Baltimore Sports History: Roy Campanella

February 15th, 2024 by The Professor

by Andrew Ciofalo, host of After The Whistle

In celebration of Black History Month this year, I’d like to look back at the history of Negro League Baseball in Baltimore and some of the stars that helped break the color barrier to the MLB alongside of Jackie Robinson.

Many people may have heard the name Roy Campanella, after all he is a 3-time league MVP and Hall of Famer. But Campanella, much like many African American players, had to fight to even be in Major League Baseball.

The story of Roy Campanella starts 10 years before baseball’s color barrier was broken. Campanella was 15 when he got his first shot to play professional baseball. He played weekend games with the Washington Elite Giants while he was still in high school. Though, as soon as he turned 16, he dropped out of high school to chase his dream of playing professional baseball.

The following year, the Elite Giants were moved from Washington to Baltimore. With his new focus in baseball, Campanella would earn more playing time as he got older. It took till his 4th year to become the majority starting catcher for the team. He was just 18 at the time. Steadily improving as his playing time increased, Campanella earned the honor of making the All-Star team as a 19-year-old. He would gain the attention of Major League owners and managers as he made two more All-Star games in his final 2 seasons of Negro League Baseball in 1944 and 1945.

It is well known that Jackie Robinson would become the player to break Baseball’s color barrier. What many people don’t know is that Roy Campanella was the original choice. In 1946, the Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey took a chance and signed Robinson and Campanella to Minor League deals. Ultimately, Robinson was chosen by Rickey and became the first African American to play Major League Baseball in 1947. Campanella made his debut in the 1948 season.

The first few months at the Dodgers were spent mostly on the bench before getting sent down to the Dodgers AAA Minor League team. His stint was short however, he rejoined the Dodgers in July of 1948 and remained on the team till 1957. He quickly became the everyday catcher for the club, beating out Bruce Edwards who had been the teams’ catcher for the previous 2 seasons.

Roy Campanella appeared in 8 MLB All-Star Games from 1949 to 1956 as well as winning National League MVP 3 times. His MVP season in 1955 helped propel the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the World Series over the New York Yankees. His playing career was cut short after he was paralyzed in a car accident in 1958 that left him with a broken neck. He would rehab and regain movement in his upper body but required a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Today, Campanella is widely regarded as one of the greatest catchers to play the game. Along with his 11 All-Star Games, 3 MVP awards and World Series ring, he was enshrined into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. An illustrious career that was started right here in Baltimore.

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