Roy Campanella was an African American baseball player who helped break the color barrier in Major League Baseball (MLB), becoming the first African American catcher in MLB when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Campanella, nicknamed “Campy,” was born on November 19, 1921 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to John Campanella, an Italian American father, and Ida Campanella, his African American mother. Because he was racially classified as black he was forced to play in the Negro Leagues until 1947.
Campanella started his baseball playing career with a semi-pro team in 1937, named the Bacharach Giants. He dropped out of school when he was 16 years old when he was offered a contract in the Negro National League with the Baltimore Elite Giants. In the years 1942-1943, he played for the Monterrey Sultans in the Mexican League following a dispute with the Baltimore Elite Giants’ manager.
In 1945, Brooklyn Dodgers manager Charlie Dressen saw Campanella playing as a catcher for an African American all-star team. He signed Campanella, giving him a spot with the Brooklyn Dodgers farm club, the AAA Nashua (New Hampshire) Dodgers. The Nashua Dodgers became the first AAA integrated professional baseball team when they signed Campanella.
Campanella played his first major league baseball game on April 20, 1948 with the Brooklyn Dodgers, following Jackie Robinson who broke baseball’s color barrier with the same team one year earlier. He played 10 seasons with the Dodgers (1948-1957), and was selected eight times to the MLB all-star game (1949-1956). He also won the National League MVP award three times (1951, 1953, and1955) and was the catcher for the Dodgers when they won the 1955 World Series.
On January 28, 1958, Campanella’s baseball playing career came to an unexpected end when his car hit a patch of ice, flipped over, and hit a telephone pole in his home town of Glen Cove, New York. Campanella broke his neck, fractured his fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae, and compressed his spinal cord, injuries that paralyzed him from his shoulders down. After the car accident, Campanella retired from baseball, but stayed in the Dodgers organization as a scout, coach, and director of community relations.
Campanella was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969, making him the second African American baseball player to receive this prestigious honor. On June 4, 1972, Campanella’s number 39 jersey was retired by the Dodgers, alongside Jackie Robinson and Sandy Koufax. Roy Campanella died on June 26, 1993 in Woodland Hills, California of a heart attack.