The Phenom of Phenoms

The loss of Bob Feller reminded me just how much of a “phenom” he was. He joined the Indians at 17, then left in September to begin his senior year in high school. Upon graduation he returned to Cleveland and renewed his career. There have been a great number of “phenoms”, some fragile like Stephen Strasburg, some injured like Herb Score. Back in the 1950s the “Bonus Baby” rule required “phenoms” signed for huge bonus’ to stay on the Major League roster for two years (“We gotta discourage this bonus nonesnse.”). Those men played out their minor league careers in front of Major League audiences. When they should have been playing Double A and Triple A ball they were spending entire seasons on the bench with an occasional foray to the field. Some of them disappeared. Others became stars after they served their time on the bench. Eighteen year old Harmon Killebrew played nine games in his rookie season but became a feared power hitter who ended up with over 500 home runs and a plaque in Cooperstown. Nineteen year old college freshman Sandy Koufax got into 42 innings in 1955, but became a Hall of Famer and the best hurler I ever saw. Watching both in the first few years of their careers was painful, but it panned out in the end.

But there was another “phenom” who was just as good and just as painful to watch in his early years. He got to the big leagues at age 16. It wasn’t exactly the Major Leagues he got to. They wouldn’t let him into the Majors when he was 16 and it had nothing to do with his age. He joined professional baseball at the highest level he could by entering the Negro Leagues. His name was Roy Campanella and he was very, very good.

Campanella was of mixed race, which in 1930s and 1940s America meant that no matter his actual skin tone, he was considered black. He was a natural at baseball, excelling at school and on the sand lots. At age 16, he dropped out of school and in the spring of 1937, still aged 16, he joined the Washington Elite Giants, who moved to Baltimore in 1938. I heard an interview with Campanella years ago in which he pronounced the name of the team as E-LIGHT Giants, not E-LEET Giants. Don’t know if it was his personal pronunciation or the actual pronunciation of the team name, but I’ve called them E-LIGHT Giants since. I’m not about to contradict Roy Campanella.

By his own confession he wasn’t much of a catcher at age 16. The Elite Giants (however you pronounced them) had a great catcher of their own named Biz Mackey, who later on was elected to the Hall of  Fame. Campanella credited Mackey with making him a Major League caliber catcher.

In the Negro Leagues, Campanella became a star and was considered something of a rival of Josh Gibson as the finest catcher in the leagues (at least as far as anyone was going to rival Gibson). In 1942 Campanella jumped to the Mexican League where he was equally good. In 1946 Jackie Robinson signed his contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers and baseball, slowly, tentatively, and ever so carefully cracked open the door of integration. Late in 1946, the Dodgers signed Campanella (by now universally known as “Campy”). While in Nashua in the minors, the team manager (Walter Alston) was tossed from the game. He appointed Campanella as his replacement, making Campy the first black man to manage white players in a professional minor league game. Behind when Campy took over, the team ultimately won the game. He made the Major League team in 1948, settling in as the regular catcher. He became a regular all-star, a regular MVP candidate, and a three-time winner of the MVP award. Although “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke” may have been more famous, in the time that they and Campy all played in New York, Campy won as many MVP awards as the other three put together (as did Campy’s closest rival, Yogi Berra).

Campanella was a great catcher. He had large and soft hands, could move easily despite a distinct bulk. He blocked the plate well, threw to second well (not all that significant a skill in the low base stealing era that was the 1950s), could move under a foul fly with ease, and did a wonderful job with pitchers, especially considering the racial problems created by a black/white battery. And he could hit. God, could he hit. I never saw anyone swing the bat harder. We had a joke in the house that when he swung and missed you could feel the breeze cool you through the TV. He hit .300 three times, had 30+ home runs four times (once going over 40 for a then record number by a catcher), led the National League in RBIs once, and even managed to steal eight bases one year. As he put it about the steals, “They were laughing so hard, they forgot to throw the ball.”

In 1954 he got hurt; his throwing hand. It never healed properly and periodically bothered him for the rest of his career. In the year he stayed healthy (1955) he was still terrific, winning one more MVP award and appearing in the Dodgers first ever World Series triumph. In 1956 and 1957 he was on the wane. The hand was a problem, so was age. He was only 35 and 36, but he was a catcher and the aches, pains, injuries, and squats took their toll. In 1958 came the car wreck and the end of his career. He made the Hall of Fame in 1969, three years before  Josh Gibson. Death came in 1993.

Campanella was a big league player at 16 (a year earlier than Feller). He was a superior catcher and hitter who because of his age may be the “phenom of phenoms”. It’s hard to place him in the pantheon of great catchers because he loses his earliest years to racism and is hurt in the final couple of years of his career (without reference to what the car wreck might have cost him in playing time). Still he rates in the ten best among catchers. I’ve seen some lists that place him has high as second. I’ll settle for top five and the knowledge that he stands at the head of a long line of young “phenoms” who made their mark in baseball.

Roy Campanella

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5 Responses to “The Phenom of Phenoms”

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  2. William Miller Says:

    Nice post. Somehow, Campy still gets overlooked sometimes by all but the most die-hard baseball fans. To me, he is the kind of player who makes me side with the short / great career HOF’s over the long, consistent career HOF’s. Well done, Bill

  3. Brian Mino Says:

    Something the blacks and the italians can both agree on we both had the best catcher there ever was!

  4. Brian Mino Says:

    Thank you Vendun2. It is a toss up between Campanella and Yogi berra as to who was a better pitcher?

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