IT’S A MAN’S GAME, BUT YOU HAVE TO have a lot of little boy in you to play it,” Roy Campanella often said of baseball. Campy, 71, who died June 26 of a heart attack at his home in Woodland Hills, Calif., came by this knowledge firsthand. A Hall of Famer, he was tested to the limit as a man—yet he never lost his boyish enthusiasm.
Campanella began his career as a hard-hitting catcher in the old Negro leagues, then followed Jackie Robinson across the color barrier to join the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948. He helped lead those fabled Boys of Summer to five National League pennants from 1949 to 1956 and a dramatic World Series triumph over the New York Yankees in 1955.
Thrice named the National League’s Most Valuable Player, Campanella was on top of the baseball world in 1958. But in the early morning hours of Jan. 28, that world collapsed when his car skidded off the road and crashed while he was driving to his Glen Cove, N.Y., home. The accident left him paralyzed from the waist down. But it didn’t rob Campy of his smile, his laugh or his ability to inspire others. As Campanella himself once put it, “People look at me and get the feeling that if a guy in a wheelchair can have such a good time, they can’t be too bad off after all.” Even though his first marriage, to Ruthe, dissolved and his house had to be sold to pay his huge debts, Campanella—who married Roxie Doles, a former nurse, in 1963—endured. “He looked upon life as a catcher,” says Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully. “He was forever cheering up, pepping up, counseling people.” He doted on his five-children, Roy II, Joni, Anthony, John and Ruth. For nearly two decades he served as a spring-training instructor for the Los Angeles Dodgers; more important, he worked tirelessly with the handicapped through the Dodgers’ community-service division. “Although he was a remarkable ballplayer,” says Scully, “I think he’ll be remembered more for his 35 years in a wheelchair. He was an MVP all right—Most Valuable Person.”