The Dodgers of 1958: Roy Campanella
Record crowd turned out to honor legendary catcher
Roy Campanella's debut in front of Los Angeles fans was May 7, 1959, when a record crowd of 93,103 packed the Coliseum to pay tribute to the catcher paralyzed a year earlier in an auto accident. The most vivid image came when former teammate Pee Wee Reese pushed the wheelchair of the three-time National League Most Valuable Player toward the pitcher's mound as the stadium lights were dimmed.
Patrons struck matches in silent prayer and Campanella later called the night his most memorable in baseball as Southern California fans saluted someone most had never seen perform in person. Gate receipts from the exhibition game with the New York Yankees would help defray Campanella's medical bills.
"I had no idea in the world there could be that many sparkles in the dark, and it was beautiful," Campanella told broadcaster Vin Scully after the game. "It's something you'll always remember. I thank God that I was able to be living and be here to see it myself."
Although he never played on the West Coast, Campanella still took part in the early festivities associated with the Dodgers' move to Los Angeles following the 1957 season.
In November 1957, Campanella attended a "Welcome to Los Angeles" luncheon along with teammates Reese, Duke Snider and Gil Hodges. He returned in January to resume house hunting for his family, along with signing his 1958 contract with the Dodgers. Campanella appeared on a television special honoring actress Ethel Barrymore. He presented a season pass for Dodgers home games to Barrymore and an autographed ball signed by the Dodgers team to her nephew.
Just a few months earlier, Campanella never anticipated the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn, even when a stalemate between team president Walter O'Malley and New York City officials over land for a proposed new ballpark meant the beloved "Bums" might be moving elsewhere.
During Spring Training in 1957, Los Angeles politicians descended on the team's Vero Beach training camp when it became apparent the Dodgers might move to the West Coast. In his autobiography, "It's Good to Be Alive," Campanella recalled posing for a photo with Los Angeles mayor Norris Poulson.
"The photographers rigged up a Dodgers cap with the letters LA on it and asked me to pose with the Los Angeles mayor, Norris Poulson, wearing the cap," he wrote. "I went along with it, but to me it was a big joke. The Dodgers leave Ebbets Field? Maybe. But the Dodgers leave Brooklyn? Never.
"After we shook hands, Mayor Poulson put one arm around me and said: 'Campy, next year you'll no longer be a Brooklyn Bum; you'll be a Los Angeles Bum.' "
Campanella grinned and said, "That'll sure be the day."
Campanella batted just .242 with 13 home runs in 103 games with the Dodgers in 1957. Bone chips and other injuries to Campanella's hands caused pain and numbness. He was going to be 36 years old in 1958 and likely would have shared time in Los Angeles with rookie catcher John Roseboro.
On January 28, 1958, Campanella was traveling home to Long Island from work in Harlem, N.Y., when his rented automobile slipped on the ice road and crashed into a light pole. The accident left him paralyzed from the chest down, although he did have some use of his arms and hands after extensive physical therapy.
When the Dodgers staged a banquet the night before their April 18, 1958 home opener, Campanella wished his teammates well in a telephone call on a speakerphone from his New York hospital room. It was the first time many had heard Campanella's voice since the accident. Some of his first visitors to the hospital that summer were O'Malley, who promised he would always be on the Dodgers payroll; broadcaster Red Barber; and then-Pirates president Branch Rickey, the former Dodgers executive who integrated the Brooklyn organization by signing infielder Jackie Robinson, pitcher Don Newcombe and Campanella to Minor League contracts prior to the 1946 season.
Campanella rejoined the Dodgers during Spring Training in 1959, welcomed by a surprise airport reception of players, coaches and team officials. But Campanella didn't want to become a ceremonial instructor at Dodgertown. He knew the players were focused on goals in training camp and he wanted to help rather than showing up and "being patted on the head."
Roseboro, sharing the job with Joe Pignatano and Rube Walker, batted .271 in 114 games during the team's seventh-place campaign in 1958. Campanella wanted to make sure the new Dodgers catcher understood what it meant to handle a staff, including going to lunch with pitchers and learning more about their individual personalities.
"Naturally, I couldn't 'show' Roseboro little things about catching, like blocking low pitches, but I could 'tell' him," Campanella wrote. "But the main thing was to build his confidence in his own ability to do the job that Roseboro really inherited from me. Thinking back, it's very possible my usefulness to the Dodgers in '58 would have been very limited. Because I'd reached a stage where my hands were broken up so bad that they weren't going to bounce back much any more. And without his hands, a catcher is almost as bad off as a boxer with damaged hands. ... Roseboro might have taken over the bigger portion of the '58 season anyway, but he had to, at least he knew I'd have been there and working with him in his corner. At it was, however, he was sort of thrown into the job."
Roseboro stayed with the Dodgers through the 1967 season. He won two Gold Glove Awards and anchored championship teams in 1959, 1963 and 1965.
Campanella was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969 and was among the first three Dodgers in history to have their uniform number retired when Campanella (39), Sandy Koufax (32) and Jackie Robinson (42) were honored on Old-timers Day 1972 at Dodger Stadium.
Campanella continued to serve as a catching instructor for the Dodgers in Vero Beach, mentoring such rookies as Steve Yeager, Mike Scioscia and Mike Piazza. He moved to Los Angeles in 1978 to assist Newcombe in the team's community relations department. Campanella passed away at age 71 in 1993, having outlived his original doctors from the auto accident.
Mark Langill is the team historian of the Los Angeles Dodgers. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.