Sixty-seven years ago, the Brooklyn Dodgers were flying high having just won the World Series for the first time in franchise history, finally removing the Yankees-sized monkey off their backs. A little more than two months after the on-field triumph, catcher Roy Campanella won his third National League Most Valuable Player award, narrowly defeating teammate Duke Snider.
On December 8, 1955, the announcement was made that Campanella was the NL MVP, just like he was in 1951 and 1953. He hit .318/.395/.583 with 32 home runs and 107 runs batted in, an integral part of the Boys of Summer Brooklyn team that dominated the National League for a decade.
As odd as it seems to say a player with three MVP awards is underrated, I don’t think we truly appreciate what a great player Campanella was. We know of the tragic car accident that left him paralyzed before the Dodgers ever played a game in Los Angeles, robbing at least a handful of seasons off the back end of his career. But on the front end, MLB’s refusal to admit Black players meant that Campanella didn’t even reach the majors until age 26.
He won at least one batting title in the Negro Leagues, where he began play at age 15 in 1937. He made three Negro League All-Star teams, his first at age 19. It’s not a stretch to think Campanella was robbed of a decade of playing in what was then considered the only major league.
Before Campanella debuted with the Dodgers, only four primary catchers in MLB history ever had a season with at least 30 home runs. Campanella matched that total himself in his first eight seasons. Yogi Berra, who had two such seasons across town with the Yankees, also won three MVP awards in the American League, including in 1955.
Campanella and Berra that year became the fourth and fifth players to win three MVP awards, along with Jimmie Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, and Stan Musial.
What made the 1955 season extra special for Campanella personally was that it came after his worst season to date. He injured his left hand on a slide during spring training that essentially torpedoed his season at the plate. He had one surgery in May but rushed back, and hit only .207/.285/.401 with 19 home runs. He needed another hand surgery that offseason, followed by Campanella calling general manager Buzzie Bavazi within hours after the procedure. Per the Associated Press, this is how the conversation went:
Bavasi: “Who’s this?”
Campanella: “This is the National League’s Most Valuable Player for 1955.”
Campanella called his shot, and backed it up with his stellar season at the plate, and shepherded the best pitching staff in the National League. He led Brooklyn to 98 wins and a runaway pennant. But rather than revel in his fulfilled prediction, Campanella touted a teammate upon winning the MVP.
“Winning the award three times is just an overwhelming experience, and I can’t say how happy I am,” Campanella told the Associated Press. “But at the same time, I really wish Duke could have won this one. He’s such a great hitter and, after all, I did win the award twice before.”
Snider was excellent in 1955, the third of five consecutive years of 40 home runs for the center fielder. He hit .309/.418/.628 with 42 home runs, leading the majors with 126 runs scored and 136 RBI. Snider was second in bWAR (8.6), behind only Willie Mays (9.1).
The voting for NL MVP was incredibly close. Three BBWAA writers in each city got to vote, making for 24 total ballots. Campanella and Snider each received eight first-place votes. Cubs shortstop Ernie Banks, who finished third, received six first-place votes. The other two first-place tallies went to Phillies pitcher Robin Roberts (who finished fifth, behind Mays) and Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese (tied for 10th).
Any first-place vote is worth 14 points, followed by nine points for second, eight for third, all the way down to one point for a 10th-place vote. Campanella totaled 226 points to Snider’s 221.
1955 National League MVP voting
Since the BBWAA expanded the ballot in 1938, only three MVP races were closer than this one to this point — both leagues in 1944, and the AL in 1947.
Most notably, Campanella was named on all 24 ballots while one voter left Snider out of his top ten. Had Snider received a sixth-place vote from that writer instead, he would have tied Campanella.
This was the closest Snider ever got to winning an MVP. He was in the top-two in the NL in bWAR for four straight years (1953-56), and finished in the top ten in MVP voting six times in seven years, including third place in 1953 and fourth place in 1954.
Snider’s eight first-place votes received in 1955 were more than the rest of his season combined. He got one first place vote in each of 1952 (finished tied for eighth, with Reese), 1953 (third, won by Campanella), and 1956 (10th, won by Don Newcombe).
But it was the 1955 close call that stuck with Snider. Four years later, he told Charlie Park of the Los Angeles Daily Mirror that losing that MVP was the most disappointing moment in his life.
“They told me later that one writer put Campy down twice on his ballot,” Snider told Park, who noted there was not any bitterness in Snider’s answer. “And that if they had put me in sixth place where he had Campy a second time, I would have won it.”
Snider added, “Not that Campy didn’t deserve it,” but it’s worth noting that recall from 1959 by Snider was incorrect. Campanella was named on all 24 ballots, and didn’t receive any extra votes. Looking at the voting results and points on Baseball Reference, every vote was accounted for. It wasn’t double counting. One writer simply thought Snider wasn’t among the top-ten most valuable players in the league.
1955 was one of only three times Dodgers finished both first and second in MVP voting. In 1941, the Brooklyn pennant winners actually had the top three finishers — first baseman Dolph Camili won the award, with center fielder Pete Reiser second, and pitcher Whit Wyatt third. In 1956, Dodgers pitchers Newcombe and Sal Maglie finished one-two in both MVP voting and Cy Young Award voting, the latter a major league honor in the first year of its existence.
It was an incredible season by two of the greatest Dodgers ever, with Campanella elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972 and Snider in 1980.