COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. – The Brooklyn Dodgers were called “America’s Original Team.”
It’s fitting that the player responsible for leading “America’s Original Team” to five National League pennants burst onto the national scene on America’s day.
On July 4, 1948 – 64 years ago this week – Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella hit his first two big league homers – the second a two-run, walkoff blast – to lead the Dodgers to a 13-12 win against the New York Giants.
The two home runs were a sign of things to come from Campanella. After that rookie season, Campanella was named to the All-Star team every year from 1949-1956.
“He was the best player in the league,” said former Dodgers General Manager Buzzie Bavasi. “Nobody could touch him.”
The former Dodger backstop took home the first of three National League MVPs in 1951 after belting 31 home runs and 108 RBI. Two years later, Campanella bested his ’51 campaign by hitting 41 home runs and finishing with 142 RBI to capture his second MVP. The 41 home runs were the most ever hit by a catcher – a mark that stood untouched until 1996.
Despite playing alongside the likes of future Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese and Duke Snider, it was Campanella who some said was the most indispensible.
“In Brooklyn, there isn’t any doubt. Campanella is their big man,” said former St. Louis Cardinals manager Eddie Stanky. “They wouldn’t win without Campanella.”
But while Campanella fueled the Dodgers’ success in the 1950s with his bat, he was equally instrumental with his glove.
“He makes catching look easy,” said former Phillies manager Steve O’Neill. “He gets the ball away with no effort but he throws you out.”
Campanella threw out 57.4 percent of runners who attempted to steal off him during his career, which is still good for first all-time.
“More than one observer has likened Campanella’s quickness behind the plate to that of a cat,” said the New York World Telegram’s Tom Meany. “He can pounce on bunts placed far out in front of the plate and he gets his throws away with no wasted motion. He had not only a rifle arm but an accurate one.”
While many praise Campanella for what he could do on the field, his impact off the field helped solidify his legacy.
Campanella entered the big leagues at a time of high racial tension on the heels of his teammate, Robinson, breaking the color barrier. Yet Campanella maintained an easy going demeanor that made him a clubhouse favorite during the Dodgers’ pennant runs of the 1950s.
“He brightened the clubhouse,” said former teammate Duke Snider. “I know he helped me relax. He’d sit around and tell all those stories about his days in the Negro Leagues. He was comical, just great to be around.”
By the end of the 1957 season, Campanella racked up three MVP awards, made eight All-Star teams and led the Brooklyn Dodgers to their first and only World Series title in 1955. But an automobile accident prior to the 1958 season paralyzed Campanella and ended his career before he could ever play for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Campanella was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969.
Connor O’Gara is the 2012 public relations intern in the Hall of Fame’s Frank and Peggy Steele Internship Program for Youth Leadership Development