Groundbreaking Black catcher honored with commemorative day

Inspired by TV One’s Unsung series, this multi-part MSR series shines a well-deserved spotlight on individual or group accomplishments that unfortunately have been overlooked, or perhaps even “forgotten.” This week: Remembering Roy Campanella

The Brooklyn Dodgers in the late 1940s forever smashed baseball’s color barrier. St. Paul at the time was one of the organization’s minor league stops. Jackie Robinson, pitcher Don Newcombe, and catcher Roy Campanella were the Dodgers’ first Black players.

Roy Campanella (Public domain/Wikipedia)

Campanella, a 1969 Baseball Hall of Fame inductee whose number 39 was retired by the Dodgers three years later, died in 1993 at age 71, 45 years after his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut.

According to local baseball historian Frank White, before his Dodgers debut, Campanella lived with the James Griffin family, then moved to a boarding home on Rondo Avenue as a member of the St. Paul Saints. He was the Saints’ first Black player, as well as the first Black player in the American Association.

The late catcher posthumously achieved a “triple play,” as he received three proclamations — one each from the City of St. Paul, Ramsey County and the State of Minnesota. All three declared August 20 “Roy Campanella Day” during a pre-game ceremony Sunday at the Saints’ downtown ballpark.

“He broke barriers both locally and nationally,” read Noel Nix, Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter’s assistant. “His great baseball career started here in 1948,” wrote Governor Mark Dayton in his proclamation, read by St. Paul Saints Vice-President/General Manager Derek Sharrer.

(l-r) Frank White, Bob Kendrick, Noel Nix and Derek Sarrer (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick pointed out to the Saints’ home crowd that Campanella was among the long line of great Black catchers. “Roy embodied everything that was great about the Negro Leagues,” he declared.

Campanella enjoyed a 10-year MLB career as an eight-time All-Star and was a three-time National League MVP, 1953 National League RBI leader and 1955 World Series champion. But his playing career unexpectedly ended after an automobile accident in 1958 left him paralyzed from the shoulders down — he required a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.

“It was so short,” Kendrick told the MSR when asked if Campanella’s career accomplishments are somewhat overlooked. Famed baseball historian Bill James once called Campanella the second best catcher all-time behind Yogi Berra, Kendrick recalled.

Campanella began his baseball career at age 16 for the Washington Elite Giants of the Negro Leagues in 1937 after he dropped out of school. He was later signed by the Dodgers and assigned to their minor league system in 1946, and played for St. Paul in 1948.

“Roy Campanella represents all of those great Black catchers from the Negro Leagues who didn’t get the opportunity” to reach the majors, continued Kendrick. The catcher position “was looked at [as a] cerebral position, and you has so much of that mindset that these men [weren’t] smart enough,” he explained Kendrick of Blacks as backstops.

“But actually the catcher in the Negro Leagues probably was stronger than in the major leagues,” as the NLBM president quickly ticked off:

Louis Santop — “an outstanding catcher”

Earl “Mickey” Taborn — “a great defensive catcher. He put on a show.”

Ted “Double Duty” Radcliffe — “should be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.”

Josh Gibson “would have likely been the greatest catcher in baseball history had he gotten the opportunity to go” to the majors, surmised Kendrick.

“Let’s not forget these guys,” he stressed. “We celebrate Roy because he got that chance to go across the bridge that these guys built. It’s a celebration of all those great Black catchers who was part of the Negro Leagues. Roy so beautifully represented what was the best of the Negro Leagues.”



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