1946 Nashua Dodgers

Sometimes my brain goes down an interesting rabbit hole. I have been re-reading David Halberstam’s book Summer of ’49, which details that season’s pennant race between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. While the climax is the Yankees’ pennant-clinching two-game sweep over the Red Sox on the final weekend of the regular season, Halberstam also provides a quick review of the Yankees victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series.

The book has reminded me of my affection for post-World War II era baseball; Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey; the Yankees and Dodgers rivalry; and the Red Sox almost mythic pattern of failure, both on the field and in their inability to overcome their prejudice against black athletes. While the Red Sox were painfully slow to integrate, New England did play an important role in the advancement of the cause.

In the first game of the 1949 Series, the Dodgers’ starting pitcher was Don Newcombe. His battery-mate was Roy Campanella, whose birthday was 101 years ago last week. Together with Jackie Robinson, the three African-Americans constituted a third of the Dodgers’ lineup at a time when only two other major league teams had integrated rosters. All three players had joined the Dodgers’ organization in 1946. Robinson received the most attention, since he was playing at AAA Montreal, while Campanella and Newcombe were assigned to the Class B Nashua Dodgers.

Photo of mural in Nashua, New Hampshire
(photo credit: Tracy Lee Carroll Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0))

The Nashua team was a member of the newly re-created New England League, featuring eight teams across four states: Nashua and Manchester, New Hampshire; Portland, Maine; Cranston and Pawtucket, Rhode Island; and Fall River, Lawrence, and Lynn, Massachusetts. The Dodgers were one of four teams in the league with a major league affiliation; the Manchester Giants, Lynn Red Sox, and Pawtucket Slaters (Boston Braves) were the others.

I will not repeat the details of how Campanella and Newcombe came to be signed by the Dodgers – you can read all about it in numerous articles online, including their SABR BioProject stories, and in books such as Baseball’s Great Experiment by Jules Tygiel – but some highlights of their time in Nashua are:

  • By accepting Campanella and Newcombe on their roster, the Nashua Dodgers became the first integrated minor league team in the United States.
  • The club was managed by Walt Alston and run by Buzzie Bavasi, who would go on to fill similar roles with the parent Dodgers for decades.
  • Alston was so enamored of Campanella, a nine-year veteran of pro ball despite being just 24 years old, that Alston appointed him as his replacement in cases where he got thrown out of a game.
  • Bavasi, upon hearing Pip Kennedy, manager of the Lynn Red Sox, refer to the pair as n—–s after a loss, confronted Kennedy with the assistance of the more physically imposing Alston. This incident appears to be an outlier, and Campanella and Newcombe would later recall mostly positive memories of their time in New England.
  • Like Robinson, Campanella and Newcombe led Nashua to the league championship that season.

Campanella homered in Nashua’s season opener, a 7-4 loss to Lynn on May 8. Two days later, after a rainout, Newcombe made his debut, shutting out the Pawtucket Slaters at McCoy Stadium, 3-0. Alston, starting at first base in addition to managing, capped the Dodgers’ scoring with a home run to center field. Campanella went on to hit .290 that year with 13 home runs. Newcombe posted a 14-4 record with a 2.21 ERA.

In the playoffs, the Dodgers swept the Slaters in three games (Newcombe shut them out in the clincher and added an RBI double), then faced the Red Sox for the league title. The championship series began with a Sunday double-header, game one in Lynn, game two in Nashua, a curious scheduling choice necessitated by a desire to try to complete the series by that Thursday, and thus avoid conflicting with high school football games slated to be played on Friday in the home parks of both teams. The doubleheader resulted in a split, both games won by the road team, then the Dodgers won three of the next four games to win the series four games to two. Campanella hit .364 with two triples and a home run, while Newcombe won the fifth game and pinch-hit in two others (he had hit .311 for the season).

In 1947, Campanella moved on to Montreal, while Newcombe returned for one more season in Nashua before jumping to Montreal in 1948. By the time Newcombe was promoted to Brooklyn in 1949, Campanella had established himself as the team’s starting catcher.

Major league baseball in New England would not be integrated until the Braves called up Sam Jethroe in 1950, while the Red Sox waited until 1959 to activate Pumpsie Green. But New England’s contribution to the story of baseball’s integration should not be forgotten. The box scores from the 1946 New England League playoffs can be found here: http://michaelhamel.net/boxtop-minor-league-baseball/