Someone once argued that Roy Campanella, the rotund catcher of the Dodgers known as ‘Biscuit Pants,” liked to celebrate his best seasons by eating a bit too much in the ensuing off-season. That, the experts claimed, was why Campy had a pattern of odd-season success.
But, after his down year in 1952, Campanella decided to keep his shin guards close at hand, embarking on a whirlwind 25-game month-long exhibition tour in the American south. Campanella’s tour was a rousing success, attracting an estimated 60,000 spectators in 21 cities from South Carolina to Georgia to Oklahoma and Texas. The “Campy All-Stars” posted an 18-7 record.
Exhibition tours are a thing of the past, but for decades it was common for stars to headline jaunts across the country or even overseas. Bob Feller, the legendary “Rapid Robert”, once claimed to have thrown his blazing fastball in front of more than one million fans on six continents over the years. Negro leaguers frequently barnstormed across the south in winter months, typically under the name of a star like pitcher Satchel Paige.
Campy’s troupe included a few close friends like Giants’ outfielder Monte Irvin, Cleveland outfielder Larry Doby, and Joe Black, the famed Brooklyn picher. All of those men had once plied their trade in the negro leagues. Doby, Irvin, and Campanella served as transportation officers too: each brought their own automobiles for the 25-game exhibition tour.
“I think I lost some pounds,” Campanella joked after returning to the east coast in late November having played every game of the trip. “I didn’t play every inning, but I played every game,” he said.
Campanella even took a turn on the mound, pitching four scoreless innings against a negro league all-star team in Baton Rouge. “I had a little slider,” he said, “but I couldn’t get my curveball over.”
Hank Thompson of the Giants may have had the most interesting experience during Campy’s star-studded tour. In Oklahoma, his home state, Thompson batted leadoff, started the game on the mound (Thompson was a position player in the big leagues), and played the balance of the game at second base. Thompson struck out six batters in four innings but relied on a fastball that the opposing team teed off on. He hit a triple to delight his Okie friends and family.
The tour brought the players 9,000 miles across the south, touching no fewer than eight states. Campy was so happy with the success of his endeavor that he booked additional games, but baseball commissioner Ford Frick ordered the gang to stop.
A complete list of participants is not available, and some players popped in and out of the lineup. Irvin served only as a pinch-hitter, but according to one account, he was 6-for-10 off the bench for Campy’s All-Stars. Future Hall of Fame pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm also pitched in the series, as did Whitey Lockman, Don Mueller, and Billy Rigney, all members of the Giants.
Campy claimed to have another purpose during his exhibition tour: as a clandestine scout for the Brooklyn club. “I found a pitcher, and he’s really something,’ Campanella told The Sporting News. “I can’t tell you his name because I don’t want to tip off the other scouts. He’s only 19, he’s big: about 6’1 and 180 pounds. He’s fast and he’s got the best natural curve I’ve ever seen.” No word on whether that young pitcher ever made it to the big leagues.
One of the highlights for Campanella was a stop in Farmville, Virginia, where he hooked up with a teammate. Pitcher Don Newcombe was stationed at an Army base nearby and secured leave to visit with Campy and the other players. “Newk looked good,” Campanella said. “I’d heard he weighed 270 pounds but that’s a lot of malarkey. He looked in good shape …”
How did Campy respond to his off-season exhibition? In 1953 he reported to spring training camp in great shape, pleasing manager Chuck Dressen, who frequently hounded his husky catcher about his weight. In 1953, Roy had his career year: 41 homers, 142 RBIs, 103 runs, a .312 batting average, and a .611 slugging mark. He led the Dodgers to the pennant and won his second Most Valuable Player Award. Two years later, once again in an odd-numbered year, Campanella won his third MVP.