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ON THIRTIETH ANNIVERSARY : Campanella Recalls Paralyzing Accident

January 28, 1988|MARYANN HUDSON | Times Staff Writer

It was the Brooklyn Dodgers' last game of the 1957 season, and Danny McDevitt, a young left-hander, had just shut out the Philadelphia Phillies, 3-0. Roy Campanella caught that game, just as he had caught almost every game for Brooklyn the previous 10 years.

But this game was different. It was the Dodgers' finale at Ebbets Field, and Campanella was excited about playing the next season in Los Angeles. He had even leased a home in Redondo Beach.

The National League's three-time most valuable player never got to play in Los Angeles. That last game he caught in Brooklyn was the last day he ever played, because 30 years ago today, Campanella was injured in an auto accident that would end his career.

Campanella was busy working in his liquor store on the night of Jan. 27, 1958, in New York City's Harlem when he got a call from Harry Wismer, the radio announcer at Madison Square Garden.

"It was Monday, and that night I had planned to go on Harry's show after the boxing match," Campanella, now 66, recalled Wednesday afternoon from his home in Woodland Hills. "It was a benefit to raise money for the YMCA summer camp. But Harry called and asked if I would mind coming on the show the next Monday night; that way he could promote it for one week. I said that was fine.

"So I stayed at the store and let all the employees go home early. I closed up the shop at midnight, did all the paperwork and left for home.

"It had snowed a little that night, and the roads were a little wet and icy," Campanella continued. "I was about five minutes from my house when I hit some ice driving around a curve. I hit my brakes, and the car slid across the road, hit a pole and turned over. I tried to reach up to turn the ignition off, because I thought the car would catch fire, but I couldn't move my arm. So I just laid there.

"Then a doctor came. He had lived close by and heard the accident, and called the police. The police set the car back up, and I blacked out. When I came to, I was on an operating table at Glen Cove hospital."

Campanella had broken his neck between the third and fourth vertebrae, and doctors worked four hours to relieve pressure on the spinal cord. At the time, the operation was called a success. The chief surgeon said the paralysis was expected to disappear and it would be about six weeks before Campanella was up and around. He might even be able to play baseball.

But Campanella never walked again.

"When I became conscious after the surgery, Walter O'Malley was there," Campanella said of the late Dodger owner. "He had come to the hospital and stayed through the surgery. The first thing I remember after the surgery was Mr. O'Malley saying, 'Roy, don't worry about a thing. I will always be by your side.' "

O'Malley contacted Dr. Howard Rusk, a specialist in rehabilitation of neck and back injuries, and brought him to see Campanella. But it was six weeks before Campanella could leave Glen Cove Community Hospital in Long Island and transfer to the Rusk Institute in New York. It was six months before he could even sit up.

"All along, I didn't think I would be paralyzed," Campanella said. "I wasn't worried about never playing baseball again. I was worried about how I was going to support my wife and three kids. Heck, I still thought I was going to spring training.

But spring came and went, and Campanella was still at the Rusk Institute. Then the baseball season began, and when the Dodgers played in Philadelphia, some of his teammates--among them Don Drysdale, Carl Erskine and Duke Snider--would take a train to visit him at the institute. And finally, sometime in that year, Campanella said he accepted he was a quadriplegic and would live the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

"In therapy, they would sit me on the floor and throw me a big basketball," Campanella said. "Here I used to catch hundreds of balls and I couldn't even catch this big basketball."

Then life dealt another blow. Not quite one year after the accident, Campanella's wife, Ruthe, died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Campanella sent his two boys off to boarding school, and moved with his daughter from his house in Morgan Hill to an apartment closer to his liquor-store business.

"It was such a tough time," Campanella said. "I used to pray all the time. Then I met Roxie, and she helped me put my life back together."

He married Roxie Doles in 1963.

"I think Roy would have deteriorated if we wouldn't have met," Roxie said. "He was lonely, living in an apartment by himself. And I was a nurse, so I knew what I was getting into."

Roy and Roxie lived in New York until 1978, when Campanella got a call from Walter O'Malley, asking him to move to Los Angeles to coach the Dodger catchers as well as work in the community services program. So Campanella sold his liquor store, and he and Roxie bought a home in the San Fernando Valley.

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