His father was Italian-American, his mother African-American. And even if he was the best catcher in baseball that was enough to keep Roy Campanella out of the major leagues.
But in 1956, things were changing fast. A savvy general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers named Branch Rickey had the audacity to challenge the gentlemen's agreement among big league powerbrokers that had kept black talent relegated to the Negro Leagues.
Within three years, Rickey would make Campanella part of a seminal group of African-American pioneers in major league baseball, changing the game forever.
It sounds like the start of a story filled with all the promise of a day in spring. Maybe that's how it was for the first black man to break baseball's color barrier, the legendary second-baseman Jackie Robinson.
For Campanella, however, a pug-nosed baseballer who looked more like a boxer and who was built more like a hockey player – it was so much more complicated.
“He was almost the first player to integrate major league baseball before Jackie Robinson,” says Neil Lanctot. “He had a great career in the major leagues and then he got paralyzed in a car accident. He was a quadriplegic for almost the last half of his life.”
There may be no one more qualified to speak with authority on the subject of Campanella than Lanctot. The 45-year-old Woonsocket native and son of the late Mayor Francis L. Lanctot just wrote Campanella's biography.
A history professor who lives in West Chester, Pa., Lanctot is also an expert on the Negro Leagues. He previously wrote two scholarly works on the subject aimed largely at academic audiences.
His latest, the 2004 work entitled “Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution,” turned out to be so readable that mainstream publishers took an interest in Lanctot. And so Simon & Schuster bought Lanctot's proposal to write a biography of Campanella for a general audience – a big deal in literary circles, especially at a time when some think books will soon be overshadowed by digital information.
The book, entitled “Campy: The Two Lives of Roy Campanella,” appeared on store shelves and booksellers' Web sites about three weeks ago. No serious biographical work on Campanella has been published since the late 1950s, so this 428-page tome, which Lanctot has been researching and writing since 2006, may be the definitive story of Campanella's bittersweet life.
And it's getting very positive reviews. “Author paints well-rounded picture of a complex man,” says BaseballAmerica.com. Saying Campanella's life was as interesting for what he did off the field as on, Publisher's Weekly gushes that “Lanctot does justice to the tale."
Lanctot calls the book “an immense amount of work,” but he considers Campanella a subject worthy of the effort. He was more than just one of the greatest catchers to ever play the game, says Lanctot. Even if his “personal life was kind of messy,” Campanella managed to spin the wreckage of his post-baseball career into an exemplar for civil rights, not just for black Americans but the disabled.
Spin may be an apt description for much of Campanella's improvisational approach to telling his own story, says Lanctot. At various times in his life, Campanella often gave conflicting accounts about himself – one of the challenges Lanctot encountered in researching the book.
Campanella cultivated a “a squeaky clean” persona, portraying himself as someone who was friendly and lovable. Lanctot says Campanella lived up to the image in some ways, “but there was another side.”
Campanella married three times and had a strained relationship with his children. After he crashed his car into a utility pole near his home in Glen Cove, N.Y., in January 1958, he publicly blamed the accident that left him a cripple on the weather, but Lanctot says Campanella was driving home from his paramour's house after 3 in the morning and probably fell asleep at the wheel.
“He wasn't a great family man,” says Lanctot. “This accident, he's always spun it a certain way, but in my research I was able to determine the accident happened when he was leaving a woman he was having an affair with. There were some warts on his background which I think I dug up in the book.”
Lanctot also explores Campanella's tensions with Robinson over the race issue and the different approaches each man took to being a black man in an environment that was, all too often, still hostile to African-Americans. Campanella preferred the low-key approach while Robinson had a more in-your-face style and didn't mind being a lightning rod for controversy, sensing the social changes that were afoot.
Although the two eventually reconciled, Robinson brought out an icy streak in Campanella, but the catcher was manipulative enough to cajole the press into overlooking his personality flaws, says Lanctot.
Much of Lanctot's research for the book was “original source,” involving face-to-face interviews with people who knew Campanella, including former Red Sox Manager Don Zimmer. Though one of Campanella's grandchildren provided material for the book, his own children refused to be interviewed. They demanded control over the content, a condition Lanctot would not agree to.
ONE INDIVIDUAL from the Blackstone Valley Lanctot wanted to interview was Brooklyn Dodger Clem Labine, a Woonsocket native who was a teammate of Campanella's. Sadly, however, Labine passed away before he had the chance.
Lanctot had better luck with Gus Galipeau, also of Woonsocket. Galipeau was a talented catcher and played for the Brooklyn Dodgers' farm team, the Nashua Dodgers of New Hampshire. Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe, the fourth black Brooklyn Dodger to break into the majors, transitioned through the Nashua Dodgers outfit in the late 1940s, when Galipeau was playing for the team, part of the now-defunct New England League, says Lanctot.
Campanella played there in 1946; Newcombe played there in 1946 and 1947 and roomed with Galipeau that final year.
Galipeau, who was also a formidable hockey player, never made it into the big leagues. Instead, he became a Woonsocket policeman, and he is still alive, says Ed Harpin, a retired city commander who now works in security at Twin River in Lincoln.
“He worked for the department for the better part of 30 years,” says Harpin. “He's 91 years old now and he's living at Mt. St. Frances Nursing Home.”
Lanctot said his father, former Mayor Lanctot, set up the interview with Galipeau in 2006 – that's how long he's been working on the book. At the time, he said Galipeau told him how he bunked with Newcombe and that Newcombe and Campanella weren't just the first black men he'd ever played with on the same team – they were the first black men he'd ever met. Period.
Lanctot says his father set up the meeting with Galipeau at the Stadium Theatre, which was a fitting locale. Perhaps the former mayor's most enduring legacy is having assembled the political and civic will to embark on a successful restoration of the 1926 movie house, an institution that enjoys a still-growing reputation as a major engine of economic and cultural activity in a city often portrayed as a played-out mill town. After a valiant struggle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the elder Lanctot passed away in 2009.
Neil Lanctot is the youngest of Lanctot's six children, but his father's death wasn't the author's only experience with cancer in the family. His older sister, Carol McQuaid, died of breast cancer in 2004 at the age of 45, a few years before their father.
Neil Lanctot made sure both of them made it into the book, in a spot everyone would notice: the beginning.
“It's dedicated in memory of my father and my sister,” says Lanctot.