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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Catching up: Me and Roy Campanella

Wow, it has been a while since I have put up a post. No bad news to report here. I am just delighted to slowly be getting my life back. I am sitting up more and more each day. I am doing more each day. Things that were once a chore are now a delight. This week I did a major expedition to the grocery store. The first time I have done this mundane chore since September. My timing is perfect as my son is home from college and eating me out of house and home. No human can eat as much as a hungry 19 year old male. I am also getting out on the water--yes, I have been kayaking twice. I re outfitted the interior of my boat with mixed results. The good news is my skin is exceptionally well padded. The bad news is sitting on a roho cushion has severely limited my lateral stability. Skin cares comes first so I am hoping to adapt.

Speaking of adapting, I read a new biography about the life of Roy Campanella. Campanella was among the first black men to break the color barrier in baseball. The history of baseball, particularly integration, has always fascinated me. I have the utmost respect for the men that endured the grossest forms of bigotry to integrate baseball. How men such as Jackie Robison endured the abuse he took is beyond my comprehension. He was far from alone however. In fact, as the biography of Campanella points out there was a very good chance Campanella and not Robinson could have been the first black player in the major leagues. As much a this history is of interest to me I read the book for two reasons: to learn more about the relationship between Campanella and Robison, secondly, to learn about Campanella's post baseball life as a C 5-6 quadriplegic circa 1958. The book in question, Campy: The Two LIves of Roy Campanella by Neil Lanctot, will be of great interest to baseball historians. More than any other author to date he delves into the rocky relationship between Jackie Robinson and Campanella. This contribution is counter balanced by the poorly done chapters on Campenalla's spinal cord injury in a car crash and his life as a paralyzed man. This is a small part of the book (just three chapters of twenty) but undermines the solid scholarship that preceded it. The author, Lanctot, is a baseball historian and has written a previous book about negro league baseball. Thus to be fair he likely knows nothing about disability history. It appears as if his history of disability was limited to rehabilitation, specifically Howard Rusk and the famed Rusk Institute where Campanella was treated after his injury. The lack of attention to contextualizing Campanella's injury is not just unfortunate but leaves the reader with the unmistakable impression that a spinal cord injury is the worst possible thing that could happen to a human being. I certainly do not recommend the experience but what is ignored amid the obvious loss of movement is the social consequences of paralysis. This is where the author could have made an important contribution. Instead he accepted the dominant sociocultural belief--paralysis is a devastating physical injury. This is of course true but the real ramifications are social. Few if any people that walk can make this critically important leap in logic.

In the final three chapters of the biography of Campanella the author frames his spinal cord injury in an overwhelmingly negative tone. Negative even for a baseball book. Here are some examples:

"the almost superhuman recuperative powers that had brushed aside a blistered eye, dislocated thumb, and mangled hands now failed him. Hour after hour, he lay like a corpse, his legs useless, his arms could be extended but able to little else".

"He was what the doctors called a C5 C6 quadriplegic, an utterly dependent prisoner of the Stryker bed, with no control of his bowels or bladder".

"Just getting of the car into Salt Spray [his home]was an ordeal, involved a sliding board and the formidable hoisting skills of his now live in attendant".

"Outwardly, Roy appeared to be handling his plight rather admirably".

"Roy's triumphs--the TV shows, the benefit, the book--all helped keep the worrisome bad thoughts under control. But painful reminders of his past glories and current limitations were inescapable".

"The third Mrs. Campanella proved to be exactly what Roy needed. Thanks to her earlier nurse's training, she was unfazed by his quadriplegia and her attentiveness was nothing short of phenomenal".

"For all his undeniable mastery of the wheelchair he was still utterly dependent out of it. Each morning he began with a two hour ordeal of being lifted out of bed, bathed, shaved and dressed by an attendant whose devotion to the job was often suspect".

"Baseball, though a welcome respite as always, could only temporarily distract him from the day-to-day struggles of a quadriplegic's existence. His life remained limited to the bed or wheelchair, an especially cruel punishment for a man who had once loved nothing more than taking off at a moment's notice".

The above passages are only the most aggregious. I dislike critiquing authors for the books they did not write rather than for the book published. In this case I think the author missed a golden opportunity to delve into the history of disability. I do not expect it to be his focus but he does have the obligation as a historian to contextualize his work. He utterly failed to do this. Yes, he discussed Howard Rusk but did not bother to mention why Campanella never got a job in baseball, visited many stadiums that had no access at all and was often carried to his seat when he attended a game. Surely this compounded Campanella's perceived struggle. This struggle however was not with his body but rather society's failure to accommodate his difference. In this, Campanella shared much with his paralyzed peers who the author states he felt close to. But that is the extent of the analysis.

Maybe I am not being fair to the author--this is afterall a baseball book. But I think I have the right to offer my views as the sub title does refer to the so called "Two lives of Roy Campanella". It is this second life, one with paralysis that is exceptionally weak. It left me wondering what Campanella really struggled with--was it racism in baseball or paralysis. Obvious and striking parallels could have been made but were not. In short, to use a bad pun so rampantly used in sports, the author really missed the ball.


Anonymous said...

Does it take a degree in disability studies to learn to treat other people with respect & dignity? Can't we just accept other people as they are, for the unique & special people that they are?
I'm writing a biography of a friend who has cerebral palsy, & I want to make sure that people see him as the funny, insightful, adventurous person I've come to know.

william Peace said...

Cait, The sad answer to the question you pose is no. People who are different from the norm are not treated with respect and dignity. People do not accept others for who they are. Instead snap judgments are made based on nothing more than appearance. In the case of Campanella he would never get a job in baseball because he did not look like a baseball player once he used a wheelchair.