While many famous baseball players have an easy ride of getting into the professional sport, often starting at high school and then making a swift transitional into the professional leagues; others have a far more interesting story. That is certainly the case for Roy Campanella. He was a professional player who spent the whole of his big-league career with the Dodgers, but the road to getting there was an unusual story.
Although he began his baseball career in 1937, at the age of 15, and showed huge talent, his major-league debut was delayed until he was 26 due to the color of his skin. It wasn’t until 1945 that his career really began to take off while he was playing for a black all-star team. When he played in a match against major league players that was organized by Dodgers coach Charlie Dressen, the coach approached Campanella to arrange a meeting with the Dodgers’ manager.
Campanella declined an offer from Branch Rickey to play for the Brooklyn organization as he assumed it was for a new league being created for black players. However, when he realized that he was offering him a career in Organized Baseball, he retracted what he had said and accepted the offer.
It was in 1946 that the story of his career became even more interesting. Campanella had taken a steep pay cut in order to cross the color line into Organized Baseball and his team was not quite sure what to do with him. Despite his low pay, he was a talented player who was liked and respected by his team.
The events of 1946 also changed his parents’ future. The New England fences were virtually impossible to reach. For this reason, a poultry farmer who lived locally offered a reward to players. He said he would give 100 chicks for every single home run achieved by Nashua. Campanella excelled at this and achieved 14 homers. His reward from the farmer was 1,400 chicks. Rather than keeping the chicks himself, he gave them to his father. His father then used these to start his own poultry farm close to Philadelphia. Campanella went on to join the Dodgers in 1948.
Despite being one of baseball’s most successful black players of all-time, Campanella only enjoyed ten seasons as a major-league player. This was in part because of his late debut as a result of race issues and also because of a terrible accident.
Between seasons, Campanella operated a liquor store in Harlem. On January 28, 1958, he closed up the store and set off for his home in Glen Cove, New York. He hit a patch of ice and lost control of the car, crashing into a telephone pole. He suffered two fractures to his spine that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down. Although physical therapy helped him to regain some movement in his hands, he was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and never played baseball again. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969.
Ray Campanella sadly died from heart failure on June 26, 1993, at the age of 71. He died at his home in Woodland Hills, California.