanella, but estrangement from his first wife and their two children.

No story of Campanella’s life can be complete without examining its second half. He spent almost exactly half his life as a quadriplegic, the result of a car accident, quite possibly on his way home from a tryst. His career seemingly nearing its end anyway, the injuries he suffered ensured he would never play the game again.

Still, Campy found the positives in his new situation, becoming an example to other quadriplegics that a long life could follow such tragedy. His celebrity brought attention to the fact that quadriplegia was a terrible fate, but not necessarily a defining one. Coach, radio host and banquet speaker were among the many jobs Campy had after his accident, in addition to ownership of his liquor store.

In the first half of his life, Campanella countless times did what others said he couldn’t do as a baseball player. In the second half, he repeated the feat, reaching numerous milestones that initially seemed beyond his reach. Despite his flaws, which Lanctot honestly portrays, Campy was an impressive individual, aiming high and succeeding in his efforts time and time again.

Campy is a weighty tome, clocking in at 516 pages. It is a detailed, well-researched retelling of Campanella’s life, with a Notes section detailing the multitude of sources Lanctot used in compiling his story. He also attempts to collect Campy’s full lifetime statistics, though the author acknowledges that the Negro League numbers he was able to gather are far from complete.

Capturing the full depth and breadth of a personality such as Campanella’s is a significant challenge, but Lanctot has stepped up to the plate, delivering a captivating look at an impressive, complex individual.

References & Resources
Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella by Neil Lanctot

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Greg has been a writer and editor for The Hardball Times since 2010. In his dreams, he's the second coming of Ozzie Smith. Please don't wake him up.
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eric arvidson
11 years ago

Thanks for the review! He was always a fascinating individual to me – but largely overlooked in this modern era. I had no idea that he and Jackie were at odds…..
Is the book reader friendly? Is it more of a “this was baseball” kind of tome or a character study set to a baseball background?

Greg Simons
11 years ago

Eric – The book is an enjoyable, interesting read, but can be a bit tough to slog through at times. It certainly has some “this was baseball,” especially regarding integration, but most of the focus is on Campanella’s life and personality.  I learned a lot about Campy that I didn’t know.

Anna McDonald
11 years ago

Great review, Greg. After reading this I would pick up the book.