Roy Campanella

Baseball great Roy Campanella grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When he started his own family, they first lived in Queens, New York, and later bought a home in Glen Cove on Long Island. He bestowed on Westchester a great compliment in the early 1960s when he and his third wife, Roxie, chose Greenburgh as their home. The couple felt it offered an opportunity for the family's five teenagers to attend the fully integrated Greenburgh District 8 (now District 7) schools, and they bought a home on Fair Street in the Juniper Hill section. Ultimately, the Campanellas spent 15 years in Westchester, and "Campy," as he was known, was an active and important member of the community.

Roy Campanella

Roy Campanella of the Brooklyn Dodgers in his catchers' equipment.

Campanella attributed his comfort with moving into the all-white world of Major League Baseball in the late 1940s to the fact that he had attended integrated schools in Philadelphia. In an interview with Elaine Klein for the Gannett Newspapers on November 5, 1966, Campanella is quoted as saying, "One of my greatest assets when I went to play for the Dodgers was the fact that I didn't feel out of place with anyone."

Early Life in Baseball

Campanella was the last of four children born to an African American mother and an Italian father, who sold vegetables for a living. Roy worked from boyhood on, first delivering newspapers, then graduating to a milk route at a time when delivery trucks were still drawn by horses. When he finished his milk route about 5 a.m., he was expected to help load his father's truck for the day with the vegetables that were stored overnight in the family cellar.

At an early age, Campanella excelled at several sports, but baseball was his great love. He was often included in pick-up games with boys several years older than he was. By the time he was 13, the Nicetown (a neighborhood in north Philadelphia where Campanella lived) Giants, an adult team, had observed young Roy's talent and asked him to suit up with them.

When he was 15, Campanella's family was approached by the manager of the Bacharach Giants (Brooklyn). The adult baseball team made a deal with Roy's family for Roy to join them (for pay) for weekend games. One of those trips took him to Westchester County for the first time when the team played there.

During this period he was spotted by the Baltimore Elite Giants, a team that was part of the Negro National League. When Campanella was 16 he got his working papers and dropped out of school to play full-time for the Elites. His salary was sent home to his family, and he received pocket money for his own day-to-day expenses. His expenses were minimal, however, since the team was fed on the road and usually slept on the bus, traveling from game to game.

For 10 years, Roy Campanella excelled as a catcher in the Negro league. Because the color line seemed so impenetrable, Campanella wasted little energy bemoaning the fact that non-whites were barred from the major leagues. While the color barrier in non-team sports had been broken before World War II by athletes like Joe Louis in boxing and Jesse Owens in track and field, team sports remained segregated. Major league team managers had their eyes on talented men like Josh Gibson (the Babe Ruth of Negro baseball), Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella, but the owners balked when asked to sign these players to a team. However, in 1945 a change in baseball commissioners created an opportunity to remove the color barrier in baseball.

Paul Robeson, who achieved acclaim as a singer and actor and used his fame to agitate for civil rights, had talked to Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1866-1944) while he was Commissioner of Baseball. While Landis paid lip service to the idea of change, he subtly let it be known that owners should not bring any Negroes into the major leagues. When Landis died in 1945, he was replaced by Albert "Happy" Chandler (1898-1991), a former governor and U.S. senator from Kentucky.

Chandler let it be known immediately after taking over as commissioner that he believed in the Four Freedoms, and "…if a black boy can make it in Okinawa and go to Guadalcanal, he can make it in baseball." Four months later, Branch Rickey, a former player who became president and general manager of the Dodger organization in 1942, signed Jackie Robinson to play for the Montreal Royals, the Dodgers' International League affiliate. Then in 1947, Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers where he became the first African American to play on a Major League Baseball team. While Robinson met resistance from opposing teams, he still managed to improve the record of the Dodgers, and this opened the door for others.

Within a few months, Roy Campanella was also offered a feeder route to the Dodgers. He was sent to the Class B team in Nashua, NH, and by 1949 the Dodgers were ready to add him to their team lineup. Campanella had excelled in the Negro National League and became a legend in his own right, and soon he established a similar track record with the Dodgers. He played in five World Series and was selected as the National League's Most Valuable Player in 1951, '53, and '55. Seven times he was selected for their All Star team, and in 1969 he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Campanella had long realized that athletic careers did not last forever, so he had his own business—a Harlem-based liquor store. In addition, he spent a great deal of his time visiting local schools to inspire young people.

Roy Campanella's Hall of Fame Plaque

Roy Campanella's plaque at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

The Accident

On January 28, 1958, he had driven his own car to the liquor store but left it for service at a dealer, who gave him a loaner until the next day. The evening was snowy, and after he locked up, Campanella drove home on roads that were not well cleared. He hit an icy patch and lost control of the car, slamming into a telephone pole. Campanella slid forward and was pinned under the dashboard, unable to move.

The crash had startled people awake so police officers were there quickly, but it was difficult to remove Campanella from the car. By the time he reached the hospital the situation was grave. Campanella had broken his neck and was paralyzed from the shoulder blades down, and for several months, his recovery was uncertain.

After a long hospitalization, he was taken to the Rusk Institute for rehabilitation. Ultimately he regained some use of his arms and could power himself around in an electric wheelchair. Though he never returned to baseball as a player, the Dodger system found ways to use him as a coach and a scout, and relied on his advice in team management matters for the remainder of his life.

In Westchester

Campanella was known around Westchester for what he was referred to by some team mates: the Good Humor Man. His autobiography, written several years after the accident, was titled, It's Good To Be Alive, which totally summed up his approach to life both before and after the accident.

After the family's move to Greenburgh in 1964, Campanella was involved in all types of activities in the community. He advocated for better housing for African Americans, held meetings at his home to encourage more participation by African Americans in the political process, and campaigned for a community center to be built in the Fairview section of town, which was predominantly African American. He also made numerous appearances on behalf of baseball and to inspire area young people. In recognition of his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969, Westchester designated February 11, 1969, as Roy Campanella Day, and Campanella used the resulting publicity to establish a foundation to help finance the community center that he had proposed.

The year 1972 began well as Campanella and Greenburgh looked forward to the opening of the community center, but it was a difficult year for Campanella from a health standpoint. In March he was hospitalized in Grasslands Hospital (now the Westchester Medical Center) for a pulmonary embolism and released about a month later on April 26. About two months later Campanella was at the hospital for a physical when he suffered a major problem with his breathing tube. This placed him in intensive care for a few days.

Roy Campanella's Westchester House

Roy Campanella's house in Greenburgh as it looks today. Photograph by Patrick Raftery.

In 1979 Campanella accepted an offer to go to California to help his beloved Dodgers—now the Los Angeles Dodgers. The family's rambling red brick house was sold to become a group home for the disabled. Since the house was specifically outfitted for Campanella's wheel chair, it was a perfect home for those who faced physical and/or emotional challenges.

In 1993 Campanella died at his home in California. His obituary remembered him as "perhaps the greatest all-around catcher to play the game of baseball." Westchester remembers him as a good citizen who worked to make his community a better place in which to live.