Fifty-four years ago Tuesday night over 93,000 baseball fans showed up at the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch an exhibition game held in honor of someone they had never seen play in person. They raised matches, lighters and candles in a darkened stadium in an effort to show their support for a once great athlete who was now confined to a wheelchair. Still today, it ranks as one of the greatest moments in southern California sports history. That night is commemorated on card #550 in the 1959 Topps set. “Symbol of Courage” is one of a small number of Roy Campanella baseball cards issued from the late 1940s through the 1950s.
‘Campy’ was once the strapping leader of the Brooklyn Dodgers. As a steady force behind the plate and a terror at bat, he won three MVP awards in five years (1951, 1953 and 1955). In ’53, he’d hit .312, blasted 41 homers and drove in 142 runs.
While his production has slowed by the Dodgers’ final season in Brooklyn, Campanella was ready to continue his career after the Bums left Brooklyn for Los Angeles. However, it all came to an end on January 28, 1958 when his car hit a patch of ice in New York, slid off the road, struck a telephone pole and flipped. Campanella had broken the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae in his neck and his spinal cord had been compressed. He was paralyzed from the chest down.
Nearly a year and a half later came the night in L.A. The turnout helped the former Negro Leaguer with medical expenses and the classic photo of former teammate Pee Wee Reese pushing Campy’s wheelchair out onto the field, bathed in a sea of flickering lights is considered one of the greatest images in baseball history.
After playing for five pennant winners and on eight All-Star teams, it was hard to believe he would no longer walk, let alone play ball.
Campanella later regained partial use of his arms and hands and became an ambassador for the Dodgers and for baseball. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1969 and lived to the age of 71, passing away in 1993.
More than 20,000 days have passed since his accident but Campanella’s baseball cards still garner respect in the hobby. His rookie card is #84 in the 1949 Bowman issue. In graded, near mint form, the Campy rookie sells for an average of a little under $600. It’s his 1952 Topps high number card that’s the most valuable, though. Near mint examples routinely bring more than $2,000.
The Topps company’s 1958 cards apparently had not yet been printed when the accident happened. While details aren’t known, it would seem likely the company removed him from its set before packs hit stores. Campy returned to Topps cards in 1959. The 1959 Topps ‘Symbol of Courage’ card was issued in the final series that year and usually sells for over $100 in near mint condition.
He did, however, have a card in ’58. Bell Brand Potato Chips, which produced several series of team sets after the Dodgers’ arrival in Brooklyn, using them as a one-per-pack promotion inside its snacks, has Campanella on its checklist. They are hard to find in any condition, but high grade examples are expensive. A few are currently available on eBay.
Roy Campanella baseball cards can also be found in various regional and food issues like Wilson Franks, Wheaties, Drakes and Red Man.