Roy Campanella grew up in a section of Philadelphia called, appropriately, Nicetown.
“He was like a little Santa Claus. Everybody loved Campy…This guy was just one happy, great, lovable baseball person. And that’s about the way I can describe him,” stated Don Zimmer, a Campanella contemporary, in Neil Lanctot’s 2011 biography Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella. Zimmer played with Campanella on the Brooklyn Dodgers from 1954 to 1957.
Breaking into the major leagues with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948, the jovial catcher played for the emperors of Ebbets Field through 1957, tapped unparalleled knowledge to guide pitchers, and won the National League Most Valuable Player Award three times.
But Roy Campanella’s stellar career ended on an icy patch of an S-curve on Dosoris Road in Glen Cove, New York. Just five minutes from his Glen Cove home—Salt Spray—Campanella lost control of his car, ultimately crashing into a telephone pole. The accident paralyzed him. In his 1959 autobiography It’s Good To Be Alive, Campanella wrote that he left his Manhattan liquor store “at about 1:30 in the morning of January 28th.” He blamed road conditions for the accident that occurred a few minutes after 3:30 a.m.
“There were big patches on the road,” explained Campanella. They looked like white spots. I could see them clearly. I wasn’t going fast, I don’t think more than 30 or 35 miles an hour, though I wasn’t looking at the speedometer. I followed the road around the bend in the S and was headed for the right side of the road as I came out of the bend. Then I suddenly lost control. The car wouldn’t behave. I tried to steer it away from the side of the road. The brakes didn’t hold. The surface was sandy and icy. I fought the wheel. The brakes were useless.”
Campanella stayed late in Manhattan on the evening of January 27th because he was scheduled to be a guest on Harry Wismer’s television show. Wismer’s show aired on the Dumont Television Network’s New York City station—WABD—after the fights televised from St. Nicholas Arena. The broadcast time depended on when the fights ended, but it hovered around 10:45 p.m.
Wismer made the request of Campanella during the previous night’s Baseball Writers Association of America Dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. “He said the Harlem Branch of the YMCA had told him to call me,” wrote Campanella. “They had a fund-raising drive on and felt I could help them by appearing on TV. He asked me to appear the next night.”
At about 9:00 p.m. Wismer called Campanella’s liquor store to cancel the appearance. He felt that delaying it by a week would create an opportunity to promote the show. Campanella stayed at the store to help one of his workers, then went home.
Lanctot disputed the version of events that have Campanella leaving the store at 1:30 a.m. and heading directly for Salt Spray, described by the New York Times as “a $40,000 ten-room ranch house on Eastland Drive, East Island, Glen Cove.” First, he credits “contemporary news accounts” of Campanella’s employees saying that their boss departed at 12:30 a.m. Then, Lanctot theorizes that Campanella stopped at Smalls’ Paradise, a Harlem nightclub on 135th Street. He stayed until 2:00 a.m.
“His next stop has been a well-kept secret,” stated Lanctot. “When questioned, the ever-discreet [long-time Dodgers executive] Buzzie Bavasi admitted that Roy had told him in ‘strict confidence’ that he was doing ‘something he shouldn’t have been doing,’ and not Dodger-related promotional work that [Dodgers owner Walter] O’Malley hoped would be covered by insurance. Bavasi would concede only that Campy ‘was visiting a friend.’ Several other interviews confirm the ‘friend’ was actually a lover or a pickup whose identity remains unknown to this day.”
Lanctot’s thesis of the accident rests on Campanella falling asleep while driving: “It is not hard to imagine that a man without rest for close to twenty hours, drained by work and a recent roll in the hay, would succumb to exhaustion.”
Paralyzed by the accident, Campanella refused to let his physical condition prevent him from contributing to the game he loved—he mentored John Roseboro, Mike Scioscia, and Mike Piazza. Spirit endured where body could not.
Roy Campanella got inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. He died on June 26, 1993.
A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost on August 15, 2013.