The canard of a certain sports team having “the greatest fans in the world” is a heinously tired one. Not only is it uttered by players from every team, but there’s no real way of qualifying it. Is it best determined by annual attendance, or perhaps merchandise sales? Perhaps its size in numbers outside of the team’s city? Or how much they riot after a championship?
If one were to be more specific, though, and consider the greatest tribute to a player by a fanbase, it’d likely have to belong to that of the Dodgers. 60 years ago this month on May 7, 1959, a record 93,103 attendees at the Los Angeles Coliseum gathered to create a momentous occasion in the franchise’s first season in California. And it was all in tribute to a player they never saw play a game in Los Angeles, Roy Campanella.
In a just world, that wouldn’t have been the case. Campanella was one of the players who made the Bums the toast of Brooklyn, in addition to helping break down the MLB color barrier with teammates Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe. In 10 years as catcher, he was an All-Star eight times, NL MVP three times, and played a key role in the first World Series victory in franchise history in 1955.
In May 1957, the Dodgers’ move to Los Angeles was officially approved at the MLB owners meeting. While Robinson chose to retire from baseball after 1957, Campanella was set to join Newcombe, as well as emerging young stars like Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, for the first season of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1958. He had a chance to extend his legend for a whole new legion of fans as Major League Baseball finally reached the West Coast.
But it wouldn’t happen due to one of baseball’s cruelest tragedies.
On the night of January 28, 1958, only several months before baseball season’s beginning, Campanella was driving home from his liquor store in Long Island, NY. Suddenly, his car hit a patch of ice at an S-curve, skidded into a telephone pole and overturned. His neck was broken, the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae fractured, and his spinal cord was compressed.
Originally paralyzed from the shoulders-down, Campanella would eventually be able to regain use of his arms and hands thanks to physical therapy. But he was still confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and his playing career was cut short. 1958, a year he should have spent in front of thousands of baseball-hungry Angelinos, was mostly spent in grueling therapy that led to enormous medical bills.
While Campanella was officially hired by the Dodgers as an assistant scout and spring training coach, the need to pay off those bills still loomed large going into 1959. Thus, the team went a step further with an extra effort. On May 7, they would play an exhibition game against the New York Yankees to raise money for “Campy.”
The Yankees won the exhibition 6-2, and the Dodgers quickly split for San Francisco to resume their regular season. But what really mattered was the moment that happened afterwards. Campanella, his wheelchair tended to by former teammate Pee Wee Reese, was rolled onto the field to the roaring adoration of 93,103 fans. Upon instruction, many of them lit matches and cigarette lighters so as to create a seemingly endless constellation of glimmering lights across the Coliseum. Vin Scully, as poetic and compassionate as ever, asked the crowd to “say a prayer for his well-being.”
The moment was all the more moving considering Campanella never took the field as an L.A. Dodger, playing solely for Brooklyn. But that didn’t keep newly minted West Coast fans from appreciating his part in elevating the Dodgers franchise.
That October, the Dodgers would make Campy all the prouder by winning the second World Series title in franchise history, and the first in L.A. Yet none of the three Fall Classic games played at the Coliseum managed to outdraw Campanella Night. It wasn’t until March 29, 2008 that the record was shattered at the Coliseum, this time for an exhibition between the Dodgers and the defending champion Boston Red Sox that saw 115,300 pass through the turnstiles.
60 years later, Roy Campanella Night remains perhaps the single most touching chapter in Dodgers history, one akin to Lou Gehrig’s “Luckiest Man” speech at Yankee Stadium in 1939. It is the moment that bridges the Brooklyn and Los Angeles eras, and exemplifies the Dodgers’ devout fan loyalty across both cities. Many teams have had prestigious tributes to their legends, from number retirements to ovations for record-setting feats. But none have been as massive in scale, and visually indelible, as Roy Campanella night. It’s a ceremony so special, it even earned a bobblehead at Dodger Stadium 55 years after it happened in 2014:
It is the 55th anniversary of Campanella Night. First look at the Pee Wee Reese & Roy Campanella Bobblehead (7/12): pic.twitter.com/QF3T9OK92A
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) May 7, 2014
For a concise, but typically regal telling of what the night was like, here’s Vin Scully reminiscing about it in 2016: