While not always mentioned amongst baseball’s all-time greats, few kids were disappointed when pulling a Roy Campanella baseball card from a pack during his brilliant career with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
With Ebbets Field as a backdrop, “Campy” was a force both at the plate and behind it. Appearing on cards as a player from 1949-1957, he’s among the stars of a golden era in collecting.
Abrupt End to a Stellar Career
As his big league tenure was winding down, Campanella’s life was forever changed on January 28, 1958 by an automobile accident that left him paralyzed from the shoulders down. Just 35 at the time of the accident, Campanella had been one of the game’s premier catchers, earning three MVP awards in five seasons.
“Campy” operated a liquor store in Harlem at the time and was returning home to Glen Cove, NY after closing up shop for the night. While the drive could take more than an hour with traffic, he was within a few minutes of his home on the north shore of Long Island when his 1957 Chevrolet sedan hit a patch of ice.
Journey to the Majors
While the horrific accident ended Campanella’s career, another factor impacting his lifetime stats was the fact that he also didn’t debut until age 26 after spending several seasons in the Negro leagues and Mexican League. Had Campanella played another four or five years in the major leagues, his career numbers likely would have rivaled the stats from the greatest catchers in the history of the game. Even so, The Athletic named him to its list of the 100 greatest players in baseball history.
Campanella spent two years in the minors for the Dodgers during a time in which the franchise was introducing Jackie Robinson. It was there where Campanella became the first African American to manage white players for an organized baseball team after manager Walter Alston was ejected in the midst of one of their games. His team was down three runs at the time Alston was tossed, but as fate would have it, came back to win the game under Campanella.
The first-time manager also used Don Newcombe as a pinch-hitter in the seventh inning, a move that resulted in a game-tying two-run home run. While his merits as a Hall of Fame player are unquestioned, a further dive into his credentials as a coach display an immaculate record. Campanella would receive praise later in his career as a coach after he continued to mentor his Dodger teammates after the accident.
By the Numbers
In just ten seasons in the Major Leagues, Campanella belted 242 home runs, drove in 856 runs and hit .276. He was one of only a handful of catchers to ever lead the league in RBI (142 in 1953), while hitting more than 30 home runs in a season four times (1950, 1951, 1953, 1955).
His years on the diamond from 1948-1957 can be encapsulated by eight cards honoring his eight All-Star appearances.
1949 Bowman Rookie Card #84
Campanella made his cardboard debut in the 1949 Bowman set. The back of the card calls Campy “a great prospect” and notes the Dodgers first took notice of his talents after a Negro League All-Star game at Ebbets Field.
High-grade examples are not cheap, but a PSA 7 recently sold on eBay for less than $1,500. Mid-grade examples generally run about $1,000, while a low to-mid-grade copies can be owned for a few hundred.
1952 Topps #314
While Campanella’s offensive prowess is well documented, his 1952 Topps card points out his aptitude behind the plate, saying “Campy is recognized as one of the great fielding catchers of all-time.” 1950s baseball didn’t have the same metrics to measure catchers as we do today, but just ask Sal Maglie, who said the following after Campanella caught his no hitter in 1956: “In my no-hitter, I only shook Campy off once. He was doing the thinking, calling the pitches just right for every batter in every situation, and all I had to do was check the sign to see if I agreed and then throw.”
Campy would catch three no hitters in his career, the other two by Carl Erskine in 1952 and 1956. Campanella would retire with the greatest caught-stealing rate of all-time (57%), but one can only wonder how great his receiving, framing and pitch calling was since there was no measure of those at the time. While not his true rookie card, it’ll take a pretty fair investment to own one as a short printed high number.
1951 Bowman #31
Campy’s 1951 Bowman card dates to his first MVP award and a paints a unique, somewhat eerie portrait. In the forefront, Campanella can be seen chasing a pop-up as he removes his mask and points his attention skyward. Yet in the background, what appears to be a lone scout sits by himself in empty stands. A preview of what stands would look like in 2020 printed way back in 1951? Or was this a recreation by an artist of the original photo—only omitting all but one of the fans? Either way, it’s an interesting feature of this card that has only become more relevant lately with empty stadiums in many cities across the Major Leagues this past year. One can notice a particularly interested individual sitting in the dugout in the original photo, which may have been the artist’s motivation for isolating him on the card version. Only the artist knows.
It’s a great-looking card from a classic set and you can own a pretty decent example for under $200.
1953 Bowman Color #46
One of the first true photo portraits of Campanella, his 1953 Bowman card is devoid of anything that could distract the eye—no nameplate, fancy designs, and/or logos on the front—just a clean photograph of Campy in his Brooklyn hat posing as a hitter.
He won his second MVP award, leading the National League with 142 runs batted in.
Still relatively affordable, it’s an easy score on eBay with nice copies that can be owned for $300-400, and lower grades often available for less than $100.
1956 Topps #101
Campanella’s 1956 Topps edition unifies several features that make a great card. The photo of is adjacent to a bold and colorful nameplate, while also accompanied by a facsimile signature. In the background, a Dodgers player can be seen sliding into home plate. This design is one of the factors that makes the 1956 set popular among collectors.
These are hard to find in high-grade examples, but a fairly nice copy will only cost you $100-200.
1955 Bowman #22
A classic set because of the televisions built into the design of the card, Campy’s 1955 Bowman card is a great color portrait of the superstar and exhibits his resiliency throughout his career. In his MVP 1953 season, Campanella hit 41 home runs and led the league with 142 RBI, but oddly experienced one of his worst statistical seasons the following year in 1954—hitting only .207. Campy rebounded in 1955, hitting .318 with 32 home runs and 107 RBI, once again taking home the MVP as the Dodgers captured their only World Series title in Brooklyn.
’55 Bowman Campanella cards are relatively inexpensive despite the tie to a memorable season in Flatbush. Near mint copies are less than $200, while lower grades sell for as low as $20-30.
1957 Topps “Dodgers Sluggers”
The 1957 Topps “Dodgers Sluggers” card showcases the middle of a fearsome Brooklyn lineup, in their last year at Ebbets Field before heading west. It features Campanella, Duke Snider, Gil Hodges and Carl Furillo posing with their lumber in their baggy Dodgers uniforms of the day. Due to the accident, Campanella never had an opportunity to play for Los Angeles, but his contributions to the Dodgers and his teammates continued long after he could no longer swing a bat.
With two Hall of Famers and a third player who probably should be in Cooperstown, it’s a very popular card in a very popular set. This one is in some demand so it’s not cheap, but respectable examples won’t cost more than $150.
1959 Topps “Symbol of Courage” #550
Appropriately named, Campanella’s “Symbol of Courage” 1959 Topps card pays tribute to his fighting spirit and ability to overcome obstacles. It shows a side-by-side of Campanella in his wheelchair, next to an older image of him catching for the Dodgers. The back reads, “Any young man who has ambitions to become a baseball player, will do well to pattern after Campanella’s all-out effort whether he was winning or losing in a baseball game or fighting against great odds in a hospital.” It also notes the Dodger’s gratitude for Campanella remaining with the organization as a coach after his accident.
Part of the final series in 1959, it’s often plagued by centering issues but good quality copies can still be had for well under $100.