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Catching Roy Campanella's spirit

The pioneering Dodger was a model of strength, even after a disabling injury. A gift from the team draws attention to his legacy.

September 22, 2010|Bill Plaschke

Tucked behind flowing pink bougainvillea and thick green shrubs, the Woodland Hills home quietly masks the force of nature that once lived inside.

The wide doors are in deference to his wheelchair. The bars on the window are symbolic of his fight.

Sitting peacefully on a bookshelf in the dining room is a gold urn containing his ashes. Typically, perfectly, the top and bottom of the container are wrapped in masking tape.

Roy Campanella, Lord knows, would do anything to hold himself together.

It is a lesson that could be learned today by the crumbling Dodgers players and their unsteady owner. It is a lesson that will be appropriately delivered Thursday night when, amid one of the most tumultuous times in its history, the franchise will officially reconnect with its toughest man ever.

The Dodgers are bringing Campy back, and good for them. In a Dodger Stadium ceremony before their game with the San Diego Padres, they will make two contributions to the Roy and Roxie Campanella Physical Therapy Scholarship Endowment at Cal State Northridge. They will donate money to the fund, and a seasonal internship in their medical department for a student from Northridge's renowned physical therapy department.

Joni Campanella Roan, his daughter, is expected to be on the field to accept the gifts. She will be joined by a most stirring bit of Dodgers memorabilia, her father's empty wheelchair. For one night, Campy will be back in front of a crowd he moved without moving, in a house that he helped build even though he never played an inning there.

This is all good, because, let's face it, of the three ancient Dodgers African American pioneers, Campanella is the one who has drifted furthest away.

Jackie Robinson's number hangs in every major league stadium in the country. Don Newcombe can be found standing behind the batting cage during every Dodgers homestand of the summer.

Campy? He died in 1993, his devoted wife Roxie died in 2004, his best memorabilia has been sold in an auction, and his foundation no longer exists.

He has several children and grandchildren living in Southern California, but there are no baseball connections here, and it's been 53 years since he last caught a pitch, and, well, when is the last time you heard somebody mention his name?

"It's so important that he doesn't get lost in history," said his daughter Joni. "His role is so significant in so many ways."

Roan lives in the only remaining monument to Campanella, the house where he lived after moving here from New York in 1978, a place where he put bars on the windows to ward off intruders who would take advantage of his inability to move. There are a couple of Campanella paintings on the wall, but since Roxie inexplicably decided to sell his memorabilia before her death, there are only a few Campy trinkets in the trophy case.

His MVP trophies are gone. His 1955 World Series ring is gone.

"There's not much here anymore," Roan said, shaking her head. "My mother wanted to give Roy's things to his fans, and I know Pops would have supported it, but now, well, I'm torn."

Her car displays Campanella's California license plate — Roy 39 — and occasionally it draws a few honks. But mostly it's quiet here, Roxie's ashes sitting in an urn next to Campy's, a family moving forward with only the memories.

"He has a legacy somewhere out there," said Roan. "I'm just thrilled when people embrace it."

It is a legacy in motion, and legacy in stillness. It is two legacies really, both born of two difficult paths. He was one of baseball's first African Americans, and he was one of society's most celebrated quadriplegics.

As a baseball player, he was a three-time MVP whose play was overshadowed by his off-the-field work as a mentor for Robinson.

'"Jack would blow his top, and Campy would calm him down, and then calm me down," said Newcombe. "We were all going through so much back then, we needed Campy as our stabilizing influence."

After losing all feeling below his neck as a result of an automobile accident in January 1958, Campanella became that same strong influence from his wheelchair. Even though he was injured just months before the team moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, Campy instantly became a Los Angeles Dodgers hero, as evidenced by the night in 1959 when more than 90,000 fans lighted up the Coliseum with matches and cigarette lighters in his honor.

That scene made for one of the most famous photographs in Dodgers history. But ultimately more compelling were the snapshots of Campy sitting behind a backstop working with Dodgers catchers, teaching them to stand strong even though he could not do the same.

Steve Yeager, Mike Scioscia and Mike Piazza all credit their development to Campanella, who lived for 35 years in a wheelchair with a presence that greatly affected those who never saw him catch.

"The one person who had every reason to give up, he never gave up," said Mark Langill, Dodgers historian. "His impact on this franchise was huge."

There probably won't be any matches or cigarette lighters being waved at Dodger Stadium Thursday night, but here's hoping for huge cheers for the stationary hero who moved mountains. Here's hoping they give Roy Campanella a nice, warm sitting ovation.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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