Campanella, one of the five black players signed by Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey before the 1946 season, was the first catcher to break organized baseball’s color line. Just 5’9″ but solidly built, he had already proven himself as a catcher during nine years in the Negro National League, the winter leagues, and Mexico. In 12 additional seasons, 10 in the majors, he was one of the era’s outstanding players, and his leadership and indefatigable enthusiasm made him one of the most popular players in the game.
Born in Philadelphia of a black mother and an Italian father, Campanella began his baseball career in 1937 with a hometown semi-pro team, the Bacharach Giants. So impressive was his play that the Baltimore Elite Giants of the Negro National League offered him a uniform that year, though he was only 15 years old. Still in school, he played only on weekends and caught only to spell veteran Biz Mackey. The next year, however, he left school and joined the team full-time. He won the first-string job in 1939 and led the Giants to playoff triumphs over the Newark Eagles and the Homestead Grays. In four games he collected five hits, including one HR, and drove in seven runs.
Campanella soon challenged the aging Josh Gibson as the dominant Negro League catcher. He was voted the MVP in the 1941 East-West all-star game, but after a dispute with Baltimore owner Tom Wilson, he jumped to the Mexican League for part of 1942 and all of 1943. Rejoining the Giants, he led the league in doubles in 1944 and in RBI in 1945.
In October 1945, Campanella caught for a black all-star team in a five-game exhibition series against a squad of white major leaguers managed by Charlie Dressen. Dressen had orders to arrange an appointment for Campanella with the Brooklyn Dodgers, who later signed the catcher for their Nashua, NH, Class-B farm team (Eastern League), a club run by Buzzie Bavasi and managed by Walter Alston. Campanella, who roomed with pitcher Don Newcombe, hit .290, led the league in putouts, assists, and errors, and won the MVP award. In 1947 he advanced to Montreal, the Dodgers’ International League team, and again was named the MVP, despite a season-ending slump that cut his average to .273. Paul Richards, then the Buffalo manager, called him “the best catcher in the business – major or minor leagues.”
Campanella made the Dodgers in 1948, but his promotion to Brooklyn was delayed by Rickey’s plan to have him integrate the American Association. The owner forced manager Leo Durocher to play the catcher in the outfield, where he was not successful, and then sent him to St. Paul (AA) in May. In 35 games, he had 40 hits (half for extra bases) and 39 RBI and batted .325 before being recalled.
Campanella returned to the Dodgers to stay. For the next nine years, he caught for outstanding Brooklyn teams whose members have been lionized as “The Boys of Summer.” They won National League pennants in 1949, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956, narrowly missed two others, and climaxed Brooklyn’s baseball history with its only World Series triumph in 1955. Campanella’s contributions to the Dodgers were remarkable. He won the MVP award three times in five years. In 1953, his best season, he batted .312, and scored 103 runs. Also, his 142 RBI (which led the league) and 41 HR set ML records for catchers (plus one HR as a pinch-hitter). He fielded with grace that belied his physique and handled with distinction a predominantly white pitching staff.
Like those of many catchers, Campanella’s career was punctuated by injuries. In spring training of 1954, he chipped a bone in the heel of his left hand and damaged a nerve. It affected his hitting and limited him to 111 games. Surgery helped in 1955, but the problem returned the next year. Then, in January 1958, Campanella was permanently disabled in an automobile accident. Returning home from his liquor store, which he ran in the off-season, he lost control of his car on an icy street. The car slammed into a telephone pole and flipped over, pinning him behind the steering wheel. The crash fractured his fifth cervical vertebra and damaged his spinal cord. He survived and endured years of therapy, living far beyond the normal span for quadriplegics, but his career was over. He committed himself to decades of work in community relations for the Dodgers.