Year Inducted: 1969 (BBWAA, ballot #5, 270/340)
A few years ago, Fangraphs published an article about underwhelming selections for the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA. As it’s a sabermetric-based site, there are some typical selections. Pie Traynor, Lou Brock and Jim Rice are all mentioned, but there were two names that were mentioned that were startling. One was Luis Aparicio. While he wasn’t a great hitter, he was the best defensive shortstop until Ozzie Smith showed up. The other was a player who had a short career due to many factors relatively out of his control. While he didn’t serve in WWII (he did have to work in a war-time industry but never saw combat), the fact that he was an African American man in the 1940’s meant he wouldn’t be able to play in the Majors until after 1947. As such, he didn’t debut until he was 26 years old, and then his career tragically ended due to a car accident. That man was Roy Campanella.
Campy played only 10 years in the bigs, after playing for nearly 15 years in the Mexican and Negro Leagues, where he was an elite hitter and catcher. During his 10 years in Dodger blue, Campanella hit .276/.360/.500 with a wRC+ of 123, as a catcher. He hit 242 homers, 178 doubles and 18 triples in his 1200 games, driving in 856 runs for a Dodger team that won a lot of NL Pennants. Campanella was seen as a leader on the team, anchoring a great pitching staff while winning 3 NL MVPs and a World Series victory. Campanella was also a strong defensive backstop, being worth 83 runs defensively at a difficult position in only a very short time.
It’s Campanella’s short career that complicates things. It’s evident that he was a dominant, valuable player. But, the fact that he had a short career means that any down season he has gets magnified. He had 6 great seasons, 3 kinda poor ones and one absolutely terrible one. That causes him to rank much lower than he should on a purely statistical study. Of course, this wasn’t his fault so it’s tough to knock him for it. Debuting at 26 as a catcher means that his body would start to break down a lot quicker than most other players as catchers have extra wear and tear on their bodies (and Campy’s size didn’t help things). His big injury happened in 1954, hurting his hand sliding into a base awkwardly. This caused damage to the nerve in his wrist and, while he would be better in 1955, added to the aches and pains of catching that caused him to decline quickly after that.
The Dodgers were set to open in Los Angeles in 1958, and with a short target in left field, Campy was looking to have a bounceback season. It wasn’t meant to be as in January of that year he was in a car accident that caused him to be paralyzed from the chest down. Thus ended the career of someone that had enough talent to be possibly the best catcher in the National League.
Campy’s late start and tragic accident limit how highly he can rank, but don’t take away from the fact that he was a great catcher and Hall of Famer.
Stay tuned for the next update.
On deck 10/11/16, this NY Yankee left hander was one of the top pitchers of the 1930’s.