|Book Review: Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella|
Written by Justin Zeth (Contact & Archive) on March 14, 2011
"Campy" is, for a biography, ambitious. Following the wisdom that you can't understand a man until you understand where he came from, and assuming you're reading this book because you want to understand something about Roy Campanella, Neil Lanctot takes great effort to snap a picture for you of the fast moving target of America in the 1930s through 1950s, and offer it as the background to Campanella's tale.
Along the way, you'll be given some detail about Campanella's personal life, starting with his unusual childhood as the son of a working-class Italian father and black mother at a time when being a "half breed" really carried a stigma. But you never get the impression that bothered Campanella much; actually, you get the impression the constant misspelling of his name in the papers bothered him more. (I thought the misspellings were pretty amusing.) Campanella had two failed marriages, one before he reached the major leagues and the other after his disastrous car crash, and the book discusses these briefly and not always gently.
You'll find a good deal of description of what being a black baseball star through the last days of the Negro Leagues and the first days of major league integration was like in Campy, and as the book progresses you'll mostly see Campanella's performance on the field crop up occasionally to keep the timeline straight. After all, you have baseball-reference if you want to know how he performed in a given year or month or game.
The first three-fourths of the book trace Campanella's journey through organized baseball, giving him a great deal of credit for being a wonderful teammate and respected opponent throughout the game. When we reach his time in the formerly all-white professional leagues, the book brings us to closer inspection of the life and times of his black teammates on the Dodgers, most notably Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe, and the roles they played in baseball's integration.
Robinson and Newcombe are presented as freedom fighters in their own way, but Campanella not nearly as much; Lanctot depicts Roy Campanella as an avid baseball player who was happy so long as he was playing baseball, got along with his fellow players of every color, quietly bore injustice, and stayed away from the vehement race-relations feuds that defined America in his time.
I'm not even one hundred percent certain what the subtitle The Two Lives of Roy Campanella alludes to, but I might presume the second life would be after the car wreck that paralyzed the three-time National League MVP. However, after spending nearly 400 pages on his pre-wreck life, Lanctot apparently ran out of room and had to do a speed run through Campanella's last 35-plus years, which is a shame, but perhaps understandable in that it's a lot harder to build a narrative around his private life than around his well-documented public life before.
It does, as you would expect, tell us how courageous Campanella was in forging forward with injuries that, in the 1950s, a man was not expected to live more than a few years with (Campanella died in 1993 and was considered something of a medical wonder), and how fanatic a baseball fan he remained for the rest of his life.
If you dislike biographies that carry heavy social commentaries, Campy is for you. Ever-present in the narrative is the furor that surrounded baseball's integration -- and really the United States' integration, which baseball kick-started -- but it creates the impression that race relations were an unfortunate distraction from playing baseball more than a personal crusade.
Overall, Campanella comes off in a very positive light as a ballplayer, as well he should, and a flawed but decent human being, as we all should. Campy is not a compelling page turner, but it is a well-paced narrative of Campanella's life and the forces that sometimes controlled and directed it.
The book is a worthy addition to your shelf and earns a solid rating of 2.5 balls.
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