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Bronx Banter Book Excerpt

Last week, I got a copy of Neil Lanctot’s new book, “Campy,” a biography of Roy Campanella. I was duly impressed by Lanctot’s previous effort, a meticulously researched book about the Negro Leagues and so I opened his new book book with considerable anticipation. The prologue was so striking, and so fitting for this space, that I immediately contacted Simon and Schuster for an excerpt. They generously agreed, so here is the prologue to “Campy.”

Please enjoy and then go to Amazon to buy the book. Looks like a keeper.

From “Campy,”

By Neil Lanctot

FOR SOME CITIES, a World Series game is an all too rare event to be savored and debated for years afterward. But for a New Yorker in 1958, the Fall Classic was a predictable part of the October calendar, as humdrum as a Columbus Day sale at Macy’s or candy apples at a neighborhood Halloween party.

The great catcher Roy Campanella was a veteran of the October baseball wars. Between 1949 and 1956, his Brooklyn Dodgers had taken on the New York Yankees five times, coming up empty all but once. On Saturday, October 4, Campy was returning to Yankee Stadium for yet another Series game, but everything had changed since the last time he’d set foot in the House That Ruth Built. The Dodgers no longer played in their cozy ballpark in Flatbush but in a monstrosity known as the Coliseum a continent away. And Campy no longer played baseball at all because a January automobile accident had left him a quadriplegic. For the past five months, he had doggedly worked with the staff and physicians at the Institute of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation on Thirty-fourth Street in Manhattan to learn how to function in a wheelchair. He had now sufficiently progressed to leave the hospital on weekends.

His doctors had encouraged him to accept Yankee co-owner Del Webb’s invitation to attend Saturday’s game at the Stadium, although Campy was initially not so sure. He had not appeared in public since his accident, nor had he sat on anything except a wheelchair. Nevertheless, he set aside any lingering anxiety to make the early-afternoon car ride to the Bronx, where box seats behind the Yankee dugout had already been set aside for Roy, his wife, two of his children, and a male attendant.

When the family station wagon arrived at Yankee Stadium, Campy could not help but think of the times he had suited up in the locker room in the past. He had never liked hitting at the Stadium, but he had enjoyed his fair share of glory there, whacking a key single in the deciding game of the Negro National League championship game as a teenager in 1939 and a more crucial double in game seven of the World Series in 1955, the year the Dodgers finally bested the Yanks. Today, he would just be another fan.

Campy soon discovered his wheelchair was too wide for the Stadium’s narrow aisles. He had no choice but to be bodily carried by his attendant, two firemen, and a policeman. “I felt like some sad freak,” he later recalled. “It was the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to me. I felt ashamed.”

But the fans whose glances he so desperately wanted to avoid soon began to shout out encouragement. “Hi, Slugger!” one greeted him. “Attaboy, Campy!” yelled another. “Stay in there, Campy, you got it licked.” Before long, virtually every one of the 71,566 present realized that the fellow with the neck brace and “tan Bebop cap” being carried to his seat was three-time MVP Roy Campanella. “By some sort of mental telepathy thousands in the great three-tiered horse-shoe were on their feet and when the applause moved, like wind through wheat from row to row, I doubt if there were many there who didn’t know what had happened,” wrote Bill Corum of the Journal-American. “It was a sad thing. Yet it was a great thing too, in the meaning of humanity. No word was spoke that anybody will know. Yet it had the same effect as that moment when a dying Lou Gehrig stood on this same Yankee diamond and said … ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world.'”

Down on the field, the top half of the second inning took a backseat to the heartfelt hoopla in the stands. With the count 1-1 on Milwaukee’s Frank Torre, Yankee pitcher Don Larsen stepped off the mound as the players in both dugouts craned their necks to see what was causing the commotion and then began to join in the ovation themselves. Upon spotting Campy only a few yards away, Yankee catcher Yogi Berra flipped his mask and waved, while home plate umpire Tom Gorman offered “a clenched fist in a ‘keep-fighting’ gesture.”

Campanella, who had vowed beforehand that he “wasn’t going to cry,” struggled to keep his emotions in check. He smiled back at Yogi (who “kept looking back and hardly could resist the temptation to run over and shake Campy’s hand,” said one reporter) and winked at the mob of photographers who gathered at his seat. For the rest of that warm October afternoon, he tried to focus on the game, even trying to eat a hot dog without success, but he could not stop thinking about the outpouring of love he had just experienced. “It’s hard to explain the feeling that came over me. I don’t believe any home run I ever hit was greeted by so much cheering,” Campanella said later.

It was the first time he had received such applause in a wheelchair, but it would not be the last. For the rest of his life, his presence, whether in a major league ballpark or in front of a Manhattan deli, would evoke similar responses. He was no longer just a ballplayer but a symbol of something much more.

© 2011 Neil Lanctot

The Hospitalized BBWAA Writer

Last Sunday evening, I was at work, editing down the AP obituary of Duke Snider to a word count that would fit our available space. There was one sentence that caught my attention, and I debated for a moment whether I should cut it, because I thought it was unclear:

Snider hit at least 40 homers in five straight seasons and led the NL in total bases three times. He never won an MVP award, although a voting error may have cost him the prize in 1955. He lost to Campanella by a very narrow margin – it later turned out an ill voter left Snider off the ballot, supposedly by mistake.

There are a few things that are odd there – why mention that the voter was ill? Do we not have his name, and why not? Why “supposedly” by mistake? Didn’t anyone ask?

Anyway, I decided to leave it in, after confirming the loose outline of events on Wikipedia – which said, at the time (it has since been amended), that a BBWAA writer in the hospital had mistakenly put Campanella down twice, in first and fifth place, when he’d meant to put Snider in one of those spots. If he had, Snider would have won the MVP. That still seemed odd (again, why mention the hospital? Did he die later and they couldn’t ask him? Then why not say that?), but fine. I finished editing it down, ate a sandwich  and went on to other work.

Joe Posnanski, on the other hand, wondered about some of those same things and then started digging. That response is one of the reasons why he is – for my money, and a lot of other people’s – the best sports writer going at the moment. He doesn’t simply accept things at face value. I also take his ensuing post on the subject as a good lesson about following up when something seems off. If a story doesn’t make sense, there’s probably a different story behind it – I should listen to those instincts and, more than that, follow up on them. (And also, for the love of god, never rely on Wikipedia. I know this – and I never do when I’m writing or reporting – but I often use it as something of a fact checker. Nine times out of 10 it’s accurate, but for anything work-related or important, that’s not good enough).

You should go read Posnanski’s whole post, but the general thrust is:

Here’s is what the box says happened: There was indeed a writer who put Roy Campanella first and also sixth on his ballot, just like Feller said. Whether this was done by a writer who was sick and/or from Philadelphia is not made clear, and is probably not important. The BBWAA could have invalidated the ballot, and that must have been considered. But they did not. And they also did not just give Campanella the top spot and erase the fifth spot.

What they did was this: They moved everybody below No. 5 up a spot — six to five, seven to six, and so on. And for the bottom spot they inserted, yep, our favorite Philadelphia relief pitcher Jack Meyer.

There’s more to it than that and plenty of context, but I don’t want to quote too much of Posnanski’s post – I want you to go read it.

I also want to see if we can’t get “a hospitalized BBWAA writer” to catch on as a description of something a little fishy. E.g., “Joba says the weight he added is all muscle? Yeah, I dunno, that sounds a little like a hospitalized BBWAA writer to me.”

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver