Sarah's Take: Campy an inspiration

Sarah's Take: Campanella an inspiration

Since Spring Training is almost upon us, most of us are taking a deep breath before we start the marathon also known as the regular season. Most of the deals have been completed, so there is not much new news to ponder. Writers are guessing which teams will do well and which won't.

I already have expressed my opinion about the 2006 Dodgers. I don't want to bore my readers or look foolish, so I won't write about the Dodgers until they hit the field in Vero Beach. Everyone knows baseball games aren't won or lost on paper. If they were, nobody would play the games.

I am taking the opportunity with almost nothing to write about to express my gratitude to the late Roy and Roxie Campanella for giving me the courage to follow my dreams.

Campanella, or "Campy" as his friends called him, had a part in integrating Major League Baseball. The native of Philadelphia never had it easy in life, but he was always cheerful and easygoing. He had an African-American mother and an Italian-American father.

At 16, Campy started playing professional baseball in the Negro Leagues. While there, he developed a reputation for an outstanding ability to work with pitchers. Campy was a star in the Negro Leagues, playing in many All-Star games.

In 1946, the Dodgers signed Campanella. For two years, he played in the Minor Leagues, helping to integrate them. In April of 1948, he became the sixth African-American player in the Majors in the 20th century. Campanella soon became a star for the Dodgers and a popular figure in Brooklyn. In 1951, 1953, and 1955, Campanella was named the Most Valuable Player of the National League, and he caught in five World Series. In 1953, he set a Major League record for a catcher with 41 home runs. This remarkable record stood alone until 1996, when Todd Hundley of the New York Mets tied it. In 1969, Campanella was the second African-American player to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Campanella's playing career ended tragically and prematurely on an icy January night in 1958, just before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles. Though his playing career was coming to a close because he had painful bone spurs in his heel, he had a few more years left to dazzle the people of Los Angeles, where baseball was still unknown. Coming home from a store, Campanella's car skidded on the ice and ran into a light pole. Somehow, he survived the accident, but he broke his fifth cervical vertebra and severed his spinal cord and was paralyzed from the shoulders down. For the next 35 years, he was wheelchair bound and endured endless hours of physical therapy. He lived longer than anybody thought he would after the accident.

Although Campanella was a great baseball player, he was a better person. He maintained a sunny attitude after a personal tragedy. Most people would not have criticized Campy if he stopped working when he quit playing, but he did not. He did not let his physical difficulties stand in his way. During the 1970s and 1980s, Campanella was the most visible Brooklyn Dodger. By doing this, Campanella gave millions hope and made us re-evaluate our lives.

Campanella had almost the biggest influence on my life outside of my family. I never had the opportunity to meet him, but I saw him on television and heard about him from the Dodgers announcers. While growing up, I didn't see many wheelchair-bound adults and certainly not many who could not use their hands. Campanella couldn't do much more than I could, except talk.

While in school, I learned that most of the teachers put their emphasis on the child's physical abilities rather than his ability to learn. I couldn't do much physically, so they didn't want to waste their time teaching me much. This could have discouraged me, but seeing Campanella doing something worthwhile helped me to keep trying.

As a high school senior, I was told that I was unemployable. For a few days I was discouraged, in spite of my mother telling me to not listen to that. Then, I thought of Campanella. He had a job teaching catchers and doing public relations for the Dodgers. I thought if he could do that, I could find a job that I could do.

For many years, Campanella taught the Dodger catchers. Before 1998, the Dodgers had the best catchers in baseball in my opinion. He helped to teach Mike Scioscia to be the best plate blocker in the game. Every Dodger catcher knew how to work with pitchers. To me, Campanella's influence helped the Dodgers to develop a great pitching tradition.

Campanella worked in community affairs for the Dodgers until his death in June 1993. He offered hope to many paralyzed people. With the help of Don Newcombe, a former teammate, and his wife, Roxie, he attended every old timers game and Hall of Fame induction until his death. Anyone who has traveled with a wheelchair can appreciate the effort that Campanellas put forth to go to these functions.

After Campanella died, Roxie kept going to Dodgers games. She worked tirelessly to help improve the care of paralyzed people. Roy and Roxie established the Roy and Roxie Campanella Physical Therapy Scholarship Foundation that helps to fund education for physical therapists in 1991, and after Roy's death, Roxie continued to work for this cause. Most people who didn't know the Campanellas saw Roxie as the lady who pushed Roy's wheelchair, but Roy and his friends knew that he couldn't have accomplished what he did without the dedication of his wife. Roxie passed away in March 2004. The Dodgers, baseball and disabled communities still miss "the spunky lady who pushed Roy."

Campanella broke down many barriers for both African-Americans and the disabled. He should be remembered as a civil rights activist. Unlike many civil rights leaders, he tried kindness to break down barriers. While doing research for this article, I found out the United States Postal Service announced it will honor Campanella on a stamp in 2006. I am glad because Campanella should never be forgotten.

Sarah D. Morris is the editor of Dodger Place. The opinions expressed in this article are solely of the author. A source for this article was www.roycampanella.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.