Sports fans will always remember Jackie Robinson as the first baseball player to break the color barrier, but Roy Campanella was not far behind.
In fact, the Brooklyn Dodgers considered making Campanella the first black player to play in the Major Leagues. As one of the best catchers of his time, the eight-time All-Star was certainly talented enough to play in the Majors. Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey considered Campanella before choosing Robinson.
Robinson’s debut came in 1947. Campanella played his first MLB game in 1948.
It was a high point of an already successful career that began in the Negro leagues in 1937 when he was 16 years old. Campanella dropped out of high school to join the Washington Elite Giants and became one of the team’s best players as a 17-year-old.
He played for the Monterrey Sultans in the Mexican League after that and eventually joined the Dodgers’ minor league system in 1946.
The Dodgers were already in the process of preparing to break the color barrier, and Campanella’s easy-going personality and strong work ethic were reasons why they considered him along with Robinson.
Before Campanella made it to the Majors, though, he hopped around various teams in the Dodgers’ system. While he played for the Danville Dodgers, the general manager said he didn’t think the league was ready for racial integration, so Campanella was sent to the Nashua Dodgers in the New England League along with fellow black player Don Newcombe.
Campanella, who was nicknamed “Campy,” was so highly thought of within the organization that he was chosen to assume managerial duties after the team’s manager was ejected in the middle of a game in 1946. The Dodgers won the game in comeback fashion after Campanella chose Newcombe to pinch hit in the seventh inning and Newcombe hit a two-run home run that tied the game.
It didn’t take long for Campanella to endear himself to fans at the Major League level either. He was picked for the All-Star Game in his second season in 1949 and for the next seven seasons after that.
He won the National League MVP award in 1951, 1953 and 1955. In those seasons, he had a batting average of at least .300, hit at least 30 home runs and drove in at least 100 runs. He set a franchise record with 142 RBIs during the 1953 season.
Campanella’s third MVP award came in the same season the Dodgers won their first World Series title. He had one of the big hits in the series when he socked a two-run home run in the first inning of Game 3, with the Dodgers down in the series 2-0.
Campanella was still going strong through the 1957 season, but he never played again following a tragic off-season car accident. The car he was driving hit a patch of ice, and slammed into a telephone pole. Campanella suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down.
He eventually regained the use of his arms and hands, but he had to use a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Because he was so loved by the Dodgers, he remained involved with the organization. He took on a role as assistant supervisor of scouting and served as a coach and mentor to young catchers during Spring Training.
In 1959, the Dodgers hosted an exhibition game against the New York Yankees in their new home in Los Angeles and honored their former catcher with Roy Campanella Night. The game drew 93,103 fans, setting a record for the largest crowd to attend an MLB game.
In 1969, Campanella was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, becoming the second black player to be honored. Again, he followed Jackie Robinson.