A Born Catcher
Roy Campanella was born in Homestead, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1921. His mother, Ida, was African
American, while his father, John, was an immigrant from Italy. As a boy, Campanella worked in his father's produce business and also helped his brother to deliver milk. He first seriously played the game that was to make him famous while still in high school. The position of catcher was a natural for him even then, since at five feet, nine and one half inches, he was relatively short, and at 190 pounds, was fairly heavy. Also, he discovered when trying out for the Simon Gratz High School team, no one else wanted to play catcher.
Campanella was just 15 years old in 1937 when he first played professional baseball. This was when he dropped out of school to become a member of the Bacharach Giants, based in Brooklyn, New York. Not long after, he joined the Baltimore Elite Giants, a team of the Negro National League. He remained with the Negro Leagues for nine years, playing each season for $3,000 a season. He played an often-grueling schedule with the Elite Giants, once playing four games in a single day. Also in the Negro League, Campanella learned to play in spite of injuries that would have stopped a lesser player. "You didn't get hurt when you played in the Negro league," he was later quoted as saying by Robert McG. Thomas Jr. of the New York Times. "You played no matter what happened to you because if you didn't play, you didn't get paid." During the off-seasons, in the winter, Campanella played for Latin league baseball teams in Latin America. His ability to speak Spanish was a major asset there, and he was often called upon to manage the teams on which he played.
Campanella advanced to the major leagues in 1948, when he began playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers' major league team. This was only a year after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues. Campanella had actually been approached by Dodgers president Wesley Branch Rickey about joining the team in 1945. But Campanella had refused the offer, thinking that Rickey was trying to recruit him for a Negro League team he was said to be putting together. In reality, the supposed Negro League team was a cover masking Rickey's efforts to recruit black players for the Dodgers. Rickey made his offer a little more plain the following season, and this time Campanella accepted.
The year was 1946, and Campanella's first assignment with the Dodgers was on the organization's minor league Class B farm team in Nashua, New Hampshire, where he was paid about $200 a month. This represented a drastic cut in pay, but the chance it gave him to play for the major leagues was too good to pass up. Campanella quickly became one of the team's top players, and a favorite of local fans, who often presented him with gifts of chickens when he pitched winning games.
Campanella played a total of 113 games with the Nashua Dodgers, scoring a .290 batting average. Dodger president Rickey moved Campanella up to the Class AAA team in Montreal, where, in 1947, he played catcher for 135 games, hit 13 home runs, and scored a.273 batting average. This was the same year that Jackie Robinson became the first black player to play in the major leagues. Campanella was following in Robinson's footsteps; Robinson had only the year before played on the Montreal team.