30 baseball books in 30 days of ’11: Day 30 — Campy … a far cry from a campy tale

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The book: “Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella”

The author: Neil Lanctot

The vital stats: Simon & Schuster, 528 pages, $20

Find it: At the publisher’s site (linked here) as well as at Powell’s (linked here), Amazon.com (linked here) and Barnes & Noble (linked here)

The pitch: On page 91 of his 450-page epic on the life and times of Roy Campanella, author Neil Lanctot makes reference to Campy’s well-known 1959 book “It’s Good To Be Alive” as a “generally Pollyannaish autobiography,” which may be a nice way of saying that facts never got in the way of a story.

Long out of print, it was re-released in 1995 by University of Nebraska Press (linked here), so that anyone who ever knew about it, or only saw the movie version (1974, with Paul Winfield as Campanella), could have a reference point.

The point in pointing this out first is that there’s nothing sugar-coated about Lanctot’s effort. To the contrary. Whether the Campanella family approves of it nor not.

The fact is that they don’t, and Roy Campanella Jr., finally passed word onto Lanctot up front that none of his surviving children or step-children wouldn’t participate in being interviewed or suggesting people to be interviewed. That’s kind of too bad. Their version of how things happened might have been a softening blow to the somewhat harsh way it is all portrayed between these pages.

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The cover portrait is the first indication that this isn’t going to be pretty — a somewhat pained, grim expression that Campanella, giving the appearance of a tortured soul, far from the happy-go-lucky, always-have-a-little-boy-in-you demeanor that we’ve been told was far more common. It’s not revealed in the book, but the shot is actually Campanella’s 1954 Bowman baseball card, one that kids of that time probably put in the spokes of their bike wheels and didn’t think twice about.

This often dark tale really is two stories — starting with how the man of an Italian father and black mother started at the age of 15 playing his summers in the Negro Leagues and many reporters still couldn’t get his name right (“Campinelli,” “Confenello” … one even referred to him as “Leroy Campanello”).

Despite having aborted tryout attempts with different big-league teams — including his home-town Philadelphia — he finally worked his way into Branch Rickey’s “Great Experiment” and realized that he could have been the first to break the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Rickey choose the UCLA-educated Jackie Robinson over Campanella, whose education didn’t even get him a high school diploma despite him insisting he had one. One key thing not in Campanella’s favor: Rickey feared that Dodgers pitchers could be in conflict with how Campanella called a game behind the plate.

Campy made it in 1948 — a year after Robinson, but became just as popular. The decision didn’t really seem to bother Campanella, who went on to win more MVP awards than Robinson (three total) and become a Hall of Famer on his own right. Or was asked to appear on “What’s My Line?”

Then there’s the other half of his life, and here’s a fresh look at Campanella’s complicated personal existence after his car accident– he skidded into a light pole in the early hours of January 28, 1958, which prevented him from playing for the Dodgers once they moved to Los Angeles. None of that really is covered in Campanella’s autobiography, written so close to the time of the accident, and never really divulged before until Lanctot, who has written several Negro League history books, decided to have at it, with the encouragement, he says, of Robinson scholar Jules Tygiel.

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While Lanctot does include recent interviews with those such as Rachel Robinson and former contemporaries like Carl Erskine, Monte Irvin, Andy Pafko and Don Zimmer, it is noticably absent of anything new from Don Newcombe.

Lanctot notes that “unfortunately, some of Campy’s surviving teammates proved difficult to talk to … there was a former Dodger whose son informed me that his father now charges $5,000 for an hour-long interview. Another well-known Dodger declined to participate, explaining that he had been ‘misquoted too many times’ in the past. And Clem Labine, Preacher Roe and Johnny Podres died before I was able to arrange interviews.”

Also, alas, no Vin Scully. He’s quoted, as are many through previous comments made in the media that Lanctot uncovered in his very complete research project.

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Through all the light and darkness, a strange, eventual contentious relationship with Robinson is also probed, with Lanctot eventually figuring that out the two couldn’t have been much different, bonded only really by their skin color. It apparently wasn’t that much of a hidden subject — it made the cover of Jet magazine in 1952. That they later in life reconciled is at least somewhat comforting.

There are also the three marriages that dotted Campanella’s life, all at important stages, the first of which is hardly mentioned in his autobiography, the second that ended tragically. But what he accomplished in advancing therapy techniques has really not been revealed before.

How it goes down in the scorebook: Very bittersweet. There are 12 customer rankings about the book on the Barnes & Noble site, garnishing a combined one out of five stars possible. We’re not sure what it says, but maybe it’s not up to the books written lately on Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle or upcoming on Stan Musial in the apparent need to revisit the careers of former stars in light of current steroid tarnishing.

It can be very depressing, painful and stressful. Not just Campanella’s post-playing days, but the writing as well.

Maybe some of us still just want to believe “It’s Good To Be Alive” closed the book on everything we wanted to know.

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  • campyfan

    Interesting review. Maybe Campy wasn’t exactly who we thought he was. Still a great guy, though. I’m buying the book anyway, as it’s received great reviews in the Times.