Monday, June 13, 2011

#32: Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella by Neil Lanctot

Simon and Schuster, 2011: 523 pages

The title of this book is apt on several levels, not just the pre and post December 1957 life of Campanella.

Roy Campanella started playing in the Negro Leagues in 1937 at age 15 and in 1946 became the second African American ballplayer for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Between 1947 and 1957, Campanella was a three time National League Most Valuable Player as the Dodger catcher. His third and last MVP came in 1955 as the Dodgers finally defeated the hated Yankees in the World Series. By the end of the 1957 season, Campanella was slowing down and was not the player he once was. Still, he planned on going to LA after the Dodgers moved.

Lanctot does not fall victim to a common problem in many baseball biographies, that of hero worship. Campanella is presented as a man; albeit a man who considered himself quite lucky to be able to play major league baseball. Perhaps the most interesting part of the text is the deterioration of the relationship between Jackie Robinson and Campanella, which is reported on by Lanctot in an even handed fashion. The author lets the players speak for themselves, thereby allowing the reader to develop his/her own ideas about the place of race in Eisenhower's America. This is another way in which the title is apt, as Campy had two lives about race. He was beloved, to be sure, but in some ways did not carry the respect of the black baseball community that Robinson did.

Campanella was rendered a quadriplegic in a December 1957 car crash; Lanctot does a masterful job of describing not only the professional but the personal fallout from this accident, and does not sugarcoat Campy's post-accident life (all 35 years of it). When Campanella was injured, most quadriplegics died within a few years. Of course, this is the "second life" that the title refers to, a man who literally has all that he knew taken away from him. What Lanctot delves into is the idea that is shied away from in Campanella's autobiography It's Good to be Alive. In many ways, Campanella's accident could have been avoided. Campanella's car crashed into a utility pole at 3 am, one of many late nights returning to his home from his Harlem business and mistress. In many ways, Campanella's own actions, as much as his paralysis, destroyed his second marriage.

Lastly, this book deals with the two lives that many ballplayers face, the one before and after baseball. It is easy to blast today's players for making too much money (most of them do), but consider this. I am now 38 years old and a teacher. If I was a baseball player, my playing career would most likely already be over or would be within a few years. The question becomes "Now what?" The baseball establishment is still very much an old-boys network, and most former players are completely shut out from what they knew. Babe Ruth was one example and for several years, until Walt Alston and Tommy Lasorda demanded he be on staff during spring training, Campanella was another. In this final facet of the two lives, Lanctot again remains even handed. All in all, an exceptional biography.

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