Welcome back to my series for Dodgers Nation, the Dodgers NL MVP Annals! In each installment, I take an in-depth look at every single MVP season by a Dodger and the player who won it. The Dodgers franchise can currently lay claim to 13 National League MVP awards, won by 11 different players. These span from 1913 to 2014, starting in the lean nascent days in Brooklyn to the Guggenheim Era in Los Angeles today.
It is exceedingly difficult to win league MVP even once in a career. It’s even harder to win it multiple times. Since the first form of the award was presented in 1911, only 31 players have attained the honor more than once. One of those sacred few players is Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, who is not only the greatest player in franchise history in a position the Dodgers have a rich heritage in. He’s also one of the players that helped break the MLB color barrier.
Born in Philadelphia in 1921, Campanella was the son of an African American mother and Italian-American father. A consummate athlete, he took to baseball above all else, but due to his heritage was unable to play in the majors due to the longstanding discrimination against black players. Thus, he took the field in the Negro Leagues and the Mexican League through the late ‘30s and early ‘40s.
However, Branch Rickey and the Brooklyn Dodgers would soon come calling, and Campanella was signed to their minor league system. After debuting for the Dodgers in 1948, “Campy” became one of the game’s eminent players almost instantly. Starting in 1949, he was an All-Star in eight consecutive seasons. More importantly, he helped break MLB’s color barrier against black players alongside teammates Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe.
Of course, these three men made history happen with their talent as much as their bravery. Campanella was especially regal, winning three National League MVP awards. His first season to win the award was 1951. He cracked triple digits in RBIs for the first time, driving in 108. He also reached a new career high in home runs with 33, earning his third All-Star selection as a result. However, the season ended on one of the bitterest notes in Dodger history when Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” gave the rival New York Giants the pennant.
Campanella’s second time around claiming the award came two years later in 1953, and deservedly so as it was resoundingly the best season of his storied career. His 142 RBIs were not only a new career high, but also led the National League, while his 41 home runs were also a new personal mark and the only time he hit more than 40 in a season. Brooklyn captured the pennant this time, only to fall to the New York Yankees in the World Series yet again.
Campy’s MVP troika was completed in 1955, batting over .300 for the third (and ultimately final) time in his career. He passed the 100 RBI mark for the third time with 107, while clearing the fence 32 times. While 1951 and 1953 had bitter endings, 1955 thankfully didn’t. At long last, the Brooklyn Dodgers finally got over the hump, vanquishing the Yankees in a seven-game World Series classic for the first championship in franchise history. Campanella aided the cause with two home runs and 4 RBIs in the series.
Unfortunately, Campanella’s playing career didn’t have a happy ending. In January 1958, just months before the team would take the field in Los Angeles for the first time, his car hit a patch of ice while driving home in Long Island. The car skidded and overturned, paralyzing Campanella for life as a result.
But that didn’t keep Campy from being beloved by the Los Angeles faithful for decades. He worked as a scout and community relations figure with the team for years, and was honored at the L.A. Coliseum in an unforgettable night in 1959. A decade later, he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1969, the second black player to attain the distinction after Jackie Robinson seven years prior. He passed away from heart failure in 1993 at the age of 71 in Woodland Hills, CA.
Over a quarter-century after his passing, Roy Campanella remains one of the most hallowed figures in Dodger and baseball history for accelerating integration while amassing spectacular play on the diamond. The “what-if” of what else he might have done as an L.A. Dodger will always haunt fans. But with three MVP awards and a championship, his legacy is hardly lacking.