Philadelphia Wins Title – 40 Years Ago

Now that the Celtics have dispatched the 76ers in the 2023 NBA Playoffs, I feel more comfortable posting the latest article in the 80s Era + 40 series.

In September 1982 the Philadelphia 76ers acquired the reigning NBA MVP Moses Malone in an attempt to win the franchise’s second title since moving to Philadelphia in 1963. Malone would win the MVP again, and the 76ers won 65 games during the regular season before storming through the 1983 playoffs, posting a 12-1 record on their way to the championship. Philadelphia took advantage of down years by their two top rivals (the Celtics were tired of playing for the domineering Bill Fitch, and the Lakers were riddled with injuries) but they deserve to be celebrated as the best 76ers team of the 80s Era. The 40th anniversary of their last championship is coming up on May 31.

You can read the full series by visiting The 80s Era Plus 40 page.

1958 NBA Postseason Tour

I’m starting the new year with a minor update to a document I have been working on for about 5 years: A chronicle of a 22-game exhibition tour featuring two dozen NBA stars that took place after the completion of the 1958 NBA season.

A few days ago, I found a partial box score for the game on May 3, 1958, which was the last game on my “missing” list. The box score has some problems (see the .pdf at the link above for the details) but it is still satisfying to find it. For a few years, I wondered if this game, held in Houston, Texas, had actually been played at all.

It is easy to find newspaper accounts of most games on this tour, usually from wire services, but locating info on the May 3 contest was more difficult. The fact that the game was played on a Saturday did not help; Sunday papers traditionally had/have early deadlines, and “afternoon editions” are virtually non-existent on weekends. The final game of the tour was played on Sunday, May 4, so by the time the Monday papers were assembled, there was a newer game story to carry.

Program from the tour

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:

Larry Bird + 30

Larry Bird retired from the Boston Celtics 30 years ago this week, August 18, 1992. Bird was my favorite athlete when I was a kid. I’m not athletic, but I tried to emulate his work ethic in my schoolwork and other pursuits. I loved Bird’s shooting and passing ability, of course, but I also admired his self-confidence, something that I probably had too much of in my youth, and not enough of now that I’m middle-aged.

From the front page of the Providence Journal, August 19, 1992.

By the summer of 1992, it was clear that Bird’s back woes had rendered him a shadow of his former self. Most pro athletes experience a gradual decline as they age; Bird disintegrated. The sight of him lying on his stomach on the floor near the Celtics’ bench during games, struggling to keep his back loose, was heartbreaking.

During the playoffs that final season, Bird missed the Celtics’ first-round sweep of the Indiana Pacers, and Boston had built a 2-1 lead over the Cleveland Cavaliers in the semifinals by the time he returned. Bird came off the bench for two games, then started Games 6 and 7. The Celtics lost three of four to end their season. Their lone victory was a 122-91 thrashing of the Cavaliers in Game 6, Bird’s final game at the Boston Garden (featuring 16 points, 14 assists, and 6 rebounds in 37 minutes). Finishing up against the historically mediocre Cavaliers in Cleveland two days later was hardly a fitting end to his career, but it did provide a bit of coincidental symmetry: Bird had made his NBA debut against the Houston Rockets on October 12, 1979, then played a home-and-home series against the Cavaliers. His last official NBA road game was played in the same building as his first.

The 1992 Olympics provided a more fitting postscript. Bird was hobbled throughout, but got to receive a gold medal alongside Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, and a team full of superstars who had become famous by playing basketball in a league that he had helped to save.

Rhode Island Auditorium 1947

Ever since I wrote about the old Rhode Island Auditorium 10 years ago, I wanted to take a deeper look at how the arena was used during a typical year. The expansion of online newspaper archives made this project more practical, so I decided to document the arena’s calendar during the year 1947. This was one of the few years where the arena hosted both pro hockey (minor league) and pro basketball (BAA) so I figured it would be an interesting year and hopefully typical of the post-World War II period. The arena’s primary source of revenue in 1947 was hockey and ice shows, while the arena was quiet during the summer months.

Trying something new

After years of using a static page as my front page, I have decided to try using a more traditional blog post format. Announcements of new content will be posted here, in addition to twitter. I have also switched to a newer (more modern?) WordPress theme. I am still experimenting with the layout, so there may be some quirks for a while until I sort this out.