20,000 days since Roy Campanella’s car crashby Chris Jaffe
October 31, 2012
20,000 days ago, one of the more stunning and depressing accidents in baseball history occurred. It was Jan. 28, 1958, when Dodgers great Roy Campanella became paralyzed in a car accident.
Campanella, like most players back in pre-free agency days, had an offseason job to augment his income. He operated a liquor store in Harlem. On Jan. 28, he closed the store for the night and began driving home. Alas, he hit a patch of ice on the road on curve on the road. Campanella lost control of the car, which hit a telephone pole before overturning.
The accident broke his neck and compressed his spinal cord. He was paralyzed from the neck down. He regained partial use of his arms and hands through physical therapy, but would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Clearly, his playing career was over. This brings up a “what-might-have-been” question about Campanella. He is regarded as one of the best catchers of all time, up there with Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Ivan Rodriguez, and others. Campy is one of the few players with three MVP awards, and joined eight All-Star teams in just 10 years. So its natural to wonder what might have been had the roads been less icy 20,000 days ago.
Well, while his career counting stats would’ve been higher, it doesn’t look like his overall legacy as a player would’ve been much greater than it already was.
The accident came two months after his 36th birthday. That’s getting up there in years for a ballplayer, especially for a catcher, whose miles pile up a lot more quickly. More tellingly, Campanella had clearly passed his prime as a player.
In 1955, Campanella enjoyed his last great season, belting 32 homers while batting .318, winning his third MVP Award while helping lead the Dodgers to their first-ever world title.
The next season marked the beginning of the end for Campanella. His homers dropped to 20—and that was the good news. His doubles collapsed from 20 to six, and his batting fell nearly 100 points, all the way down to .219. From May 24 to July 25, the perennial All-Star batted a feeble .167 with one double and six home runs. He still made the All-Star team that year, but that was solely on reputation.
In 1957, Campanella’s batting average went up to .242, but his power continued to disintegrate; he hit just 13 homers. Though he’d never been a walk machine in his prime, he drew just 34 bases on balls in 380 plate appearances. Campanella wasn’t just 35 years old in 1957, he was an old 35.
Without the accident, Campanella probably would have hung around a few more years, but with diminished skills and playing time. Ultimately his case for the best catcher ever wouldn’t have been much different than it already was.
We’ll never know how Campanella would have aged under normal circumstances because a car accident ended a normal aging curve for him—and that car accident was 20,000 days ago.
Aside from that, many other baseball events today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary.” Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d prefer to just skim.
1,000 days since Minnesota signs free agent Orlando Hudson.
2,000 days since Phil Garner loses his 1,000th game as manager, for a record of 943-1,000.
3,000 days since Rod Beck appears in his last game.
6,000 days since Barry Larkin hits his only inside-the-park home run.
6,000 days since Cal Ripken Jr. has the best game of his career, belting three home runs and driving in eight runs.
6,000 days since Kenny Rogers issues a walk-off walk to Chili Davis in a 1-0 Angels win over the Yankees. It’s the only walk-off walk Rogers ever surrenders. Well, the only one in the regular season, anyway.
6,000 days since Frank Viola appears in his last game.
8,000 days since the Cubs sign free agent George Bell.
8,000 days since the Orioles sign free agent Dwight Evans. This ends his lengthy tenure as Red Sox right fielder.
8,000 days since a signature by Shoeless Joe Jackson sells for $23,100.
10,000 days since Tim Foli appears in his last game.
20,000 days since the Tigers obtain Ozzie Virgil in a trade with the Giants. Virgil will become the first black player to appear in a Tigers uniform.
25,000 days since the fastest night game in AL history. The White Sox beat the Senators 1-0 in 89 minutes.
25,000 days since the longest outing of Hall of Famer Hal Newhouser. He lasts 13 innings, allowing just one run on nine hits and five walks while fanning 10.
1900 AL founder Ban Johnson writes a letter to NL head Nicholas Young seeking peace between the two leagues and parity for the AL. It won’t happen for two more years.
1900 Hall of Fame umpire Cal Hubbard is born.
1916 Indians third baseman Ken Keltner is born.
1936 Deacon McGuire, a four-decade player who appeared in 26 different seasons, dies at age 72.
1942 Dave McNally, one of four 20-game winners on the 1971 Orioles, is born.
1948 Mickey Rivers is born.
1960 The Milwaukee Braves trade Alvin Dark to the Giants. He’s done as a player, but the Giants will hire him as manager despite his lack of coaching or managing experience.
1961 A federal judge rules that laws in Birmingham, Ala.,against integrating baseball fields are illegal. This eliminates the last legal barrier to integrating the Southern Association.
1963 Fred McGriff, slugging first baseman, is born.
1963 Matt Nokes, catcher, is born.
1970 Steve Trachsel, slow-working pitcher, is born.
1972 The Brewers trade Jim Lonborg, Ken Brett, and two others to the Phillies for Don Money and two others.
1973 Houston trades Jerry Reuss to the Pirates for Milt May.
1974 Buddy Myer, the 1935 AL batting champion, dies at age 70.
1981 Toronto signs amateur free agent Jose Mesa.
1982 Sheriff Blake, starting pitcher for the Cubs in the 1920s, dies at age 83.
1983 The Phillies release Joe Morgan.
1983 Texas releases Jon Matlack.
1987 U.S. senators from eight states form a task force to look into baseball expansion.
1995 Ryne Sandberg ends his first retirement and signs a contract to return to the Cubs at second base.
2001 In Game Four of the World Series between the Yankees and the Diamondbacks, a Tino Martinez two-run homer ties it for the Yanks, and one inning later Derek Jeter belts a walk-off homer for a 4-2 win to even the Series at two games apiece.
2005 In a stunning move, Red Sox GM Theo Epstein resigns. He’ll return a few months later.
2011 Longtime Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa announces his retirement. Had he stuck around for one more year, he would’ve eclipsed John McGraw for second most wins all-time.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.