Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella wore #39 for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but his career is more synonymous with the number two. “Campy”—as he was called by fans and teammates—was the second African-American baseball player to accomplish several feats. He came into the league a year after Robinson, he was the second black player win the MVP award and also the second to be selected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Once good friends, Robinson and Campy are said to have become adversaries once the former began expressing his thoughts on the treatment that black players were receiving in the MLB. Campy, who was born to an Italian-American dad and African-American mother, reportedly felt that Robinson’s comments would possibly mess up a good thing. This behavior led to Robinson remarking that “There’s a little Uncle Tom in Roy,” according to Roger Kahn’s book The Boys of Summer.
Campy certainly trailed Robinson in the milestone department, but the company man was undoubtedly number one at his position. Campanella is widely acknowledged as the best catcher of his time. The Philly native was a great behind the plate and on offense. Particularly with moving runners. On this date in 1953, Campanella hit his 125th RBI of that season, the most by any catcher in a single season. He would go on to hit 142 RBI’s during the record-breaking season.
The Dodger great did outdo his frenemy Robinson in one category: MVP. Campy was the first black player to win multiple MVP awards. He finished his career with three of the trophies, winning his third just a few months shy of his 35th birthday.
Campanella’s life and career took a tragic turn in 1958 when he was paralyzed in a car accident. If not for the tragedy, he may have become the first black manager in MLB history as well. Campanella had managed the Caracas club in the Venezuelan Winter League for several seasons and the Dodgers were interested in him breaking managerial color barrier in the big leagues.
Although he isn’t mentioned nearly as often as many other pioneering African-American athletes, Campanella’s stints in the Negro League, Mexican Baseball League and the MLB are historic.