The Nashua Dodgers: America’s first integrated pro baseball team in the 20th Century

Holman Stadium will officially be added to the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire May 30 with a commemorative plaque and dedication ceremony.

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Mural commemorating Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella at Holman Stadium. Photo/Tracy Lee Carroll via Flickr

NASHUA, NHOn Tuesday, May 30, Holman Stadium will officially become part of the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, when a plaque is dedicated honoring the ballyard’s role in serving as the home of the first integrated American professional baseball team in the 20th Century. The 1946 Nashua Dodgers featured  Negro Leagues veterans Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, who along with Jackie Robinson, were the nucleus of the 1949-56 Brooklyn Dodgers Dynasty that won five National League pennants and one World Series in eight years.

The breaking of professional baseball’s “color bar” is a story told always in the context of one man. A man who made his mark first as a ballplayer in Montreal before making history in the playing fields of the National League, as well as in Yankee Stadium during six Octobers. His story is the stuff of legend. His story is essential to the idea of America and Americans in the post-World War II era.

Yet, the state of New Hampshire played a significant part in the history of post-World War II baseball due to Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey’s intricate chess game to break Major League Baseball’s “color bar.”

Major League Baseball, governed by the National Agreement, implemented de facto segregation via a gentleman’s agreement toward the end of the 19th Century, the time when the post-Civil War Black Codes of the South hardened into the more virulently racist “Jim Crow” laws. Racial segregation was declared constitutional in 1896 by the U.S. Supreme Court, with Maine-born Chief Justice Melville Fuller crafting the “separate but equal” doctrine that was the rule of law until 1954 when it was struck down by the Warren Court. That was the year a racially integrated team spearheaded by Larry Doby, the second African American to break baseball’s color bar, lost the World Series to another racially integrated team led by Negro Leagues veteran Willie Mays. It is the first time two racially integrated teams had played against each other in the Fall Classic.

This great drama that was the integration of Major League Baseball happened immediately after World War II, in which one million African American men and many African American women served a country that relegated them to second-class citizenship. That part of the drama of integrating the MLB would be played out in Quebec and New Hampshire may have something to do with Branch Rickey’s military service in France during the First World War.

Jackie Robinson. Photo by Bob Sandberg, Look photographer via Wikipedia

Breaking  the Color Bar

On April 15, 1947, America changed forever when a player made his National League debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, playing first base in a game against the Boston Braves. A WWII vet, former 2nd Lieutenant Jackie Robinson was black, and no black man had played in Major League Baseball since the end of the 19th Century.

Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract in 1945 as he thought he had the right stuff to become the first African American to play in the MLB in over half a century. He knew that the first black player would be subjected to horrific abuse by racist fans. Rickey needed a player who not only was gifted athletically but possessed great character, a man who had what it took to stand up and deliver under monstrous conditions.

As Branch Rickey knew, Jackie Robinson was treated horrifically.

And as Branch Rickey knew, Jackie Robinson did stand up to the abuse and overcame it. How he overcame it is the stuff of legend. An American legend that was real, not exaggerated, reported every day in the press.

Robinson developed into an outstanding player who became the first African American to win an MLB Most Valuable Player Award in 1949, when he led the Brooklyn Dodgers to the National League pennant. The Robinson’s Dodgers won five more pennants between 1949 and 1956, and the Brooklyn franchise’s only World Series victory in 1955.

Jackie Robinson is a legend not just of baseball but of American culture. His uniform number was retired by MLB in 1997, and all teams were required to not just retire the number but to honor him in their ballparks. In 2004, MLB instituted “Jackie Robinson Day” where on April 15 of that year and every year to come,  every player on every team wears No. 42.

What more can be said about the man? When he died in October 1972, I was in the eighth grade at Parkside Junior High in Manchester. Our social studies teacher started out our class talking about Robinson and his meaning to this country. Even then, Jackie had achieved a stature attained by no other American athlete with the exception of Jim Thorpe,  the Native American whose athletic career was a story of tragedy rather than the triumph of the career of #42.

The Legend of Jackie Robinson is epic: It was a watershed moment in American history, not just baseball. Yet, the legend eclipses the trials and triumphs of other African American players from the Negro Leagues, his contemporaries, who also made the transition to Major League Baseball, “America’s Favorite Pastime” in 1946.

Based on talent alone, Jackie Robinson might not have become the first player to break the color bar. It might have been future Hall of Famer Larry Doby. The Negro Leagues veteran led the American League’s Cleveland Indians to two World Series appearances in an era where the New York Yankees won the AL pennant every year from 1947 to 1964 except for ’48, ’54 and 1959.

Doby became the first African American player in the history of the American League on July 5th, 1947, a little less than three months after Jackie Robinson made history. He suffered what Jackie Robinson suffered. He, too, prevailed.

Larry Doby could have been the first. Yet another former Negro Leagues player, an African American in Robinson’s own organization, could have been the first. For Branch Rickey had signed other black prospects to the Dodgers organization.

Jackie Robinson had been assigned by Rickey to the Montreal Royals of the Class A International League for the  1946 season. That same year, two Negro League veterans made their debut with a brand new team in the Class B New England League. One of them became the first African American player to win a Most Valuable Player award in the MLB system, when he and his African American teammate led Nashua to the 1946 New England League championship. He would also become the first black player to win three MLB MVP awards as he made his own legend.

In all, the three men who played in Quebec, Canada, and New Hampshire in 1946 would win a total of five MVP awards in the National League.

Montreal and Nashua

While future Hall of Fame Jackie Robinson spent 1946 season in Montreal, his fellow future Hall of Famer Roy Campanella, a catcher, and Don Newcombe, a pitcher who would win the first Cy Young Award along with the MVP in 1956, were taking the field in the Gateway City. Both “Campy” and “Newk”  were part of the Opening Day roster on the Nashua Dodgers, the first integrated American professional baseball team in the 20th Century.

Montreal was a Triple A ball club, then as now, the highest tier of the minor leagues, while the Nashua Dodgers were B-ball. One may equate a B-ball team as the equivalent of today’s Double-A baseball,  the same level as the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, but in that period, classifications in the minors were based on the population of the area the club’s league played in, as well as contractual conditions. The Nashua team was in the high minors, but not the elite, and there is no doubt Campanella’s tale and experience would have placed him higher in the baseball organizational chart, but for racism.

There are two stories as to why Nashua was chosen to become the home of the first integrated American professional baseball team in the 20th Century.

The official story is that Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey, who also held an ownership stake in the team, wanted to put Campy and Newk in Danville, Illinois, in the Three-I League, a high minor league. Both league officials and those running the team told Rickey that black players would not be acceptable. Since all his other farm teams were in the Deep South, Rickey decided to send them to Nashua.

Nashua Dodgers General Manager Buzzie Bavasi and Player-Manager Walt Alston, who would go on to win many pennants and World Series victories with the National League Club, were enthusiastic about Campanella and Newcombe.

There’s another story. The Nashua franchise was brand new, and the New England League it joined was semi-pro in 1945, being elevated to professional status that same year the minor leagues were integrated.

Jackie Robinson, left, and Branch Rickey in the Dodgers Brooklyn offices, January 24, 1950. Photo/Public Domain

This story tells us Branch Rickey created the Nashua franchise to serve as an incubator for Black talent. Someone as experienced and talented as Roy Campanella could have jumped to the major leagues at the same time as Jackie Robinson, but as Don Newcombe later said, Rickey had decided that the entrance of black players would be ’staggered.” Black players would be introduced into the Big Leagues slowly.

Why did Branch Rickey pick Nashua for his farm team for Black talent? Primarily due to a fluke, the Granite State’s large French Canadian population. The nucleus of the Brooklyn Dodgers Dynasty of 1949-56 was forged in Montreal, Quebec and Nashua, New Hampshire.

Branch Rickey hoped that his Black players would have an easier time breaking in to all-white baseball with its scores of racist redneck rabble-rouser players if their hometown team and other teams in their leagues weren’t as overtly racist as was the post-WWII norm. The fans were also a consideration. Rickey felt that Black players needed to play in areas where fans were more accepting of Black people. The mentality of fans in the South, where racism was still the norm, would defeat his experiment.

Rickey knew that wherever they played, they would face bigotry and race-baiting. As with Robinson, he had Campanella and Newcombe pledge that they would not fight back if provoked, as the term “race riot” in the America of his time meant white folks going into black sections of towns and committing murder and arson.

Nine-year Dodgers veteran Dixie Walker, a southerner known as “The People’s Cherce” in the borough of Brooklyn, expressed his unwillingness to play with a player of color, but he ate his words and began extolling the virtues of Jackie Robinson as #42 led ”Dem Bums” to the World Series. The People’s Cherce earned a share of the post-season gate for the seven-game series, but Robinson — voted the National League Rookie of the Year — was bitter about the way he was treated, and Rickey traded Dixie after the season ended.

Dodgers players earned World Series money in six of ten years Jackie Robinson played with the team.

Branch Rickey was from St. Louis, Missouri, a former slave state with a deep culture of racism. (Ironically, it was Missouri-born President Harry S Truman who desegregated the military in 1948, the same Harry Truman whose mother as a girl had been interned along with other rebels in a Union Army concentration camp and refused to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom when visiting the White House.)

Rickey hoped to give Jackie, Campy and Newk a buffer zone by assigning them to teams in Montreal and Nashua.

The baseball genius known as “The Mahatma” for his baseball wisdom and oracular speech had served as an Army major in France during the First World War. Rickey’s Chemical Warfare Service training unit that included Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, a college-educated gentleman, and Ty Cobb, the All-Time Great “Georgia Peach” who has a reputation as Baseball’s All-Time Leading Racist.

African American soldiers serving in France during the First World War had been treated with respect by the French, and that possibly influenced Rickey’s belief that French Canadians did not have the culture of anti-black racism that was a hallmark of far too many American communities.

The French Canadian part of The Mahatma’s plan to integrate the Big Leagues worked.  After going through the dehumanizing indignities of segregated Florida during spring training with the Dodgers organization, Robinson and his wife found Montreal a great relief. The team won the International League pennant and the Junior World Series, beating the American Association’s peanut-winning Louisville Colonels, a Red Sox affiliate.

Roy Campanella, left, and Don Newcombe.

The Nashua Dodgers

In Nashua, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe led the Nashua Dodgers to a second-place finish and the New England League championship when they beat the Lynn Red Sox in the postseason title game. Campy was named the NEL Most Valuable Player.

On the third day of the 1946 New England League season, Newcombe became the first known Black pitcher to win a game in pro baseball governed by the National Agreement and the Commissioner of Baseball in over half a century. Other players with African American heritage likely played in the Big Leagues, but did knot acknowledge their ancestry.

Campy himself was mixed race, with an Italian American father and an African American mother.  When the Philadelphia Phillies learned of the talents of someone they assumed was Italian-American, a tryout was arranged. It being 1943, when they found out his mother was Black, the tryout was cancelled.

Named assistant manager by Nashua manager Walt Alston because of his age and experience, Campy would become the first Black to manage a game in integrated pro ball in the 20th Century, Campy took over the managerial reins for Alston after he had been thrown out with the Nashua Dodgers behind. A pinch-hit homer from Newcombe, who was a fine hitter as well as a great pitcher, gave Nashua and Campy the win.

The following season, Campy got promoted to Montreal while Newcombe stayed with Nashua for 1947, where he was joined by Black pitcher Dan Bankhead. A  Negro Leagues standout, Bankhead in 1947 became the first African American to pitch in the MLB since the color bar was raised when he joined the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was sent down to Nashua where he also played in the 1948 season, when Newcombe’s turn to play in Montreal came up.

The integrated Nashua Dodgers came in second in 1947 and ’48, repeating as New England league champions both years. The following year, the New England League collapsed, but Nashua Dodgers alumni Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe appeared in the 1949 World Series along with Jackie Robinson, losing to the Yankees.

Roy Campanella won three National League MVP awards during the 1950s, and became the second African American elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, once again following in Jackie Robinson’s path. He was paralyzed from the shoulders down in a car crash after the 1957 season that ended his pro baseball career.

Aside from his baseball exploits, Campy became legendary for living a full life for a paraplegic, holding down a public relations job with the Dodgers, and, providing inspiration for other disabled people.

Don Newcombe got to the National League in 1949 and was part of a formidable battery with his former Nashua Dodgers teammate, Campy. Newk went 27-7 in 1956, winning the newly created Cy Young Award for best pitcher along with the National League MVP. The  Brooklyn Dodgers won the National League pennant, their last, but fell to the Yankees once again in the World Series.  The team moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

The decision to put Campy and Newk in Nashua was a good one.  In a 2005 interview, Don Newcombe said, “I always thanked God for Nashua. We had  Buzzie Bavasi and Walt Alston there and an unbelievable team. We didn’t have to go through what Jackie went through.

“We had a lot of fun. We were considered people, not Black people.”

Tonight’s game at Holman Stadium against the Westfield Starfires includes the plaque presentation and Black Heritage Trail dedication. Game begins at 6 p.m. Tickets are available here.


About this Author

Jon Hopwood

Jon Hopwood is a freelance writer from Manchester.