The author of Negro League Baseball (2004) returns with a thorough, generous biography of a Negro League star, catcher Roy “Campy” Campanella (1921–1993), who joined the Dodgers shortly after Jackie Robinson.
For many pages, Lanctot offers few negative words about Campanella. The son of a blue-collar white man and an African-American woman, he grew up when Jim Crow still reigned in the South and conditions in the North were only marginally better. As a child, he quickly fell in love with baseball, a sport his athletic gifts fitted perfectly. He had feline reactions and could run, throw, hit for power and average and handle pitchers well. But as the author ably illustrates, stardom came after long tuition. Although his gifts were so prodigious that he was playing professionally at age 15, he worked ferociously hard and played whenever and wherever he could. On the road in the Negro League (and even later), he suffered enormous indignities—denied service in restaurants, hotels and other businesses—but somehow retained an ebullience that Lanctot highlights throughout. His teammates, black and white, liked and admired him—though the author focuses on Campy’s deteriorating relationship with Jackie Robinson, a tension Lanctot attributes to differences in education (Robinson attended college) and in impatience with the pace of the civil-rights movement (Campy took a long time to become more assertive politically). Competition was also a major factor, since both men enjoyed celebrity and adulation. Lanctot, pricking any balloons of legend floating over Campy, continually mentions cases of inconsistency between the legends and the historical record. Painful reading, indeed, are the many pages Lanctot devotes to Campy’s car accident (it left him a quadriplegic) and the arduous, stressful, depressing aftermath.
A bit tendentious early on, but a sharper critical lens makes the final sections memorable and wrenching.