Dolph Camilli overcame hardships to become a baseball MVP

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Adolph Louis Camilli was born almost exactly one year to the day after the Great San Francisco Earthquake. His father Alex had moved with his young wife to San Francisco after the earthquake when laborers and construction workers were in demand. The city was still in ruins when little Adolph entered the world, more than eighty percent of San Francisco had burned to the ground. There was rubble and dust and debris everywhere. Both of Dolph’s parents were first generation Italian immigrants who raised their kids in a city that was being reborn from the ashes of disaster.

One of the results of the Great Earthquake and subsequent fire were the cobbled-street sections that took cropped up around the ethnic groups flocking to the city for employment. Chinese, Irish, Latino, and Italian neighborhoods emerged. The Camilli’s lived smack dab in the middle of an Italian neighborhood in the new San Francisco.

Dolph was sent to Sacred Heart Academy High School, which was part of one of the largest Roman Catholic school systems in the world. His younger brother Francisco followed him to the school. The school would eventually become vital to Dolph.

Dolph’s father was abusive and a drunk, he frequently beat Dolph, his brother, and their two sisters. After one terrible beating when he was 13, Dolph went to the officials at his school and asked for help. The school responded by giving young Dolph a cot to sleep on and a job as a janitor in one of their buildings. This was years before Child and Family Services. Dolph’s mother escaped her husband with her two daughters, moving out of San Francisco. At that young age, impressionable, young Dolph Camilli was on his own, essentially an orphan.

As a teenager, Dolph snuck into Recreation Park to watch the San Francisco Seals in Pacific Coast League action. One of the players his eyes were draw to was Paul Waner, who played right field. Later, Camilli and Waner were teammates in Brooklyn. In 1926, Camilli debuted with the Seals and started his successful professional career. He hit .300 or close to it, everywhere he played. A lefthanded thrower and batter, Camilli was known for a weak arm and gravitated to first base where he was encouraged not to make many throws. He could always hit, and eventually got his break when a scout for the Cubs signed him away from the Sacramento Senators. The Cubs only gave him a brief look, and in 1934 they traded him to the Phillies for veteran first baseman Don Hurst.

In 1930, while he was still playing in Sacramento, Dolph suffered a tragic loss when his older brother Frankie was killed in a boxing match. Francisco Camilli had assumed the name Frankie Campbell and embarked on a successful boxing career, winning 33 bouts against only four losses. On August 25, 1930, he faced Max Baer in a heavyweight match in San Francisco. In the second round, Frankie knocked Baer to the canvas, which enraged the German fighter. Shortly after, Baer attacked Frankie while his back was turned, which according to eyewitness reports, prompted Frankie to say “something broke in my head.” The fight was allowed to continue and in the fifth round Baer battered Camilli until the bell rang. Frankie hung onto the rope defenseless with his hands at his side, but Baer was allowed to pummel him continually until the losing fighter was unconscious. Medical personnel worked on Frankie immediately, ironically the fight took place at Recreation Park where Dolph had played baseball so many times. Later that evening, Frankie was pronounced dead. Doctors said that his brain had been “knocked loose from the connective tissue inside his head.” His death was gruesome and led to changes in boxing rules in the state of California, but that did little to lessen the loss for Dolph.

Camilli played eight years in the minor leagues, most of them in his native California. He had four good years in Philadelphia where he fought with the front office over his salary every season. Few Phillies’ fans remember him, which is a good thing, because in 1938 the team traded him to the Dodgers for an outfield prospect and cash. After escaping the cheapskate Phillies, Camilli blossomed in Brooklyn as the Dodgers’ cleanup man. He put up a lot of black ink with the Dodgers, leading the league in walks twice, in games once, and in home runs and RBI in 1941 when he won the MVP award and helped Brooklyn to their first pennant in more than two decades.

Camilli became famous for having success against the best pitcher in the National League, Carl Hubbell of the Giants. The lefthanded Hubbell threw a screwball, which was tougher on righthanded batters because of its movement. Camilli hit ten home runs off King Carl, the most of any batter off the future Hall of Fame hurler.

While playing with Brooklyn, Camilli came to hate the Giants so much that when the Dodgers traded him to the G-Men in 1943, Camilli retired and went back to California instead of wearing the New York uniform. He spent several years coaching and playing in the Pacific Coast League, before retiring to San Mateo, where he died a few months after his 90th birthday, in 1990.

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