Roy Campanella, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Hall of Fame catcher who was named the National League's most valuable player three times in the 1950s, has been in a wheelchair for as long as the Dodgers have been in Los Angeles.
The automobile he was driving hit a tree near Brooklyn on a rainy morning in January, 1958, breaking his neck and paralyzing him from the waist down. That week some of the other Boys of Summer had worked out in Los Angeles for the first time. They opened here in April.
At 63, Campanella today is as unassuming as ever. He remains kind, gentle, cautious and neat in a carefully chosen coat and tie as he peers down at the Dodgers from club level. This is a wheelchair stadium, he said in an interview recently.
Question: What is a wheelchair stadium?
Answer: It is a ballpark that's easy to get around. I could never have had this much fun at Ebbets Field. That place was getting kind of rickety.
Q: Where do you drive in Dodger Stadium?
A: Everywhere. It's a delightful place for a paralyzed person. I roll myself in from the parking lot--I have a power wheelchair with two batteries--and I stop at the clubhouse every day before taking the elevator up to the club level. I've been in every area of Dodger Stadium from the field to the top sections and even in the bleachers.
Q: What do you do out there?
A: Talk to people and give them an autographed card if they ask for one. The Dodgers made up the cards with a picture of me in my (Dodger) uniform. My (10-year major league) record is on the back but the signature on the front is mine.
Q: How do you get to the ballpark?
A: We have a blue van--a Dodger-blue van--with a battery-powered lift. I wheel myself onto the lift, then it's raised up to floor level. I'm strapped to the chair and the chair is locked inside the van. My wife Roxie usually drives. It's 20 or 25 minutes down the freeway to the stadium from our home in Woodland Hills.
Q: When did you become an L.A. Dodger fan?
A: We moved here (from New York) in 1979. But actually, I had leased my first Los Angeles house 21 years earlier--at Redondo Beach. That was closer to the Coliseum, where Mr. (Walter) O'Malley had decided to play in 1958.
Q: Did you come out just to lease a house for the season?
A: No, I was living in two cities that winter, L.A. and Glen Cove (Long Island). Two weeks here and two weeks there. Right after the 1957 season, Mr. O'Malley flew six of us to California--Pee Wee Reese, Vin Scully, Walt Alston, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and myself. We started the two-week rotation at that time.
Q: To promote the club?
A: Yes, to move around and sell tickets. In late January, I had just gone back to New York to spend a couple of weeks when I had the accident. I was planning to make at least one more L.A. trip (in February, 1958) before spring training. We were living at the Sheraton West Hotel. I never got to live at Redondo Beach.
Q: As a Philadelphia-born, lifelong Easterner, have you found it difficult to adjust to California?
A: Not at all. I love the weather and the conditions here and being with the Dodgers. Of course, it's a good life anywhere if you accept the wheelchair. You've got to live with it and accept it if you want to survive. And I want to survive.
Q: What do you do with your time?
A: I enjoy our home and the rose garden and I make 40 or 50 (public relations) appearances a year for the Dodgers. And I never miss a game. Mr. (Peter) O'Malley gives me a (three-seat) row for my wife and guests at the stadium and I roll up there every night. I keep track of (the action) as closely as possible.
Q: Is it true that you discourage most visitors while the game is on?
A: Well, I don't like to miss a pitch--that's the kind of player I always was.
Q: You could do something about it then.
A: I can do something about it now. Between innings, if I've seen something that might help (catcher) Mike Scioscia, I roll myself over to the elevator, take it down to the clubhouse and talk to him.
Q: What do you tell him?
A: I can't tell him much--Mike is a splendid young catcher. But, maybe, somebody hit us that we should have pitched around. I don't like certain (kinds of hitters) beating us. I might recommend that we don't give him anything more to hit.
Q: Do you also look for a time and place to make suggestions to Tommy Lasorda?
A: No, I just try to think along with the manager. When I was playing, I tried to read Walter Alston's mind on every pitch--(whether the Dodgers were) at bat or in the field. It's just as much fun now because (Lasorda) and I used to be teammates. But one day I did manage for Walter Alston.
A: (In 1946) when I played for him in Class B at Nashua (N.H.). The umpire put him out (for arguing), and as he walked away, (Alston) said, "You're the manager, Campy."
Q: Did you get any tough calls?
A: Just one. We were losing by a run in the ninth but had a man on base and I decided to put in a pinch hitter. I put in a pitcher and told him to hit a home run. He did and we won by one run.
Q: A Class B pitcher?
A: Yes, Don Newcombe.
Q: This year's Dodger team could use a few hitters like Newcombe.
A: I think the Dodgers have everything but experience this year. Most of the trouble we've had goes back to the players' inexperience. They are going to play better than this.
Q: Who are?
A: I like Greg Brock. Mike Marshall will be all right when he gets his swing the way he wants it, I think Kenny Landreaux is a hitter, R.J. Reynolds, Pete Guerrero. Mike Scioscia is a good contact hitter. It just takes time and patience with young players.
Q: A catcher named Campanella batted .287 with 22 home runs his first full season in the majors.
A: I'd had a lot of experience by then--eight years in the Negro Leagues and two in the minors when I came up. That's better for a ballplayer than four years in college--or 10 years in college.
Q: It isn't just the Dodgers today. Batting averages are down all over the country. And so are runs. Look at all the low-scoring games. Who's to blame?
A: I don't know if anyone is to blame. I don't know who has the answers. But there are two big differences (between the '50s and '80s)--more big league teams and less minor league teams. It wouldn't surprise me if that has something to do with (the low-run games).
Q: Are you saying expansion has spread the talent too thin?
A: Not that exactly. I'm not sure they're spread too thin. I think the problem is that they have to bring them up (from the minors) too fast.
Q: Too young.
A: Yes. When I was playing, there were only eight teams in each (major) league. They had so many good players on every team that you were a seasoned hitter by the time you got your chance. You were seasoned in the minors. Today, they need a player, they have to bring them up ready or not. There are so many positions (to fill) on so many teams that they can't wait for you to develop the way we waited.
Q: Doesn't a major league team make up for it now with more coaches and better coaching?
A: The coaches are very good today. Manny Mota is an excellent batting instructor. But no coach can make up for minor league seasoning. When I was in the Dodger farm system they had 21 minor league teams. Today they have six.
Q: Isn't it a fact that some college baseball teams today are as good as some minor league teams?
A: Some might be, but they all aren't. There isn't that much competition on the college level and you need a lot (of competition) to become a ballplayer. . . . There are (also) distractions in college. You have to study for classes. In the minors all you have to study is hitting. I'm in favor of college--between seasons.
Q: Let's look at the trend to lower batting averages from another point of view. Doesn't a hitter today see more and better pitching than ever--with hard throwers coming at him every time at bat?
A: There's better relief pitching now, sure. But they have to throw strikes--just like the starters do--to get you out. And when they throw it over the plate, you hit it.
Q: But isn't improved pitching some kind of factor in the decline of hitting?
A: Some, probably, but how could it be a big factor if they have to throw the ball over the plate? Hitting is swinging at strikes--and not swinging unless it's a strike. That's what we learned in the Negro Leagues. Guys who played there (35 years ago) made a faster adjustment to the big leagues.
Q: Specifically, how did Negro League experience help?
A: We saw different pitchers all the time. We traveled quite a bit, and faced pitchers we hadn't seen before, and would never see again. It didn't matter. No matter who's out there, we made them throw strikes. That's when you swing.
Q: If the pitching doesn't matter much, do you also feel it's unnecessary for modern ball clubs to get a book on the other team?
A: We never had scouting reports. They aren't really necessary if you know a man's velocity. That's the one thing you need. You have to be ready for the fastest pitch he can throw. You adjust to everything else--but you never let them throw their fastball by you.
Q: Is this the message you have for the youngsters at Dodgertown each spring?
A: Yes, that's part of it. I try to get across how simple hitting is. It's a simple thing to hit a baseball.
Q: If so, what's going wrong at Dodger Stadium? What batting faults do you see there?.
A: A guy who isn't hitting (to his potential) is probably doing one of two things wrong. They're swinging too hard--they aren't making contact--or they're chasing bad balls. The worst and (most common) problem is that they're swinging at pitches that are outside the strike zone.
Q: Granting that it's easier to correct such flaws in the minor leagues--where there's less pressure--how does a young man work on them up here? What should a young Dodger do now?
A: The most important thing is believing in yourself--believing you can hit the ball. The Dodgers believe you can hit or you wouldn't be here. Now it's up to you. Working hard on the fundamentals won't do--it isn't enough. If you don't believe you can hit, you won't hit.
Q: What else?
A: You've got to get your bat on the ball. You can't swing so hard that you don't make contact. It isn't really possible to guide a baseball with a bat. You can't aim it between the (fielders). You have to swing and hope it doesn't go right at somebody. That's hitting. A certain number (of balls that are hit) will go through.
Q: Anything else?
A: You have to be able to hit the pitcher's (best) pitch--and you have to hit your pitch when you get it.
Q: How about a few more words on that?
A: You've got to know what (every pitcher's) best pitch is. If they throw it for a strike, you have to put your bat on the ball. You've (also) got to know what pitch you hit best and what location (is best for you). Be set when they put it there.
Q: What 1985 hitters are measuring up to all these specifications?
A: Tony Gwynn (of San Diego) stands out today. He doesn't have any power but he always gets a piece of the ball. Pete Rose (of Cincinnati) usually gets part of it.
Q: Can a contact hitter develop some power?
A: I had some power--but I never tried to hit the ball over the fence. If it doesn't go over when you make contact (normally), don't worry about it--you weren't born to be a Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron.
Q: What was your best season in baseball?
A: Any time I wasn't banged up.
Q: You joined the Dodgers at age 26 in 1948. Were you ready for major league ball earlier?
A: I thought so--I was willing--but Mr. (Branch) Rickey (of the Dodgers) was trying to do a most important thing for black players (and Rickey had decided Jackie Robinson would be first--in 1947). I was satisfied with his decision.
Q: What do you think was the best Dodger team of the last 50 years?
A: They were all top teams in my 10 years, from '48 on. We won five pennants, finished second four times and third once. And we won the Dodgers' first World Series (in 1955).
Q: Who's the best player you played with?
A: Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges, Carl Furillo.
Q: Was baseball a better game in those days?
A: No. It's still a wonderful game today.
Q: Are you for or against the new commissioner's drug-testing plan?
A: I think it's a good idea. I think something has to be done--right away. We never had anything like that (in the '40s and '50s). Drugs are a serious problem everywhere today--not just in the towns you read about--but everywhere.
Q: What do you think of today's big salaries? Do you have a feeling that you were born 40 years too soon?
A: I've always thought I was born at just the right time. My generation had a valuable opportunity and made a tremendous impact--and how many persons can say that? I was one of the first of my race to play in the major leagues, and I feel I helped the situation quite a bit. I'm proud of the way I conducted myself--on and off the field.
Q: Off the field, you've always been known as a sharp, immaculate dresser. Why is that still part of your game plan?
A: When I was at the rehabilitation center, I was disappointed in some of the wheelchair people--disappointed in their appearance. They didn't seem to care about themselves anymore. So I made two resolutions--to accept the wheelchair and to look as neat as possible every day. I think that's why I survive.
What do you think of today's big salaries? Do you have a feeling that you were born 40 years too soon?
I've always thought I was born at just the right time. My generation had a valuable opportunity and made a tremendous impact--and how many persons can say that? I was one of the first of my race to play in the major leagues, and I feel I helped the situation quite a bit. I'm proud of the way I conducted myself--on and off the field.