New Hampshire town recognized for historic role in racially integrating baseball in the 1940s

By MICHAEL CASEY

Associated Press

Published: 05-31-2023 12:14 AM

NASHUA — The conversation around racial integration in baseball often revolves around Jackie Robinson, who broke the major league color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

But a year earlier, history was being made in the city of Nashua. It was here that Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella and Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Don Newcombe would join the Nashua Dodgers, making the minor league club the first racially integrated baseball team in the United States.

They played at the 86-year-old Holman Stadium, which celebrated their achievements Tuesday night by adding the venue to a stop on the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire.

Already, the 2,825-seat stadium serves as a shrine of sorts to the players. Visitors are greeted with banners of the players at the entrance, and access streets leading to the venue have been named in their honor. Their Dodgers numbers — 36 for Newcombe, 39 for Campanella and 42 for Robinson — adorn the outfield brick wall of the field that is home to the Nashua Silver Knights, which play in the Futures League.

“They hit a home run with Nashua,” said Mark Langill, the team historian for the Los Angeles Dodgers. “It worked out, and it was really the launching point to a new chapter, a new era in baseball. The two players obviously had the ability. They not only needed the chance, but they needed the setting to play the game like everyone before them.”

Campanella and Newcombe were part of a plan by Branch Rickey, the team president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to break baseball’s color barrier. While Robinson was playing for a Triple-A Dodger affiliate in Montreal in 1946, Rickey sent Campanella and Newcombe to a Class B Nashua farm team after being told they wouldn’t be welcome in a Midwest league because they were Black. Both were signed from the Negro Leagues.

Nashua, an industrial town known for its foundries and textile mills, proved welcoming to the two budding stars. Newcombe would later say they did face abuse from some opposing teams.

Lured by the numerous factories, workers from around the globe had settled in Nashua, including French-Canadian, Jewish and Irish families. Newcombe recalled he was given his first car by a dealership in Nashua and that he lived with a white family while he was there.

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“Don always had very, very good things to say about playing in Nashua,” said Karen Newcombe, Don Newcombe’s widow, who will be at the ceremony Tuesday.

“Nashua has held a special place in Don’s heart, always,” she said. “While people of color were facing so many hardships all over the country in 1946, Don considered his experience in Nashua to be a positive one. The people there valued Don and Roy, which allowed them to focus on the reason they were there in the first place, to play baseball. That is all they wanted to do.”

Hall of Fame manager Walter Alston had so much faith in Campanella that he left him in charge after getting ejected from a game in Lawrence, Mass. That made Campanella the first Black manager. Nashua won the game.

The two players thrived on the field in Nashua, and Newcombe credited his time there with setting the stage for his success in the major leagues. Campanella followed Robinson to the Dodgers in 1948, and Newcombe joined the team in 1949. The three supported each another throughout their careers and won a World Series together in 1955.

“Jackie, Don and Roy were living the same story at the same time, and they were all up against it at the same time,” Karen Newcombe said. “No matter what they had to face, they persevered and fought through it and were able to excel at the game they loved.”

Newcombe was a four-time All-Star and won 20 games three different times. His greatest year was 1956, when he went 27-7 and won both the Cy Young Award, then only given to one pitcher for both leagues, and the National League MVP. Newcombe was the only player to win the Rookie of the Year, Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards before Justin Verlander, then with the Detroit Tigers, matched the feat in 2011.

Campanella had a 10-year major league career with the Dodgers and set major league records for catchers with 41 homers and 142 RBIs in 1953. He won three NL MVPs before his career was abruptly ended by a car accident that left him paralyzed in 1958.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum President Bob Kendrick said Nashua was also part of something bigger than baseball.

“We’ve always made the assertion that Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball’s color barrier wasn’t just a part of the Civil Rights Movement but that it actually signaled the beginning of the civil rights movement in this country,” Kendrick said. “Subsequently, the integration of the minor leagues, the integration of Major League Baseball, all of these played a role in helping advance civil rights in this country. This was progress.”

That is another reason why the Nashua stadium is being added as the state’s Black Heritage Trail, said the organization’s executive director, JerriAnne Boggis. With the addition of the Nashua marker, the trail will have 32 markers around the state, include one in Milford honoring Harriet Wilson, the first African American to publish a novel in English and one in Andover for Black ventriloquist and magician Richard Potter.

“When we think of New Hampshire, we never think of New Hampshire as a place of firsts for Black history. You think of southern states or places like New York, but not New Hampshire, much less Nashua,” Boggis said. “But in the time of Black history, the stadium represents this integral moment of integration, not only here in the state, but of national significance.”

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