Baseball Books Reviewed: Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella

Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella by Neil Lanctot. (Simon & Schuster, 528 pg., $28). HB, 2011.

Here's an ethnic baseball trivia question: Name the eight Italian Americans who have hit 40 or more home runs in a major league season?

A couple of names come readily to mind; Joe DiMaggio and Rocky Colavito from the distant past, and more recently Mike Piazza and Jason Giambi. Rounding out the list are Jim Gentile, Rico Petrocelli, Ken Caminitti and perhaps the trick part of the question Roy Campanella.

Neil Lanctot's recent biography Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella, would seem to refer to the great catcher's life before and after an automobile accident left him a paraplegic, ending his baseball playing career in 1958, 10 years after he became one of the breakthrough group of African American major leaguers with the Brooklyn Dodgers. However, the book's title may also convey two additional double entendres: one concerning his dual ethnicity as an African-American and Italian-American, and another perhaps his two baseball careers as a veteran of both the Negro and Major professional leagues. In any event, themes of duality are consistently revisited throughout this well-balanced assessment of Campanella's complex life.

In a brief prologue we are introduced to Campanella not as a ballplayer but as a disabled human being battling to retain his dignity. For many baseball fans, especially those of us too young to have seen him play, our lasting image of Campy is in a wheel chair, perhaps being rolled out on the field to join former Brooklyn Dodgers for another old-timers day.

Lanctot's biography, published nearly 20 years after Campanella's death and more than 50 years after the end of his playing career, seeks to animate the early part of his life and playing days and cast his image in a more vibrant light, than as a tragic accident victim.

Heavily annotated--the notes citations and index account for 79 of the books 516 pages--sources cited in the books' first chapter include Campanella's autobiography It's Good to be Alive, as well as numerous period newspapers, magazines, and interviews with distant relatives and old gym teachers. Of course Campy, who died in 1993, was not available to clear up any inconsistencies which add another element of duality to his story: the historical record of his own contradictory quotations. Like many of the pioneering black major leaguers, Campanella often had to hold his tongue about the indignities he had to endure to succeed in the pre-Civil Rights-era major leagues, or pick and choose appropriate times and places to voice any displeasure with the system.

Born to an Italian-American father and African- American mother in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1921, Roy was confused about his racial identity as a child, but it didn't take long for him to understand a sentiment expressed by Booker T. Washington, in a quote Lanctot gleaned from a 1905 edition of the New York Times: "It takes 100 percent of white blood to make a white man and only a drop of Negro blood to make a Negro," wrote Washington. Consequently Campy came to identify himself as black first and although by the time he was nine years old he had become completely enamored with baseball, he had almost no knowledge of the Negro Leagues whose ranks he would join soon.

By the time Campy was 15 he was being paid $60 a-month to play for the Washington Elite Giants under the tutelage of future Hall of Fame catcher Biz Mackey. Campy's time in the Negro League is given a lengthy treatment, accounting for seven chapters and nearly 100 pages. The dynamics of the Negro League are discussed in depth, and Lanctot makes an apt observation concerning Campy's early arrival: "Roy was too young to fit in with the drinkers or the skirt chasers and too poor to do much gambling either. At times on the trip he might have felt he had more in common with the batboy than his teammates."

After spending eight years in the Negro leagues, parts of two seasons in Mexico and four winter campaigns in Puerto Rico, Campy proved himself worthy to be among the first black players to integrate the major leagues. Campy's signing a preliminary agreement with the Brooklyn Dodgers just two days after Jackie Robinson signed his contract with the team led the pair of pioneers to later debate over who signed first, despite the fact that Robinson entered the major leagues a full year ahead of Campanella. The relationship between Robinson and Campanella is deeply explored and presents a much more complex story than what has been reported in the past and provides perhaps the books most revelatory and interesting information. While Campy is not quite a dual biography, once Robisnon is introduced to the story, he remains a prominent presence to the books' end. Friends and roommates early on in their careers, the two quickly became almost bitter rivals at first over their perceived attitudes regarding the racially discriminatory treatment each received both on and off the field. After agreeing with Branch Rickey to hold his tongue for his first two seasons with Dodgers, in 1949 Robinson was free to let loose his opinions on racism and racial baiting by opposing players and umpires as well as members of the media. Lanctot reports that "Campy was uneasy about Jackie's new behavior. With only four blacks in the major leagues, a single mishap could conceivably set back the entire movement. ‘It may have taken ten years to go ahead but you can fall all the way back in one,' he once insisted…Roy expressed his concern to Jackie saying, ‘it's nice up here. Don't spoil it.' "

Robinson later insisted the whole story was a fabrication of the press accusing N.Y. Daily News reporter Dick Young with its creation. The quote began to appear in numerous publications, cited frequently as a means of explaining the differences in Robinson's and Campanella's temperaments, writes Lanctot: "Jackie, according to the papers, was the aggressive hothead, always ‘popping off'. Campy, meanwhile, was passive, grateful to be in the major leagues." The relationship between Robinson and Campanella and the roles by which they were defined served as yet another example of Campy's seemingly dual identities.

First, the book offers an accounting of spring training restaurant segregation, in which Dodgers secretary Harold Parrott told of Campy agreeing to eat a meal on the bus while "pleading" with a "seething" Robinson to do the same, to "avoid a scene." Lanctot contrasts this with Campanella saying years later in 1964: "I spoke up the first time I rode in a Dodger Bus and couldn't go in a restaurant in West Palm Beach." Lanctot asks: "Which is the real Campy: the Uncle Tom or the freedom fighter? …he was not comfortable disclosing to anyone how much segregation bothered him. Grin and bear it, don't whine. That was Campy's credo."

Yet another split personality portrayal is exemplified in Campanella's life as a family man. Campy's first wife, Bernice is introduced as a teenage love interest at the bottom of page 54 and revealed to be pregnant in the same paragraph. He is 17 and she is 16 when they agree to be married in the following paragraph. The insinuation of Roy's extramarital affairs is explained as part of life on the road for Roy during his first few seasons in the Negro Leagues. The couple and their infant child live together in Roy's parents' house but with a hint of foreshadowing 14 pages later Lanctot writes, "With everyone under the same roof and Roy spending more time with Bernice, the marriage appeared to be at its most stable." Bernice appears again only to say goodbye to Roy on his way to Mexico for the winter league season of 1942 and the brief marriage is summarily dismissed as Campy begins to introduce another long-time love interest Ruthe as his second wife, three years before the couple would actually become married. After his second marriage he also became estranged from the two daughters he had with his first wife. Lanctot addresses Roy's continual infidelity as another secret part of Campy's life which is revisited in poignant fashion on the night of his fateful accident.

If The Two Lives of Roy Campanella is indeed a reference to his playing and post-playing days, or his life before and after his tragic accident, the first life receives a much lengthier treatment as his second life is covered in just three of the books 20 chapters.

But perhaps the subtitle is meant to imply something more. Lanctot's probing biography illuminates the multiple lives of a complicated man who stepped back and forth over physical and moral boundaries constantly trying to reconcile the duality of his life.

Reviewed by: Charlie Vascellaro (September 26, 2011)