Extra Bases: Reflections on Jackie Robinson, Race, and Baseball History

By Jules Tygiel | Go to book overview

SEVEN

Introduction to It's Good to Be Alive

In April 1958 the transplanted Brooklyn Dodgers confronted the Los Angeles Coliseum, their new home field, for the first time. The remodeled football stadium never was meant to host major league baseball. Left field measured only 250 feet from home plate and club officials had constructed an artificial ninety-foot “China Wall” to better challenge hitters. Pitcher Carl Erskine saw the fence and immediately thought of his longtime batterymate. “Son of a buck, ” he mused. “If Campy was well, he'd break Ruth's record, popping flies over that dinky screen.”

But Roy Campanella, arguably the greatest catcher to play the game, was not well. Two months earlier a rented car he was driving had skidded on a patch of ice, smashed into a Long Island lamp post, and overturned, leaving Campanella trapped inside with a broken neck. As Erskine and the Dodgers prepared for a new season, strangers on a strange field, Campanella lay paralyzed, never to walk, much less play, again.

Carl Erskine was not the only one to ponder the saddest words “what might have been” with regard to Roy Campanella. His major league life, foreshortened at its outset by racial discrimination, had now been prematurely ended by tragedy. Indeed Campanella's entire career, glorious enough to merit his eventual first-ballot election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, raises echoes of blocked possibilities and unfulfilled promises. If not for baseball's color barrier, Campanella might have entered the major leagues a half-decade or more earlier, compiling records that catchers would still strive to break; if not for the politics of integration, he, and not Jackie Robinson, might have been the first black player; and if not for his crippling accident, Campanella may well have become major league baseball's first black manager, saving the game from one of its long-standing embarrassments.

Roy Campanella was born in 1921, the son of an Italian-American father

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