Most baseball fans know Roy Campanella, at least if you’re enough a baseball geek to be reading this site then you know Roy Campanella. Not much more can be gained from digging into his short, but prolific career with the Los Angeles Dodgers. His resume is filled with the awards and recognition that let those of us who weren’t lucky enough to see him play know how great he was throughout his Major League Baseball career.
We also know that Campy had a major league career before joining MLB. He played 8 years in the Negro National League, mostly for the Baltimore Elite Giants. Campanella has always been given a lot of credit for his NNL years, but at the same time, those years have avoided any sort of deep exploration. I understand the reason behind that, though I don’t agree with them. I’m not here to argue about the laziness of dismissing his NNL years because he played less than 162 games every year, or the records are incomplete, or that somehow the Negro major leagues were lesser than the white major leagues. None of those are true, I disagree with every one of them, but that’s not what this article is about.
This article is about what we do know from Roy Campanella’s NNL years and what people who aren’t familiar with those years need to be taught. Campy in the NNL was every bit as great of a player as he ever was in the National League. His time spent with the Elite Giants was during his prime and the stats we do have show a player who was at the top of his game and just as much of a force, if not a greater one, than he would go on to be with the Dodgers. Campanella deserves to be a Hall of Fame player, but his NNL days are just as much a aprt of his Hall of Fame career as what came after them.
The year that best showcases what Campanella was capable of is his 1945 campaign in Baltimore. Unsurprisingly this was his last NNL season before leaving to help integrate MLB. In 1945 Campy went from a player with a lot of talent to someone officially challenging Josh Gibson for the title of best catcher in all of baseball. Campy was behind the dish for 50 games in 1945, and he was magnificent in every single one of them. In 207 plate appearances, he slashed .389/.483/.571 for an OPS+ of 194. His ISO of .183 was almost a full 100 points above the NNL average, while his .493 wOBA was over 100 points better than the rest of the league. Most impressive of all, his 32 walks added up to a 15.5 BB% in a league that only averaged 8.8%.
Campanella’s offense (unfortunately we don’t have much in the way of defensive statistics from this era of the Negro Leagues) was worth a stout 2.7 sWAR in 1945. That bested Gibson’s 2.5 sWAR and helped launch Campy into an equally great MLB career. The next year Gibson’s major league career would end and Campy would be gone from the Negro Leagues. Who knows how great their rivalry could have been with both men at the absolute height of their games from 1945-onward. Campanella would go on to do all of the things with the Dodgers that everyone already knows about. Those are all great accomplishments and I’m not taking anything away from them. However, Campy was great before his time with the Dodgers and his 1945 is all the proof one should need of that fact.
Lead photo courtesy of Unknown – Unknown