Roy Campanella and the Baltimore Elite Giants

Roy Campanella was born in the same year as the team for which he played before signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization.  The Elite Giants débuted in 1921 in Nashville, where it stayed for a decade and a half before moving to Washington, D.C.  After spending 1936 and 1937 in the nation’s capital, the team moved about 40 miles north to Baltimore, where it won the Negro National League championship the following year.

In his 2009 book The Baltimore Elite Giants, Bob Luke described team found Thomas “Smiling Tom” Wilson as a businessman who straddled the line separating legal and illegal activities.  “He ran a profitable numbers operation, which was illegal, sponsored numerous events at his namesake stadium in Nashville, Wilson Park, and ran a popular nightclub, the Paradise Ballroom,” wrote Luke.

The Baltimore Afro-American ran a story in the February 5, 1938 edition—May Transfer Elite Giants From Washington To Balto—quoting Wilson, who explained the financial benefit of changing metropolises:  “Last year we lost money with the club operating from Washington.  I sincerely feel Baltimore far superior to Washington as a baseball town.”  Wilson added, “It’s been a long time since Baltimore has had a regular league team and I feel the people there need one and will support one.”

Five weeks later, the Afro-American confirmed the move, heralding the relocation to Baltimore—the team’s last city until its demise in 1950—amongst other decisions made at a three-day Negro National League conference:  “Tom Wilson’s Elite Giants, who operated from Washington the last two years, definitely have been transferred to Baltimore this season and will play out of either Oriole Park or Bugle Field as a home base.

“This gives Baltimore its first real big league club since 1931.”

Campanella credited his rookie season of 1937 with the Elite Giants as forming the foundation for his catching skills, specifically, learning under the tutelage of veteran catcher Biz Mackey, who managed the team.  Though he was 15 years old, Campanella possessed natural abilities that belied his young age.

In his 1959 autobiography It’s Good To Be Alive, Campanella wrote, “As that season wore on I began to share the catching with Biz Mackey fifty-fifty.  Instead of growing distant as I grew better, Biz gave me everything he could.  I was becoming a good instinctive catcher, doing the right thing without thinking about it.  But my hitting was something else again.  Biz tried to get me to cut down on my swing and meet the ball better.”

Campanella biographer Neil Lanctot investigated the Campanella-Mackey relationship for his 2011 book Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella.  Mackey according to Lanctot, did not mandate a “do as I do” guideline for the teenage protégé.  “Unlike some coaches, Mackey did not try to force his pupil to copy his style.  There were different ways of catching, Mackey felt, and each receiver should use the form that worked best for him.  However, the boy needed instruction in the mechanical and mental aspects of the position.  Roy soon discovered there was much he did not know about catching.  After watching Mackey for a few games, he began to wonder whether he knew anything about catching.”

Branch Rickey, General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, signed Campanella after the 1945 season.  Campanella first played for the Nashua Dodgers, a farm team in the Eastern League, where he won the 1946 MVP Award.  Rickey called him up to Brooklyn in the middle of the 1948 season.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Roy Campanella in 1969.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on September 29, 2015.

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