Monday, October 15, 2012

Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Camapanella, by Neil Lanctot

Homered, flied out, fouled? Our "stylish stout"
so nimble Campanella will have him out.
A-squat in double-headers four hundred times a day,
he says that in a measure the pleasure is the pay:
catcher to pitcher, a nice easy throw
almost as if he'd just told it to go.


-- Marianne Moore, "Hometown Piece for Messrs Alston and Reese"
Roy Campanella was my first baseball hero. I was nine years old, living at Eglin Air Force Base, where my father was stationed, in the northwest panhandle of Florida. Neither of my parents was a sports fan, so I knew little of baseball at the age of five, when we went for a three year stay in England. My formal education began at a county council (what we would call "public") school there, and my first training in sports was in cricket, football (soccer), and rounders, a game that I later found had some similarity to baseball. We returned to the States in 1954, when I was eight, and I had to start re-learning how to be an American kid. I have vague memories of the '54 New York Giants vs. Cleveland Indians Series, the first I ever watched, and in which I had no rooting interest. By '55, though, I had absorbed enough baseball lore to know that the Yankees were the big, bad bullies (and the popular favorite, at least among my schoolmates), while the Dodgers were the scrappy underdogs. This, and the fact that Brooklyn was where I first stepped on U.S. concrete after our return from England, was enough to make me decide to back the Dodgers.

I focused on Campy early in the Series. Being a catcher meant that he was on camera most of the time when the Yanks were at bat. His name made me think he must be Spanish or Italian (I was half right regarding the latter) and the shade of his skin, as it appeared on black-and-white TV, did nothing to contradict that. I soon learned, though, thanks to the TV commentator or one of my schoolmates (the games were all played in the afternoon then, and we were let out of class to watch them in the "cafetorium"), that he was a Negro (the polite word in 1955). That also played to my underdog sympathy. What made me a Campy fan, though, was his effusiveness and enthusiasm, the obvious joy that he took in the game, which was evident even on a grainy TV screen; that, and the big hits he got that helped power the Dodgers to their first World Series victory.

Neil Lanctot's Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Camapanella confirms the image of Campanella as a player who loved the game, both for the sheer pleasure of doing it well and for giving him, a mixed-race kid from a scrappy part of Philadelphia called Nicetown, a route to fame and a degree of financial security (player salaries, even for established stars like Campanella, were comparatively modest in the time before free agency, but he earned enough to start the Harlem liquor store that provided a comfortable income in his later years). Yet the portrait that Lanctot draws is of a complex and in many ways troubled man, even before the car crash that ended his playing career and made him quadriplegic (the "Two Lives" of the subtitle refers to the times before and after the accident). For baseball fans, there's plenty of action in this book, but it's more a personal and social history than a sports story.

The social history is that of the struggle for civil rights and racial equality, which was gathering momentum in the years when Campanella's career was taking off, and in which, as the second player of African heritage to make the Majors--the first having been his Dodger teammate, Jackie Robinson--he was perforce a part. "Perforce" because, as was known at the time and as Lanctot emphasizes, Campanella was not comfortable with the role of a racial advocate. In part, this was because of his focus on his career as a ballplayer, which engendered a don't-rock-the-boat attitude summed up in a statement Campanella may never have made--indeed, Jackie Robinson, to whom he supposedly made it, denied that he did--"It's nice up here. Don't spoil it." Lanctot thinks this probably was a broad paraphrase by the sportswriter Dick Young based on his understanding of a conversation between Campanella and Robinson after Jackie was ejected from a game for arguing with an umpire over a called third strike.

Campanella was no stranger to discrimination and racial hostility, having encountered the full panoply of Jim Crow traveling through the South when he played in the Negro Leagues, and later in Dodger training camp in Florida, as well as hostility from opposing fans and players--including many pitches aimed at his head--and from some teammates. It seems, though, that he believed his only effective response was with his bat and his throwing arm (thanks to early mentoring he learned to be very effective at throwing out runners trying to steal). He did lose control once during a game, when pitcher Lew Burdette of the Milwaukee Braves threw hard at his head twice during an at-bat that ended with Campy striking out swinging. When Campy scowled and headed for the dugout, Burdette shouted "Black nigger bastard!" Campy pivoted and headed toward the mound, bat in hand. He was caught by teammates and disarmed before he could reach Burdette, as the benches cleared. He later claimed he wouldn't have used the bat on Burdette, he just hadn't had time to get rid of it.

Lanctot notes one instance in which Campanella spoke out directly against discrimination. This was in the late 1950s, after the auto accident, when he and his family were staying at the Sheraton West on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, as guests of the Dodger organization. When Campy learned that blacks weren't allowed to use the swimming pool, and after complaints to the management proved futile, he went to Dodger owner Walter O'Malley, who withdrew the Dodgers' business from the hotel. This contrasts with an earlier incident, when Campanella was still a player, involving the Chase Hotel in St. Louis. The Chase had been a whites only hotel until the mid 1950s, when the owners of now-integrated baseball teams, including the Dodgers, convinced its owners to allow black players to stay there when their teams were in town to play the Cardinals. This was allowed under the stipulation that the black players could not use the hotel's public facilities, and would have to take their meals in their rooms. Robinson agreed to accept this arrangement. "Half a loaf, he reasoned," according to Lanctot, "was better than none." Campanella and other black Dodgers, however, chose to stay at the Adams, a black-owned hotel, whose owner courted the players by sending a stretch limousine ("usually with a blonde or two in the back seat", Lanctot quotes Dodger General Manager Buzzy Bavasi as saying) to pick them up, serving them "fat, juicy steaks", and, perhaps most importantly, by putting them in a different venue from the team's white manager and GM, giving them the opportunity to violate pre-game night curfew. This infuriated Robinson, and was a marker in his deteriorating relationship with Campanella.

That relationship, never especially cordial from the start, took a very bad turn when Campanella and some other black major leaguers went on an off-season barnstorming tour organized by Robinson in conjunction with the promoter Lester Dworman. Campanella signed on for a flat $5,000 but felt cheated when the tour drew big crowds and he learned that Robinson was getting a percentage of the gate. He asked to renegotiate his contract, but Robinson and Dworman both refused. After that, the two players barely spoke to each other. Lanctot suggests other reasons for the tension between them. Although Robinson grew up in poverty, he attended a junior college and then UCLA, where he was an athlete in several sports, prominently football and least prominently baseball. After service in the Army, in which he achieved officer rank, and a short time with the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs, he got into the Dodgers' minor league system, speeding his way to become the first African American in the majors. The fact that he had been to college and an Army officer may have made him, in the eyes of Dodger GM Branch Rickey, a better prospect to break the color barrier than someone like Campanella who came from a tough urban neighborhood, never went beyond high school, and had spent years toiling in the Negro Leagues and in Latin American baseball. It's likely that, in Campy's view, Robinson hadn't paid the dues he had, but got the glory of being first. Years after both had retired from baseball, during the height of the 1960s civil rights struggle, Campanella and Robinson publicly reconciled.

Another troubled aspect of Campanella's life was his relationships with women. He was married three times. The first, to his teenage sweetheart, Bernice Ray, was occasioned by her becoming pregnant, and was probably doomed from the start because of his grueling year-round schedule of playing in the Negro Leagues in the summer and in Caribbean or Latin American ball in winter. After six years and two daughters, they separated for good in 1944. Campy met his second wife, Ruthe Willis, while still married to Bernice, After the separation, he and Ruthe, who had a son, David, by a previous marriage, became inseparable. They didn't marry until several years later, but, as Lanctot notes, Campanella presented Ruthe as his wife and David as his natural son before they were married, and after he became a Dodger, sportswriters relying on his account wrote that he and Ruthe had married in 1939, omitting any mention of Bernice and Campy's two daughters, Joyce and Beverly. This exemplifies something Lanctot makes a minor theme: Campanella's occasional stretching or airbrushing of the truth. It's easy to speculate that he believed his unwanted role as a racial standard bearer made this necessary.

His marriage to Ruthe lasted the duration of his Major League career, and produced three children: two sons, Roy Jr. and Tony, and a daughter, named Ruthe like her mother and called "Princess." The marriage lasted some time after the January, 1958 car accident that made Campanella a quadriplegic. Ruthe found out that the accident was occasioned by a wee hours tryst with another woman, which left a tired Campy to drive home on icy roads.  Despite this, they stayed married until 1963, although by Ruthe's and her friends' accounts much of the time after the accident he treated her atrociously. By the time of their divorce, Campy had a new woman in his life, Roxie Doles, who would become his third wife and remain with him until his death in 1993.

In the years after the accident, Campy managed to keep a positive public image. He got a daily five minute sports interview program, Campy's Corner, on WINS radio. His largely ghostwritten autobiography, It's Good to be Alive!, was published in September, 1959, received glowing reviews from the Herald Tribune critic Harold Kupferberg and from poet and Dodger fanatic Marianne Moore. He maintained good relations with the Dodger organization, although a hoped for job as a manager never materialized. Most gratifyingly for him, he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969.

For me, for the most part, Roy Campanella will always be what's engraved on my childhood memory: the "stylish stout" catcher with the accurate arm, powerful bat, and ready smile. From Lanctot's book, I know that behind that smile there was a deep sense of insecurity, exemplified by his need to dissemble about aspects of his life he considered embarrassing or inconvenient, and his reticence about speaking out on civil rights. Much of this might be ascribed to being born to a poor family, to being part of a minority subject to pervasive and humiliating discrimination, and to having his teenage years fall during the Great Depression. These were also the parameters of Jackie Robinson's early life, and he became a very different sort of person. Perhaps Campy's mixed racial heritage added to his difficulties. No doubt other factors, including Robinson's having been the beneficiary of some lucky breaks, contributed to  the difference. Ironically, a later generation of activists would have applauded Campy's choice of a black-owned hotel and condemned Robinson as an "Uncle Tom" for being willing to accept "half a loaf" from a white-owned one.

Like all childhood heroes, Campy proved to be human. For that, I guess, I'm glad.

Addendum: Oh, yes. Almost forgot to mention. One of Campy's last services to the Dodger organization was to help train a promising young catcher named Mike Piazza.

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