Brooklyn Dodgers star Roy Campanella is paralyzed after suffering a broken neck and a damaged spinal chord in an early morning car accident

Jan 28, 1958 | Injury

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On January 28, 1958, Brooklyn Dodgers star Roy Campanella is paralyzed after suffering a broken neck and a damaged spinal cord when his rented 1957 Chevrolet sedan hit a telephone pole in an early morning auto accident on Long Island. Campanella suffers permanent paralysis of his legs, ending his career. In 10 seasons with the Dodgers, the 36 year-old Dodger catcher, who has won three MVP awards (1951, ’53, ’55) , Campy hit 242 home runs and was named to five All-Star teams. Campanella also starred in the Negro leagues. He will be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1972.

1.28.1958 – After playing the 1957 season in Brooklyn – Roy Campanella is paralyzed in a car accident.

Photos below are 5.7.1959 at the L.A. Colliseum – on the left with Walter Alston & Casey Stengel – on the right, the lights go out and matches are lit in tribute to Roy

A couple of old articles follows, then a link to a newer article from a the team historian.
From Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles, CA 29 Jan 1958

“Auto Crash May Doom Career of Campanella
Dodgers’ Catcher Paralyzed

GLEN COVE, N.Y., Jan. 28 (AP)—Roy Campanella’s brilliant career as one of baseball’s greatest catchers appeared at an end today. A grinding automobile accident broke his neck and left him temporarily paralyzed.

A seven-man team of surgeons worked over the Negro star of the Los Angeles Dodgers for four hours and 20 minutes in an attempt to repair the damage to his husky frame and relieve paralysis from the chest down. The operation had been expected to take two hours.

Within Inch of Death

Afterward, Dr. Robert W. Segstaken, head of the surgical team, termed the operation a success and said the paralysis is expected to disappear. But it may be six weeks before Campanella is up and around.

Dr. Segstaken said the injury came within an inch of killing the player. He said that a key factor in Campanella’s case was that the spinal cord had escaped injury and was “entirely normal.” The broken vertebrae were pressing on the cord and part of the operation was to relieve that pressure.

Outlook Bleak

The doctors said the operation took somewhat longer because of Campanella’s “thick muscular neck,” but added that these extra-tough muscles saved him from injury that “might have been much worse.”

Later in his recovery, Campanella will be required to wear a “four-poster brace” on his neck with a cup under the chin.

The doctor did not rule out the possibility that Campanella might play baseball again. But the future, nevertheless, was bleak for the heaviest-hitting catcher in the history of the sport.

From the New York Herald Tribune, January 30, 1958.

“Roy Campanella Paralyzed in Car Accident,” 1958


But He May Not Play Ball Again

GLEN COVE, 1.1., Jan. 28-Roy Campanella – one of baseball’s great catchers with the Brooklyn (now Los Angeles) Dodgers – underwent a long emergency operation today in Community Hospital on a broken neck suffered in an early morning auto accident.

Tonight, while doctors pronounced the operation a “success” and forecast “complete recovery” from a partial paralysis still afflicting the thirty-six-year-old catcher, there was no assurance that he would resume an active playing career with the Dodgers.

Mr. Campanella would be in the hospital for at least six weeks, physicians said, and it would be “several days” before they could suggest whether the period might run longer.

Dr. Robert W. Sengstaken, thirty-five-year-old neurological surgeon, head of the team of physicians who worked over Mr. Campanella during a four-hour-and twenty-minute operation, said:

“Assuming a complete recovery, he could not play ball before a year.”

Inasmuch as Mr. Campanella’s catching and hitting performances have fallen off in the last two years from his previous brilliant form, and considering that he suffers from weakened hands after several operations, it seemed possible that today’s accident a mile south of his home here wrote an end to his playing career.

At the Campanella home, Mrs. Campanella said tonight she had received “thousands of telegrams,” including one from President Eisenhower and another from Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, wishing her husband well.

“Everyone has been so kind,” she said.

Out in Darrtown, Ohio, the Dodgers’ manager, Walter Alston, said today: “I’m very sorry to hear about the accident, but, knowing him as I do, he’ll be back as soon as he can, if at all possible. He’s a very rugged-type individual.”

The fact that he was a “very rugged type” almost certainly saved Mr. Campanella’s life today. The crash, in which his car struck a telephone pole and overturned, fractured and dislocated the fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae and pinched the spinal cord.

Physicians said that this damage was limited by the fact that Mr. Campanella’s neck was “very heavily muscled.” National League base runners who found the burly catcher often blocking their access to home plate could have told the doctors that the 200-pound Mr. Campanella was very heavily muscled indeed.

Mr. Campanella, third Negro in organized baseball when he signed with the Dodgers in 1945, went on to be thrice the National League’s Most Valuable Player and set slugging and endurance records for catchers.


Married and father of six children, he bought a spacious fieldstone ranch-house on Landing Drive on East Island three years ago and became a popular figure in this community. He taught baseball to neighborhood kids, sent children to local schools, and cruised and fished in the Sound in his forty-one-foot boat, The Princess.

After dinner last night Mr. Campanella drove to Manhattan in a 1957 Chevrolet sport sedan he had rented from an uptown concern that was giving a routine check to his own Chevrolet. He also owns a Cadillac.

Associates said that Mr. Campanella planned to make a television appearance with Harry Wismer on Channels of the DuMont Broadcasting Corp., at 10:45 P.M. However, they said, Mr. Wismer asked Mr. Campanella to delay his appearance for a week so that it could be advertised in the interval.


Mr. Campanella agreed to this. Some time later he headed for home in the rented Chevrolet. At 3:34 A.M. he was headed north in Glen Cove on Dosoris Lane. Near Apple Tree Lane the narrow blacktop road makes an S-curve, first to the right, then to the left.

Mr. Campanella’s car-its speed was not known-simply went straight instead of to the right. It struck Pole No. 25 of the New York Telephone Co., whirled about, edged up a slight embankment and turned over on its right side.

Dr. W. Spencer Gurnee, gynecologist living at 79 Dosoris Lane, heard the crash. While some one in his household called police, he put on a coat and ran out to the car.

He found Mr. Campanella, though he didn’t know who he was, crumpled in the front of the car and crying out: “Somebody help me. Somebody help me. Get me out of here.”

Glen Cove Patrolman Joseph Brino was the first policeman on the scene. He crawled into the car, gave Mr. Campanella sedation pills handed him by Dr. Gurnee and he braced himself against the injured man to prevent too sudden movement a half hour later when a wrecker car righted the Chevrolet to facilitate moving Mr. Campanella.

“It’s Campy”

By this time a small crowd had gathered and the catcher was recognized.

“It’s Campy,” some one called out.

One witness said that Mr. Campanella was “curled up like a pretzel” and complaining that he couldn’t move his legs. No effort was made to straighten him out. He did not lose consciousness. A police ambulance took Mr. Campanella to the hospital here and X-rays were taken.

Dr. Sengstaken, in consultation with other physicians, told Mr. Campanella of the fractures, dislocations and compression of the spinal cord. They advised him that an operation must be undertaken to correct the damage to the vertebrae and to remove the pressure on the spinal cord which was causing the paralysis.


“Do whatever you have to do,” Mr. Campanella was quoted as telling them. Mr. Campanella was taken into the operating room shortly before 8:30 A.M. and was not brought out until 12:45 P.M. He was conscious soon after, and asked for his wife, Ruthe. She visited him soon after and again in the evening.

Dr. Sengstaken, who has offices in Garden City, said: “The operation was a success. Mr. Campanella’s condition is satisfactory and we expect complete recovery.”

The patient was, however, kept on the critical list, considering the major and delicate nature of the operation. The paralysis which affected him from the lower shoulders downward, except for certain arm movements, was expected to diminish slowly.

Walter O’Malley, president of the Dodgers, came to the hospital this afternoon from New York and was asked about Mr. Campanella’s playing future. Mr. O’Malley said:

“We’re not even thinking of Roy’s future in baseball. AJI we’re thinking of is his health and restoring him to a normal life.”

Mr. Campanella, whose 1956 salary of $42,500 made him the highest paid player in Dodger history, owns a prosperous liquor store in Harlem. Two of his children, Joyce, eighteen, and Beverly, seventeen, are in a private school in Philadelphia. David, fourteen, attends a school in Queens. Roy Jr., nine, and Tony, seven, attend Glen Cove school. Ruthe, the youngest, is four.”
More recent retrospect:

Roy Campanella Crash
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