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Book review: 'Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella'

Human InterestLos Angeles DodgersArts and CultureCollege BaseballBiography (genre)LiteratureRoy Campanella

Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella

Neil Lanctot

Simon & Schuster: 516 pp., $28

He was a three-time National League most valuable player, an eight-time All-Star, and played in five World Series, but Roy Campanella was something else when the Dodgers began playing in Los Angeles in 1958. He was a quadriplegic, his body broken in a tragic automobile accident after the 1957 season.

Few Dodgers fans in Los Angeles ever had a chance to fully appreciate the Hall of Fame catcher in action, but Neil Lanctot's rich new biography, "Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella," should change that.

As Lanctot thoroughly documents, Campanella was revered for his good-natured demeanor, strong leadership on the field and clutch hitting on the great Brooklyn Dodgers teams of the 1950s. His fire-hydrant physique (think later Dodgers star Ron Cey in shin guards) and high-pitched voice made him a unique and lovable character in what was a golden era of the national pastime.

Lanctot (pronounced Lank-toe), an adjunct history professor at the University of Delaware, is an even-handed biographer. He delves deeply into the downsides of professional athletics in the 1950s — bigotry, restrictive contracts, lousy travel conditions, clubhouse politics — and Campanella's own shortcomings. He fathered children out of wedlock, marriages collapsed and he was estranged from some of his offspring.

Campanella was the third child born to an Italian American produce salesman and an African American homemaker. The family lived in the Nicetown section of Philadelphia where Campanella grew up in the 1920s and '30s.

Consumed by baseball at an early age, Campanella eschewed his studies for the diamond, earning a reputation as a hard worker, a steadily improving catcher and a reliable hitter. At age 15, he made it to the Negro Leagues — the youngest person ever to do so — playing for the Elite Giants first in Washington, D.C., and then Baltimore. Eleven more years passed before he made it to the major leagues, joining the Dodgers in 1948, the year after Jackie Robinson made his debut with the team and broke baseball's color barrier.

Among Lanctot's storytelling strengths are his deep examinations of Campanella's rise through the Negro Leagues, where he eclipsed another legendary power-hitting catcher, Josh Gibson; his complicated and eventually fractured relationship with the more outspoken Robinson, his onetime mentor and friend; and his resiliency in dealing with life's hard and often unfair knocks. His drawn-out rise to the major leagues, which included playing in the Jim Crow South, prepared him well for adjusting, after his accident, to a life radically different from the one he chose and came to enjoy so much.

Dodgers fans still are waiting to see a catcher of Campanella's caliber. For more than a decade, he hit for power like Mike Piazza and called games, threw out runners and guarded the plate like Mike Scioscia, both of whom he mentored.

"Campy" is the latest in a bumper crop of terrific biographies of baseball greats from the 1950s and '60s, coming on the heels of last year's "Willie Mays: The Life, the Legend" by James S. Hirsch, "The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America's Childhood" by former Washington Post sportswriter Jane Leavy, and "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron" by Howard Bryant, a writer for ESPN the magazine.

Lanctot holds his own against these fine titles, not surprising given that his previous effort, "Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution" (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), was well received.

Leavy's Mantle biography contains an excellent appendix that examines his place in the history of the grand game. "Campy" could have benefited from such a section, and the full potential of his career would have been fascinating to explore.

For example, Campanella lost at least six years simply because he was African American in a segregated sport. If you add his career average of 24 homers a year to that span, it would give him a total of 387— close to Duke Snider's franchise record of 389.

And if Campanella hadn't played virtually year 'round — barnstorming tours in the off-season and in winter leagues in less-developed locales in Latin America and the Caribbean — for the better part of a decade, one can only wonder how much more productive he would have been offensively.

These are things baseball fans love to ponder. However, this is merely nit-picking a fine work of biography. "Campy," a rich and thoroughly enjoyable book, may well alter attitudes about a man who might be the most overlooked star in Dodgers history.

Stanton is the editor of The Times. russ.stanton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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