Last Christmas, Emily came home with the startling revelation that Santa Claus was not real. She was only six years old, and to me, that is much too young to be faced with that harsh reality. As a Christian, it is imperative that my kids grow up knowing the true meaning of Christmas, but I actually have no issues when the subject comes to Santa.
Heck, I still believe.
Still, it was hard for me to see this little girl coming to the realization already that a truth she had come to trust was nothing but an illusion.
I’d like to think that at 44 years of age there are very few things like that for me to deal with, but every so often my own little world gets thrown for a loop.
I grew up loving baseball and the Dodgers, and at a very early age I became fascinated with the history of the team, particularly all of the stories about the trials and tribulations of their time in Brooklyn. I listened to Vin Scully on an old transistor radio telling stories of Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Jackie Robinson and Carl Furillo. One of my boyhood chums, Mike Begneaud told me about a book he read called Roy Campanella: Man of Courage. “Campy” was the happy-go-lucky catcher for the Brooklyn team whose career was cut short after he was paralyzed from the neck down in an automobile accident. I never read the book, but Mike told me all about the story of Campanella’s career, the accident and his courageous post-baseball life as a quadriplegic.
It was a story that always stuck with me, and even though I was too young to have ever seen him play, Roy Campanella has always been one of my favorite players. One of the many stories about Campy that I’ve always treasured involves a benefit game played by the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees in 1959 at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. It was “Roy Campanella Night” and in the middle of the game they stopped the action and Pee Wee Reese wheeled Roy out to the middle of the field. The lights were turned off and most of the 93,000 fans in attendance lit matches that created an amazing glow. It was a fitting tribute given by fans who knew Roy Campanella by name only, as he’d never played in Los Angeles. Some had only seen him on television playing for the team in Brooklyn, while many others did not know him at all. They would always remember him after that night.
So I’ve lived a lot of years loving baseball and loving the stories and memory of Roy Campanella. He won three Most Valuable Player awards and was a friend and teammate of Jackie Robinson, who was the first African-American to play in the major leagues in 1947. Campy, the son of an Italian immigrant father and African-American mother, joined Robinson on the Dodgers’ roster the following season. I learned that like most ball players in the 1940s-50s, Campy had to work another job in the off-season to support his family. He owned a successful liquor store in Harlem. He and his wife Ruthe were married in 1945 and they had three kids.
The story of his accident was always a bit painful to handle. It happened in the wee hours of a frosty New York morning in January, 1958. It was only a few months before the Brooklyn Dodgers would become the L.A. Dodgers. The story was that Campy stayed at the store late to do some inventory and close up shop before heading home. He was driving a rental car. On a snowy, slick stretch of Dosoris Lane in Glen Cove, NY, Campanella lost control of the car, which skidded before crashing into a utility pole. The car overturned, and Roy Campanella’s life was about to change forever. He was not wearing a seatbelt, so he was thrown violently across the seat, into the dashboard and ultimately onto the floor. He had broken his neck. He was paralyzed.
Campy spent months in different hospitals with Ruthe by his side. Against all odds he went through rehabilitation and was ultimately hired to work for the Dodgers as a scout and coach. Ruthe had passed away in 1963, however Campy found the new love of his life – Roxie – and married her in 1964. He and Roxie stayed together up until Roy’s death in 1993.
It’s a tragic story, but one that has always been full of courage, selflessness, love, devotion, dedication and baseball.
Unfortunately yesterday was my day of reckoning with regard to Roy Campanella. Like Emily’s experience with Santa Claus, this too was so very painful for me to comprehend.
I’m reading a new book on the life of Roy Campanella called Campy – The Two Lives of Roy Campanella by Neil Lanctot. I was assuming that the title had much to do with the fact that Campy really did have two lives, a baseball life and a post-baseball life as a crusading wheelchair-bound inspiration for many. Early on in the book the writer makes it very clear that many prior stories and anecdotes based on Campanella’s memories typically failed some simple fact checking. When Campy had recalled going 3-for-4 in a particular game the box score or game summary told a different story. Conversations told from Roy’s perspective long ago are continually refuted by multiple sources throughout. But it is not as though the writer is out to make Campanella look like a liar. No, he is simply setting the record straight, and in doing so he actually makes Campy’s accomplishments shine a bit brighter in retrospect.
Still, as I made my way through the book and got closer and closer to the auto accident I had a strange sense of dread.
I read how Campanella and Robinson, who had been close friends and roommates, whose families spent quality time together, were at odds and feuding with each other. Jackie was playing for a cause it seemed while Roy was an Uncle Tom, just happy to be a black man playing a white man’s game. The two stopped speaking to each other, sometimes making appearances at charity events and barely acknowledging the other.
The dread was getting stronger as I turned the pages and read about Roy’s difficulty in navigating a tight S-curve on that cold January morning.
Then, like Roy’s body smashing into the dashboard and being faced with a new reality, my boyhood memories crashed into a heap of ruin from which I won’t recover from soon.
Roy hadn’t stayed late at the store to close up. He was seen at a bar having drinks.
Campy wasn’t taking inventory of his store’s merchandise. He was with his mistress.
Roy Campanella hadn’t experienced difficulty navigating a tough turn. He’d fallen asleep at the wheel.
Further, he and Ruthe hadn’t been getting along at all since the accident. There are stories of her abusing him (locking him a darkened bedroom, slapping him and sticking a used tampon in his face) and he, verbally abusing her.
They had separated in 1960 and were engaged in a brutal and bitter divorce where Campy was refusing to provide adequate living money for Ruthe and the three kids. She was forced to sell belongings to pay bills and feed mouths. One day while on the phone with the Internal Revenue Service and trying to determine Roy’s net worth, Ruthe dropped dead in mid-sentence. A brain hemorrhage.
This was all too much for me to take. I felt like a family member had come to me to announce that they were actually not related to me at all, and worse, didn’t love me. I felt betrayed and lied to. Ultimately I just felt bad for everyone involved, Roy, Ruthe, Roxie, the kids, Jackie Robinson, everyone in Brooklyn and those 93,000 folks at the Coliseum.
I felt bad for Emily because I now had a true taste for the reality that Santa Claus is not real in her world any more.
I still have some 100 pages to go in the book. Normally at this point in a good read I typically endure the end-of-the-book remorse, where I usually slow down my pace to try to prolong the reading experience. It seems like I can’t wait for this story to end before it gets any worse. I want it all to just be some big joke. I wish I had read Roy Campanella: Man of Courage instead.
Somewhere out there is Mike Begneaud, and I’m hoping that he has only the memories of Campy from that childhood reading of a much simpler time. Told from the perspective of Roy’s flawed and selective memories, the stories are thick and sweet. The way they were supposed to be.
You see photos from the 40s and 50s and the black and white images of smiling ball players takes us back to what seems like such a simple time, a time I often find myself longing for. I listen to Jack Benny, and Gracie and Allen, along with some other old radio programs and I wonder if I wasn’t meant to actually live in the bygone days of old.
Roy Campanella is from that time. His smile portrayed an optimism that in the glaring light of new revelations perhaps speaks more for his character than I once thought. His life was not an easy one, yet there he is – always smiling. In his Dodgers uniform after losing to the Yankees – Campy’s smiling. Bad call at home plate? Smiling. Stuck in a wheelchair for the last 30+ years of his life? Roy Campanella defiantly smiles at all comers.
A few days after Christmas Emily asked the following: “Hey, I know Santa isn’t real, but the Elves are still real, right?”
The Man of Courage version of Roy Campanella wasn’t so much a lie as much as it was a loving focus on happier times.
The new Two Lives version of the warts and all Campy is a stark reminder that Santa isn’t real, tornadoes and tsunamis are killing people and that life is hard.
If you don’t mind I think I’d like to join my daughter in her imagination, where Santa may or may not be real, the Elves are very real, and Roy Campanella is able to walk up and give a hug to his friend Jackie Robinson again. I like that world.