Even in the off-season, baseball is still on my mind. This isn’t anything new for me, I proudly serve on the board of directors for the Wareham Gatemen of the CCBL. But this year was a bit more exciting. Major League Baseball announced in December 2020 that they would be accepting surviving Negro Leagues records as official, it led to discussions of Negro League legendary players of the past with my good friend Shawn Campinha. He explained to me that his Uncle Joe had played in the Negro Leagues. Curious, I started to do some research. I found that Joe Campinha had an amazing story that was worth recognizing.
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in modern day baseball in 1947, but Wareham resident Joe Campinha also blazed his own path for equality in a less celebrated way.
Joe Campinha is not only recognized as an influential player breaking the color barrier, but he also was one of the first openly Cape Verdean men to play professional baseball.
“Joe Campinha is recognized as being one of the influential players to break the color barrier in minor league baseball for his part as the starting catcher for the 1949 Bangor/Berwick Pickers. This was one of the first teams to put the best players on the field regardless of their skin color. Just because baseball was integrated doesn’t mean teams were willing to use players of color,” Dr. Layton Revel, Founder and Executive Director for Negro League Baseball Research.
Despite Robinson’s success at the minor and major league level, many teams still refused to use black players. It wasn’t until 1959 that the Boston Red Sox integrated.
Joe Campinha was a proud Cape Verdean man. He never tried to hide his heritage. This is despite having to change his name to Campini to compete. This was common because teams had players change their names to sound more Anglo or to simply be shorter. For example, Stan Musial's actual name was Stanisław Franciszek Musiał.
“It was very common for teams to shorten names. Sometimes for easier spelling or pronunciation, other times it was simply so that it could fit the name on the back of the jersey,” Dr. Layton Revel, Founder and Executive Director for Negro League Baseball Research.
Joe Campinha got his start in baseball in the Negro Leagues and is credited with one year of service in 1948. He is only recorded for one at bat, which he walked. However, his family claims he played in the Negro Leagues prior to that season. Record keeping wasn’t the most accurate, even at the minor league level. For example, the next season he was signed to a fully integrated minor league team. Baseball-reference.com sites Campinha as hitting .269 in 1949 for the minor league Bangor/Berwick Pickers, but the March 13, 1950 Ogdensburg Journal reports him hitting .316 for that season.
The 1948 Baltimore Elite Giants featured second baseman Jim Gilliam as their star hitter. He would go on to play at the major league level in 1951. He won the rookie of the year. He was a two time all-star (1956, 1959) and four World Series Championships with the Dodgers.
Anchoring their pitching staff, the Giants had ace Joe Black. Who would go on to win the 1952 Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers. He is also the first African American pitcher to win a World Series game. Taking game one of the 1952 World Series against the New York Yankees.
The 1948 team also had Negro League legends Henry Kimbro in centerfield and pitcher Bill Byrd.
Campinha faced some stiff competition in the 1948 Negro League season. There were five future Major League Baseball Hall of Famers playing in the league:
Buck Leonard, a slick fielding hard hitting Hall of Fame first baseman. Leonard was one of the players considered to break the color barrier before the Dodgers ultimately decided on Robinson.
Shortstop Willie Wells. Wells was nicknamed “The Devil” because of his amazing fielding ability. He is rumored to be the first player to wear a batting helmet because opposing pitchers threw at him so much.
Reliever Hilton Smith and his legendary curve ball. Smith won 6 pennants and one Negro League World Series.
Willard Brown, a right fielder known as a famous bad ball hitter. Brown was known to hit anything remotely close to the plate.
“When I asked my father about the Negro Leagues, he told me about some of the great players he played with. He told me he caught for Satchel Paige in exhibition game,” Lucky Campini. (Lucky’s last name is Campini because he was born during his father’s playing days).
Although there is no box score for confirmation, there is a good chance this was a barnstorming event. Barnstorming was the practice of exhibition games where players got together and played for smaller town audiences. It was common practice for Negro League players to travel all over the country. It was an opportunity to make more money after the season, and give smaller communities a chance to see live baseball. These events were sometimes integrated and even had female players. Babe Ruth was famously suspended and fined in 1922 for participating in barnstorming events after the 1921 World Series. Despite the success of Barnstorming events, baseball remained segregated. Players of color were not allowed to compete officially with white players.
Campinha’s daughter, Dr. Josepha Campinha-Bacote, explained, “He had a difficult time because Cape Verdean people were not accepted. They were considered too light to be black and too dark to be white. Cape Verde didn’t get independence until 1975, so it was hard for Cape Verdean people to identify where they fit in.”
The Cape Verde Islands, which are off the coast of Africa, were colonized by Portugal. Their geographic proximity made them a route on the slave trade. As a result, the population is a mix of African and European heritages.
Most players concealed the fact that they were Cape Verdean. They would hide their heritage and claim to be Greek, Italian, or Portuguese. Otherwise, they would be relegated to the Negro League where their professional aspirations were limited.
Joe Campinha was proud to be Cape Verdean. He endured racism and intolerance but still put together a very successful minor league career. He is credited with one year of service in the Negro Leagues and two years of service in minor league baseball all at the catcher position.
“What Joe Campinha did goes beyond the game of baseball. It gives hope to the youth of Wareham that anyone can make a difference and overcome adversity. The Wareham Gatemen are proud to celebrate diversity and equality,” Wareham Gatemen President Tom Gay.
Despite showing great promise, Joe Campinha retired after the 1950 season. Players were not paid as well as they are today, and were responsible for their own expenses. Today, players get much better pay and accommodations.
Campinha was engaged, and his fiancé did not want him to continue to play baseball. When his team discovered that he was going to retire, they begged him to stay. They offered him a baseball style wedding and free appliances. But he declined.Campinha went on to have a successful career with the merchant marines and then in construction. Even in retirement, though, Campinha mentored younger players whenever he could.
Although Joe Campinha never made it to the major leagues, he has gone down in history for helping break the color barrier in minor league baseball and being one of the first openly Cape Verdean men to play professional baseball.
The Wareham Gatemen plan to honor Joe Campinha for his contributions towards equality in baseball. A night will be dedicated in his honor celebrating his legacy for inclusion and diversity. Please check the Wareham Gatemen website for scheduling