On September 29, 1959, Gil Hodges scored the winning run and the Los Angeles Dodgers won their first National League pennant. They had finished in seventh place the year before and were expected to finish somewhere in the middle of the pack. It had been an amazing finish to the season; but it had started off with a celebration of life. At the end of the 1957 season, the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to Los Angeles.
On Thursday, May 7, 1959, the L.A. Dodgers played the New York Yankees in a special exhibition game set up to be played at the L.A. Coliseum, during the season. There was no interleague play at the time and the National League and American League teams only met during the World Series. Dodger president and owner, Walter O’Malley, had declared this night to be Roy Campanella Night. The game was played in an effort to not only recognize “Campy” as a great player, but to use the proceeds from the attendance to help his family pay for his enormous medical bills. The crowd numbered 93,103 and became the largest to ever attend a baseball game at that time. During the fifth inning of the game, the Yankees and Dodgers were asked to leave the field, and Pee Wee Reese, dressed in his Brooklyn uniform, pushed Roy Campanella to the pitcher’s mound. Campy was seated in a wheelchair. Vin Scully described the scene like this: “All the stadium lights were turned off and 93,103 fans were asked to light a match or a candle. Their lights came on like thousands and thousands of fireflies.” “It was like every fan had a way to communicate to Roy,” said former teammate, Ralph Branca. The outpouring of affection rained down on Roy like Niagara Falls. When Roy heard there were 93,000 fans in the stands, he said to Reese, “Pee Wee, that’s my number turned backward, #39.” It was a night to remember.
Interestingly, it had been Pee Wee who had asked Roy Campanella to come stand with him at the mound the night the Dodgers honored Pee Wee with his special day. “He asked me because he was a little nervous,” said Roy. It was an extremely emotional night, and no one cared that the Yankees had won, 6-2.
A baby boy was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1921. They named him Roy Campanella. He grew up to play professional baseball by the age of 15 and joined the Negro League’s Washington Elite Giants, in 1936. They moved to Baltimore in 1937. Roy eventually signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1946 and spent two years in their Minor League system, until he joined the big club in 1948 as a catcher. Roy became an eight-time All-Star during his ten years with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Campanella was named the league’s MVP in 1951, 1953 and 1955, while playing on five pennant winning teams. He also hit two home runs and drove in four runs, to lead the Dodgers to the World Series title in 1955, over the New York Yankees.
At the young age of 36, a car crash on January 28, 1958, just days before he was scheduled to report for Spring Training, would leave Roy Campanella paralyzed from the shoulders down. He closed his store and had driven home that night. Although he was only traveling 30 mph, he hit a patch of ice and skidded into a telephone pole. The car turned upside down, and Roy was injured.
Roy Campanella once said, “The hardest thing for me is when I wake up in the morning, because I can’t move until someone comes and helps me get in my chair.” Many times while in the hospital, Roy lost his will to live. This gesture renewed his faith to continue living. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969. His #39 was retired by the Dodgers in 1972. In the 1980’s, Tommy Lasorda made him a coach. Roy attended almost every home game until his death. But it was at Roy Campanella Night that the world of baseball celebrated his life.
“I would like to say that I will never forget this night as long as I live,” said Roy. “I thank God I was able to be here to see this site. Thanks a million.” Roy left us on June 26, 1993. He was 71. He had spent almost half his life in a wheelchair. Roy Campanella never played a game in Los Angeles for his Dodgers.