Jackie & Campy
The Untold Story of Their Rocky Relationship and
the Breaking of Baseball's Color Line
By William C. Kashatus
University of Nebraska Press, 234 pp., $24.95.
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Reviewed by Allen Barra
Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella occupy the pantheon of baseball players who became folk heroes. Their relationship, though, has received little attention, even from writers who knew them best, such as Roger Kahn, author of The Boys of Summer, the definitive book on the late 1940s and 1950s Dodgers. That's because much of the Robinson-Campanella story doesn't show the two Hall of Famers at their best.
William Kashatus, author of the superb September Swoon: Richie Allen, the '64 Phillies and Racial Integration, has taken on a tricky subject and handled it well. He's right to say the book "offers an important corrective to what has become a sanitized retelling of their relationship and its impact on baseball's integration process."
"To be sure," he writes in his introduction, "Robinson and Campanella possessed different personalities that often clashed during their years with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Where Robinson was overtly aggressive and intense, Campanella was more passive and easygoing. Jackie's race consciousness and relentless drive were admired by teammates and eventually opponents, but these qualities certainly did not endear him to the white baseball establishment. Conversely, Campy's indefatigable enthusiasm and boyish charm made him one of the game's most popular players."
Campanella grew to be jealous of Robinson's status as the man who broke baseball's color barrier. (Campanella entered the big leagues in 1948, a year after Robinson.) Robinson, in turn, resented Campanella's popularity.
Their backgrounds were a study in contrast. Robinson was born in 1919 and raised in poverty by his mother, a domestic, in Pasadena, Calif. He went on to graduate from UCLA.
Campanella, born in Germantown in 1921 to a Sicilian father and African American mother, grew up in working-class Nicetown. He left high school at age 16 to pursue baseball in the Negro Leagues.
Both were lucky enough to be called up by the Brooklyn Dodgers, whose general manager, Branch Rickey, was determined to integrate baseball. Brooklyn offered just about the best conditions available for black players in the big leagues. As one Brooklynite put it, "The great thing about being a kid in Brooklyn during the 1930s was that it didn't matter what your ethnic background was. . . . Everybody was the same. Nobody had anything."
Together, Robinson and Campanella led the Dodgers to six pennants from 1947 through 1956, though their styles were markedly different. When a young black pitcher, Don Newcombe, joined the team, Robinson bullied him, "challenging the young pitcher's character in order to motivate him on the mound." Campanella's approach, as Kashatus writes, was the opposite: "Cool and easy, Campy soothed Newk every time and emotionally stroked his confidence, like a balm on a wound."
Campanella's leadership of the Dodgers and his even-tempered personality "endeared him to the white baseball establishment. But those same qualities irked Robinson." But both men, it should be noted, along with other black players in the Brooklyn club, went out of their way to support an 18-year-old pitching phenom named Sandy Koufax, who was bombarded around the league with anti-Semitic taunts.
What could have been a sad story ended on a positive note. In 1964, Robinson, long retired, went to visit his old teammate, who had been in a wheelchair since a 1958 automobile accident while driving back home from his Harlem liquor store. Robinson presented Campanella with an autographed copy of his recently published memoir.
Campanella, Kashatus writes, "greeted Robinson warmly, and they conducted a two-hour discussion on race relations in America . . . it became clear to Jackie that the two men now shared the same philosophy, namely that there was no place for segregation, black separatism, or violence in the Civil Rights movement."
Kashatus tells their story with an appreciation of their strengths and weaknesses. Jackie & Campy is no hagiography: "When we idolize them we fail to recognize their humanity. When we criticize them, we fail to acknowledge the meaning of their contributions as well as their sacrifices. Neither man would want that."