Roy Campanella, the Hall of Fame catcher who died Saturday at 71, was remembered for his courage, character and indomitable spirit during a memorial service Wednesday at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills.
“He was a gentle giant, a living legend,” Mayor Tom Bradley said. “He was a man who experienced prejudice, discrimination and obstacles in his life, but who never uttered a word of bitterness. He taught each of us to stand a little taller and reach a little higher.”
Joe Black, a former Brooklyn Dodger teammate, said Campanella was a man whose handshake, first extended to Black in the Negro National League in 1944, was a “promise of better times” because Campanella understood that “friendship was more than mere words” and that his memory can most appropriately be revered “by remembering that the best part of the game is helping the other guy.”
Bradley and Black joined Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda and broadcaster Vin Scully in eulogies to the three-time National League most valuable player whose 10-year major league career was ended by a 1958 auto accident that left him a quadriplegic. The private service was attended by about 200 people, including Dodger President Peter O’Malley and his family, club officials and many former teammates of Campanella.
Among the latter were Negro League players Sammy Haynes, Wilbert Greene, Merle Porter and Andy Porter. Also attending were Pee Wee Reese, Duke Snider, Ralph Branca, Clem Labine, Carl Erskine, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, John Roseboro, Al Downing, Buzzie Bavasi, Al Campanis, Hall of Fame President Edward Stack, San Francisco Giant Manager Dusty Baker and coach Bob Lillis, Mike Scioscia, Steve Yeager, Joe Ferguson, Ron Perranoski, Lou Johnson, Reggie Smith, Franklin Stubbs, Darrel Thomas, Geoff Zahn, and Roger McDowell and Jim Gott from the current Dodger organization.
Campanella moved from New York to Los Angeles in 1978 to work in the club’s community-services department. He also went to spring training with the Dodgers as an unofficial coach and spinner of stories, operating out of an area known as “Campy’s Corner.”
Lasorda recalled that when his own dream became a reality and he was named manager of the Dodgers, he invited Campanella to join him in spring training as a way of repaying Campanella for the help and guidance Campanella provided when Lasorda, then a left-handed pitcher, made brief appearances with the Dodgers in 1954 and ’55.
“I told Roy that I knew he couldn’t walk, but that there was nothing wrong with his mind and I wanted to draw on that knowledge,” Lasorda said, adding that Campanella influenced the careers of a succession of Dodger catchers, including Ferguson, Yeager and two from the Philadelphia area in which Campanella grew up: Scioscia and Mike Piazza.
Lasorda credited Campanella and Jackie Robinson with “making it possible for the major leagues to become the all-American game,” and said that Campanella’s “pride, dignity and character” served as a constant inspiration after the accident.
“He didn’t give up, he didn’t quit,” Lasorda said, calling Campanella “a builder of confidence” who never complained or alibied and went on to “live a life of enthusiasm and happiness” during the 35 years he was in a wheelchair.
Said Scully: “Like many of his friends at that time, I also wondered why he had to be cut down in the prime of his life, but I soon stopped wondering. Roy’s wheelchair wasn’t a cross, it was more like a throne (from which his) courage and perseverance (became an inspiration to others). Roy reminded us that you can’t control the length of your life, but you can control the breadth and depth.”
Scully added that it was natural to grieve about Campanella’s departure, but it was also a time to celebrate his life, which was the theme of the hour-long ceremony officiated by John Werhas, a former Dodger infielder who is pastor of the Yorba Linda Friends Church. Werhas spoke of his own encounters with Campanella in Vero Beach, but “because of my limited talent there was only so much Roy could do.”
Campanella is survived by his sister, Doris; his wife of 30 years, Roxie; his children, Roy II, Joni, Anthony, John and Ruth, and by 12 grandchildren. The family has said that his work with youth and handicapped will continue through the Roy and Roxie Campanella Physical Therapy Scholarship Fund. Donations can be made in care of the Dodgers, 1000 Elysian Park Ave., Los Angeles, 90012.