You are currently viewing Carl, Jackie, and Roy as Boys of Summer

Carl, Jackie, and Roy as Boys of Summer

Roy Campanella was the name of baseball’s great catcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers legendary “Boys of Summer” team. A three-time Most Valuable Player award winner who was easily elected to the Hall of Fame, his career was shortened on both sides by two critical factors: racism, and paralysis. On both counts, “Campy” was a true victim. He had to labor nine years in the Negro Leagues and the Mexican League before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, allowing Roy to begin playing in the farm system for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946. Then in January of 1958 he was paralyzed in an auto accident. This phenomenal athlete was then forced to spend the remainder of his life in a wheelchair, barely able to use his hands and arms.

Carl Erskine, now age 96, wrote the book WHAT I LEARNED FROM JACKIE ROBINSON, but there is a chapter concerning what he learned from Roy Campanella, too. They were close teammates, and close friends. “I truly loved him,” Carl wrote, “and I rarely use that word. There’s a picture of the two of us embracing after a no-hitter. I get teary every time I think of Roy.”

The sports media often pointed out the differences in the way Campy and Jackie Robinson saw things, including race relations. Carl Erskine saw it a little differently. “Campy and Jackie saw eye to eye on everything,” Carl said. “only their methods differed. Campy admits to not being militant but ‘letting his bat do the talking.’ The press could never get their hands on any divisions between the two, much as everyone kept pining for them, because there weren’t any divisions. The two loved and respected one another. They just understood where each man differed. Both were right. Both were entitled to their own beliefs.”

Carl and Campy did so many things together both off and on the field. They went fishing together every chance they got. Back in the Brooklyn days, “Life was all smiles for us,” Carl said. “A pitcher has a unique relationship with his catcher; that’s why the term ‘battery mates’ is used. A pitcher and catcher could be an island unto themselves during the course of a game. All the other positions become blocked out of a pitcher’s mind, as in my case. The two of us thought alike, pitch by pitch. He gave the signs — I seldom shook him off — and I threw to him. We played catch for nine innings, day after day, year after year. I was officially ‘in’ more than 350 games — spring training, exhibitions, World Series — and some 2,000 innings, and in most of them I was pitching to Roy.”

Roy Campanella did not make the trip West when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958. On the plane, the team dedicated an empty seat to Roy. When the season began, and the Dodgers made their first road trip East, Carl Erskine went to visit Roy in the hospital. “I was the first visitor from the team,” the hospital told him. “Before me, the doctor who had just seen Roy had cried, seeing an idol of his lying there in that condition. When I walked in and saw Roy stretched out like that I couldn’t speak. About five minutes went by and we said nothing. Tears welled up in our eyes. And then he broke the silence.

“‘Ersk, you got to get us a better medical plan. I had to have a tracheotomy — $8,500! I’m already wiped out!’ But then Roy became his old optimistic self.

“‘And tomorrow I go to therapy. I’m going to lift five pounds with my right hand,’ he said confidently and in an excited manner.

“Chills went down my spine. I couldn’t believe that this was the same man who hit towering drives into the gas station beyond right field and had thrown out countless base runners with that right hand. Here he was, happy about going to therapy. It just showed me that courage came in all sorts of packages and with all sorts of outlooks. Roy was in a facedown position with a heavy neck brace. He said that with the aid of mirrors he’d be able to watch me pitch the next night.

“I threw a complete game two-hitter against the Phillies. It was the last complete game I ever pitched in my life. I knew Roy was watching. I could feel him on every pitch. I dedicated the win to him.

“I couldn’t believe that the man with a smile as big as Long Island would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair — thirty-seven years and never a complaint.

“I don’t think there was a dry eye in the park when Roy made it out of the hospital and out to LA for Roy Campanella Night. It was the largest crowd in baseball history. More than 93,000 filled the old Los Angeles Coliseum to honor Roy. It was a benefit game between the Yankees and Dodgers to defray the cost of Roy’s medical expenses. And I pitched.

“The lights were dimmed; candles were lit. Dignitaries were on hand, and a ceremony followed. Everybody just let their emotions pour out. It was impossible to look at Roy and not be upset. This was a man who was incapable of harsh words, was incapable of hurting another human being.”

We all need to count our blessings, whatever they may be.