On This Date in Sports January 28, 1958: Roy Campanella's Accident

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Roy Campanella, a three-time MVP with the Brooklyn Dodgers, is severely injured in a one-car accident on an icy road in Long Island. The injury leaves Campanella paralyzed from the shoulders down. Though he could regain the use of his arms, he would need a wheelchair for the remainder of his life. The All-Star catcher was one month from reporting to the first Spring Training since the team moved to Los Angeles.

Roy Campanella was born on November 19, 1921, in Philadelphia, in a mixed-race family with an Italian father and African American mother. Like many others, the door to the majors was closed to Roy Campanella, who years thought he would find success in the Negro Leagues with the Baltimore Elite Giants. In 1946, Campanella signed a minor league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Campy had been one of the players that Branch Rickey had considered signing before deciding that Jackie Robinson would be the best at handling the pressure of breaking the color barrier.

A year after Jackie Robinson made his debut in Brooklyn, Roy Campanella was called up to play by the Dodgers. After a solid rookie season, Campy became a perennial All-Star in 1949 and became the best catcher in the National League. In 1951 Roy Campanella won his first MVP award, batting .325 with 33 home runs and 108 RBI. In 1953, Campanella enjoyed his best season, with a .312 average with career highs in home runs with 41 and RBI with 142. The 41 home runs were a single-season record for catchers that lasted 43 years. The 142 RBI also was most in the National League. Roy Campanella won his third MVP in 1955, batting .318 with 32 home runs and 107 RBI, as the Dodgers finally won their first World Series, beating the New York Yankees in seven games.

Like many Dodgers, Roy Campanella was unhappy with the move to Los Angeles. He had long settled into the New York area, with a home on Glen Cove on Long Island. In a time before big contracts for baseball stars, Campanella owned and operated a liquor store in Harlem during the off-season. While driving home from the store, Campanella hit a patch of ice near his home and crashed his 1957 Chevrolet sedan into a utility pole. The accident caused two cervical vertebrae and compressed his spinal cord. Through vigorous rehab, Roy Campanella would regain the use of his arms, but he would never walk again.

Roy Campanella’s plight became a national story, but he soon became a symbol of strength and perseverance as he remained employed by the Dodgers as a scout. In 1959 he reported to Spring Training in Vero Beach as a mentor to the team’s catchers. On May 7, 1959, the Dodgers played an exhibition against the New York Yankees, drawing a then-record 93,103 fans to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. The money raised on “Roy Campanella Night” would help pay for his medical bills. In 1969 he became the second African American in the Hall of Fame, joining Jackie Robinson.  Roy Campanella would remain close to the Dodgers and baseball for the rest of his life, dying at the age of 71 in 1993.