Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Campanella's wisdom was without boundaries

Historic tribute creates lasting bond with Hall of Fame catcher on West Coast

The 2015 Civil Rights Game between the Mariners and Dodgers will be played at Dodger Stadium on Jackie Robinson Day, Wednesday, at 10:10 p.m. ET.

LOS ANGELES -- For a 10-year-old kid full of wonder, the numbers carried some sort of magic: 93,103. The child grew into a man, countless combinations of numbers running through his head. He might not remember his own phone number 56 years later, but 93,103 remains etched indelibly in his brain.

The boy and his father were in attendance at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum that unforgettable May 7, 1959, night, when the citizens opened their hearts to a legendary ballplayer who'd been tragically struck down. "Roy Campanella Night" was unlike any other in the city's rich history.

Already rabid fans of a Dodgers team that had departed Brooklyn a year earlier and moved into the stadium colossus built for the Olympics and football, the father and son took their seats in the very top row of the Coliseum. What the largest crowd in baseball history at the time experienced was a moving demonstration of love for a wheelchair-bound catcher who would never wear a Los Angeles Dodgers uniform.

:: Jackie Robinson Day | Civil Rights Game ::

The social implications were profound. It was a predominantly white crowd that had come to honor the son of an Italian father and African-American mother -- a man who, with grace and good humor, had followed Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby with pal Don Newcombe in integrating the sport.

There were reports that police turned away more than 15,000 other citizens wanting to be part of the exhibition, which raised an estimated $75,000 -- a lot of money in 1959 -- to assist Campanella with his medical bills.

The highest salary Campanella, a three-time National League Most Valuable Player Award winner, was awarded in a season in Brooklyn was $42,000.

About 15 months earlier, on Jan. 28, 1958, Campanella had been paralyzed in an auto accident on an icy road in Long Island, N.Y. Now here he was, at the other end of the continent, in front of all these people who knew him only by reputation.

Pee Wee Reese, the Dodgers' captain, maneuvered Campy onto the diamond for the ceremony as the stadium lights were shut off and fans lit matches or ignited lighters. It was a stunning, unforgettable scene.

Video: Dodgers Retired Number: No. 39, Roy Campanella

"This is something I'll never forget," Campy said over the public-address system. "I thank God I'm here living to be able to see it. It's a wonderful thing."

That 10-year-old child who witnessed the event with eyes wide and mouth agape was moved in part by the power of this night to pursue a career as a sportswriter, blessed to meet so many of his boyhood heroes.

Late in a remarkable life that ended at 71 in 1993, Campanella would camp himself in the right-field corner at Holman Stadium in Vero Beach, Fla., near the tiny visitors' clubhouse. Usually alone with his thoughts, he would watch his beloved Dodgers play Spring Training games.

Not about to miss such an opportunity, a young Dodgers beat writer would come stand at his side, soaking up the man's wisdom about the game and life, not necessarily in that order.

"Appreciate every day," Campy said one bright afternoon, his eyes not missing a movement on the field as he spoke. "Get everything you can out of every day and don't take anything for granted -- especially your family."

How great a player was Campanella in his Brooklyn prime? Ty Cobb, his racial views well known, once said Campanella would be remembered longer than any other catcher. The forecast came before Campy was forced to cope with his paralysis and a premature end to a Hall of Fame career.

Campy's background with the Negro Leagues fascinated the kid reporter, who learned details of the less familiar stars from that era along with Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and the other legends.

Campanella would talk about the stunning speed of Sam Jethroe -- "faster than Willie Davis, if you can believe it" -- and of the raw power of Luke Easter, who "hit balls so far they would disappear."

In reflection, most moving was how Campanella, always smiling even as his solitude was being interrupted, willingly accommodated and educated a young journalist with a desire to know everything.

"One thing you have to understand," Campy said one day, "is that the catcher is the most important guy on the field. He controls everything. Don't ever underestimate the importance of that guy with the mask and pads. He calls the pitches and keeps everyone in place."

The reporter dutifully carried the message, like a baton, through more than four decades of covering the game.

When critical fans years later would ridicule a certain sportswriter for defending and praising Jeff Mathis, a skilled Angels catcher struggling to hit his weight, there was no need to mention the weight of the teachings of Roy Campanella.

Long ago from the master himself, the kid had learned that doing the right thing, whether it was popular or not, should be enough of a reward.

Lyle Spencer is a national reporter and columnist for Follow him on Twitter @LyleMSpencer.
Read More: Los Angeles Dodgers