Branch Rickey and Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella

  • By Jimmy Breslin
  • Viking
  • 160 pp.

Two new books offer a fresh look at events and important figures in the integration of Major League Baseball.

From the 1880s baseball served as the white national pastime and separately became the black national pastime, until Branch Rickey put Organized Baseball on the road to becoming the national pastime. It happened when he signed Jackie Robinson to a Montreal Royals contract on August 28, 1945, just two weeks after the Japanese surrender ended World War II.

Two new books offer a fresh look at the man known as “The Mahatma” and the process of integrating baseball. In Branch Rickey, Jimmy Breslin, in his snappy, straightforward style, offers a comprehensive if brief overview of Rickey’s career. We see Rickey in his college days as a catcher, and his precedent-setting move in inviting the team’s only African-American to share a room with him in a hotel that barred blacks. Rickey had a short major-league career as a catcher, then attended law school at the University of Michigan, where he graduated at the top of the class.

Rickey’s move in creating the first major-league farm system enabled the St. Louis Cardinals to advance from mediocrity to World Series winners. His greatest catch in St. Louis came when he signed Dizzy Dean; his biggest mistake was passing on Yogi Berra. In St. Louis, Rickey pocketed 10 percent of the price of every player whose sale he handled. Ever the businessman, he took both the farm-system practice and the 10 percent arrangement with him to the Dodgers.

There, as the “de Bums” struggled at Ebbets Field in the mid-1940s, Rickey — the master strategist, planner, schemer and visionary — laid the groundwork for the “Great Experiment.” As general manager and part owner of the Dodgers, he gently broached the idea of black players with the team’s brass, and made sure the mayor of New York City, Fiorello LaGuardia, was on his side. He pulled it off by creating a smokescreen in the form of the Brooklyn Brown Dodgers — not, Rickey insisted publicly, a competitor to the Negro leagues, but a team he used to secretly to scout black players for the real Dodgers.

Along the way, we see Rickey dramatizing the role of a bigot to test Robinson’s courage in not fighting back when faced with racial slurs. We meet the scrappy Dodger’s manager Leo Durocher, who gave players who opposed the signing of Robinson an earthy suggestion of what they could do with their petition. We watch as Mississippi-born Red Barber, the voice of the Dodgers, decides — with the help of a martini and Rickey’s gentle entreaties — that he can, after all, call games that include black players. Once Robinson takes the field, Breslin chronicles the abuse Robinson faced from players, managers, fans and the public, and how he and his wife, Rachael, handled it.

Rickey left the Dodgers for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1950, just as the Dodgers, with Rickey’s legacy of African-American players — Robinson, Roy Campanella, Junior Gilliam and Joe Black — propelled the Dodgers to National League pennants and the Brooklyn Dodgers’ only World Championship, in 1955.

Breslin, a superstar New York journalist for better than 40 years, has written a book that veteran fans will identify with, and that new and prospective fans will enjoy.

In contrast to that compact work, Neil Lanctot, in Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella, offers an exhaustively researched and well written account of another catcher, Roy Campanella — Campy to his friends — whom Rickey signed seven months after signing Robinson. Lanctot drew on a huge number of sources, including interviews, news accounts and personal records, to shed light on Campanella’s “two lives.” The first, which makes up the bulk of the book, focuses on Campanella’s baseball career from 1937 to 1957; the second is his 35 years in a wheelchair as a paraplegic, following a car crash.

Campanella (“little bell” in Italian) first felt the sting of racism in elementary school. As the fifth child of an Italian-American father and African-American mother in Nicetown, a neighborhood in North Philadelphia, he heard the taunts “half-breed.” His classmates’ slurs and his resilience in coping with them prepared him for what would come.

His prowess with a bat also drew attention. A school principal, after seeing Roy smash softball after softball over the left-field fence, encouraged the boy to hone his baseball skills with an eye on a college scholarship. Roy never attended college nor finished high school, to his parents’ disappointment (marked by a whipping from his mother). In 1937, the promise of $60 a month to play for the Negro league’s Elite Giants of Washington (later of Baltimore) mollified their disappointment.

For the next eight years he rode rickety buses day and night; played two, three, even sometimes four games in a single day; survived on sandwiches and snacks from the back doors of restaurants; married and fathered two children, whom he saw when he could; played in the Mexican leagues; and, thanks to the tutelage of “Biz” Mackey and Roy’s own gritty, competitive spirit, emerged as the Negro league’s second best catcher, behind the great Josh Gibson.

In October 1945, the 23-year-old turned down Branch Rickey’s contract offer, mistakenly thinking Rickey wanted him for the Brown Dodgers. Learning otherwise, Roy gleefully signed the following spring and, with Don Newcombe from the Negro leagues’ Newark Eagles, also signed by Rickey, went to Nashua, New Hampshire. There the two found support from the fans and teammates, and insults and beanballs from visiting players. But they kept their cool, as Rickey had ordered. After a second year in minor league ball, in Montreal, and a short stint in 1948 at St. Paul, Minnesota, Campanella put on a Dodgers’ uniform for good.

Lanctot treats us to an in-depth look at Campy’s career with the Dodgers; his streaky hitting, solid catching, playing through injuries, controlling his anger and winning the National League’s Most Valuable Player award three times. Lanctot also paints a memorable picture of Campanella the man, revealing his uneven friendship with Robinson, his coaching and peacemaking skills, his humor and colorful storytelling and running of a Harlem liquor store, where he loquaciously held court when not at the cash register.

The final two chapters show Campanella facing the challenges of paralysis — frequent hospital visits, bouts of depression, divorce and remarriage. Adding to his disappointments was a longer-than-expected wait to reach the Hall of Fame.

Lancelot brings to light a man whose life reached the highest highs and the lowest lows, telling well the story of a remarkable ball player whose career has not had the recognition it deserves. It’s an important story told with ease and authority.

Bob Luke is the author of three books, including The Baltimore Elite Giants: Sport and Society in the Age of Negro League Baseball and numerous articles on the history of baseball and the Negro Leagues. He lives in Garrett Park, MD.

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