It’s Time to Root for The Dodgers

Roy Campanella (left) and Jackie Robinson

Roy Campanella (left) and Jackie Robinson

Nobody ever remembers who came second.

Take flight, for example.

The Wright Brothers were the first to fly a heavier-than-air craft. Can you name whoever was the second?

Alan Shephard was the first American in space. Can you name the second?

John Glenn was the first in orbit. Can you name the second?

Neil and Buzz were the first two men to land on the moon with Apollo 11. Can you name the lunar module crew of Apollo 12?

You get my point.

But the subject today is baseball.

Every body knows the name of the first black major league ball player: Number 42, Jackie Robinson. His number was retired from all of baseball in 1997 – the 50th anniversary of his debut with the Dodgers in Brooklyn – and that number now hangs in every major and minor league ball park in the country as an eternal reminder of the courageous man who integrated what was at the time regarded as “the national pastime.”

But can you name the second black major leaguer – who also wore Dodger Blue?

His name was Roy Campanella.

Roy Campanella was a catcher who joined the Dodgers in 1948, the year after Jackie Robinson. He was widely regarded as one of the best all-around players in the game until his career was tragically cut short after he was paralyzed in an auto accident in the winter of 1958.

I know all this because I read It’s Good To Be Alive, Roy Campanella’s autobiography, probably when I was in the 4th grade.

I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey, in the shadow of New York City; My brother taught me to root for the Yankees. I grew up with Mantle and Maris and Yogi and Moose. I was a lefty so I wanted to be Whitey Ford. The first major league game I ever went to was at Yankee Stadium, probably about 1960; Curiously, it was a pre-season exhibition game between the Yankees and the Dodgers – a home coming of sorts for the Dodgers, who had moved to Los Angeles two years earlier.

Which was perfect for me, because by then, in addition to being a Yankee fan as proscribed by my brother, I was also ‘closet Dodgers fan’ – because of that Roy Campanella autobiography.

Because that’s where I learned about Branch Rickey, and what he did to baseball – and America – with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Not from the Jackie Robinson story… from the Roy Campanella story.

That’s where I discovered the dark undercurrent beneath all the bromides they were force-feeding us in elementary school about the land of the free and the home of the brave and one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.

That’s when my eyes were opened to an entirely different reality, and I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for the Dodgers ever since.

And after reading about Roy Campanella and Branch Rickey and, yes, Jackie Robinson… well, I became the quiet Dodgers fan in our house. After that, there was nothing more glorious than the occasional Yankees/Dodgers World Series (Reggie Jackson!). And the two times I lived in Los Angeles, in the late 70s and early 90s, I felt like I had my own special affinity for Dodger Stadium in Chavez Ravine.

So last night, I was rather ambivalent about the outcome of the first round of the National League playoffs, with the Dodgers playing the other National League team I root for, the Atlanta Braves.

That story starts when I lived in Hawaii in the 1980s, when live television by satellite was still expensive and something of a novelty. Even timely/topical network broadcasts like The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson were flown to the islands on 2-inch videotape – and broadcast a full week after their original airing on the mainland (…oh yeah, that was funny… last week!). Ted Turner’s WTBS was the only “live” television we had; Turner owned the Atlanta Braves and put all their games on his network. I had’t been living on Maui long before I started watching the Braves regularly and became a Braves fan.

Unfortunately, the 80’s were a valley of despair for the Braves; they finished last in their division every year despite a powerhouse lineup that included Dale Murphy and Bob Horner – who joined a very short list when he hit four home runs in a single game in 1986.

Fortunately, I was well rewarded for a decade of patience through the “Chuck Tanner Years.” In October 1991 I was already planning a trip a fall-foliage tour to the north Georgia area when the Braves went from worst-to-first and won a berth in the World Series. At that point I was not going to let mere money leave me at the entrance, and I shelled out $400 for two seats in Atlanta-Fulton Country stadium for Game 3 of the 1991 World Series – the first World Series game ever played south of the Mason Dixon line (yup – look it up). Braves won. Best time I ever had at a baseball game.

So it was with some ambivalence that I watched all of last night’s 4th game of the National League Division Series between the Braves and the Dodgers. The Dodgers already had two victories in the best-of-five-series, which left the Braves one game from elimination. Last night was do-or-die for the Braves, and when Jose Uribe clobbered a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth to put the Dodgers up 4-2, the Braves were 3 outs from die. Which they did about 15 minutes later.

When it was over (at midnight – sheesh, no wonder baseball is losing its luster: 2 hours of excitement packed into nearly four hours!), the Dodgers had advanced to the National League Championship Series, the winner of which goes to the World Series.

So, with the Braves out of the picture, I am now officially rooting for the Dodgers to make it to the World Series and win the whole enchilada.

Because of Roy Campanella.

Because, in this case, in my case, the guy who came in second had a much more lasting impact than the guy who came in first.