Roy Campanella, the Brooklyn Dodgers' Hall of Fame catcher who was named the National League's most valuable player three times in the 1950s, has been in a wheelchair for as long as the Dodgers have been in Los Angeles.
The automobile he was driving hit a tree near Brooklyn on a rainy morning in January, 1958, breaking his neck and paralyzing him from the waist down. That week some of the other Boys of Summer had worked out in Los Angeles for the first time. They opened here in April.
At 63, Campanella today is as unassuming as ever. He remains kind, gentle, cautious and neat in a carefully chosen coat and tie as he peers down at the Dodgers from club level. This is a wheelchair stadium, he said in an interview recently.
Question: What is a wheelchair stadium?
Answer: It is a ballpark that's easy to get around. I could never have had this much fun at Ebbets Field. That place was getting kind of rickety.
Q: Where do you drive in Dodger Stadium?
A: Everywhere. It's a delightful place for a paralyzed person. I roll myself in from the parking lot--I have a power wheelchair with two batteries--and I stop at the clubhouse every day before taking the elevator up to the club level. I've been in every area of Dodger Stadium from the field to the top sections and even in the bleachers.
Q: What do you do out there?
A: Talk to people and give them an autographed card if they ask for one. The Dodgers made up the cards with a picture of me in my (Dodger) uniform. My (10-year major league) record is on the back but the signature on the front is mine.
Q: How do you get to the ballpark?
A: We have a blue van--a Dodger-blue van--with a battery-powered lift. I wheel myself onto the lift, then it's raised up to floor level. I'm strapped to the chair and the chair is locked inside the van. My wife Roxie usually drives. It's 20 or 25 minutes down the freeway to the stadium from our home in Woodland Hills.
Q: When did you become an L.A. Dodger fan?
A: We moved here (from New York) in 1979. But actually, I had leased my first Los Angeles house 21 years earlier--at Redondo Beach. That was closer to the Coliseum, where Mr. (Walter) O'Malley had decided to play in 1958.
Q: Did you come out just to lease a house for the season?
A: No, I was living in two cities that winter, L.A. and Glen Cove (Long Island). Two weeks here and two weeks there. Right after the 1957 season, Mr. O'Malley flew six of us to California--Pee Wee Reese, Vin Scully, Walt Alston, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider and myself. We started the two-week rotation at that time.
Q: To promote the club?
A: Yes, to move around and sell tickets. In late January, I had just gone back to New York to spend a couple of weeks when I had the accident. I was planning to make at least one more L.A. trip (in February, 1958) before spring training. We were living at the Sheraton West Hotel. I never got to live at Redondo Beach.
Q: As a Philadelphia-born, lifelong Easterner, have you found it difficult to adjust to California?
A: Not at all. I love the weather and the conditions here and being with the Dodgers. Of course, it's a good life anywhere if you accept the wheelchair. You've got to live with it and accept it if you want to survive. And I want to survive.
Q: What do you do with your time?
A: I enjoy our home and the rose garden and I make 40 or 50 (public relations) appearances a year for the Dodgers. And I never miss a game. Mr. (Peter) O'Malley gives me a (three-seat) row for my wife and guests at the stadium and I roll up there every night. I keep track of (the action) as closely as possible.
Q: Is it true that you discourage most visitors while the game is on?
A: Well, I don't like to miss a pitch--that's the kind of player I always was.
Q: You could do something about it then.
A: I can do something about it now. Between innings, if I've seen something that might help (catcher) Mike Scioscia, I roll myself over to the elevator, take it down to the clubhouse and talk to him.
Q: What do you tell him?
A: I can't tell him much--Mike is a splendid young catcher. But, maybe, somebody hit us that we should have pitched around. I don't like certain (kinds of hitters) beating us. I might recommend that we don't give him anything more to hit.
Q: Do you also look for a time and place to make suggestions to Tommy Lasorda?
A: No, I just try to think along with the manager. When I was playing, I tried to read Walter Alston's mind on every pitch--(whether the Dodgers were) at bat or in the field. It's just as much fun now because (Lasorda) and I used to be teammates. But one day I did manage for Walter Alston.
A: (In 1946) when I played for him in Class B at Nashua (N.H.). The umpire put him out (for arguing), and as he walked away, (Alston) said, "You're the manager, Campy."
Q: Did you get any tough calls?
A: Just one. We were losing by a run in the ninth but had a man on base and I decided to put in a pinch hitter. I put in a pitcher and told him to hit a home run. He did and we won by one run.
Q: A Class B pitcher?