Remembering Don Newcombe and the fight against Jim Crow baseball
In the dugout of the Nashua Dodgers, New England farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Don Newcombe (left) and Roy Campenella sign autographs for young admirers in 1946. | Daily Worker / People's World Archives

In honor of Black History Month and in memory of Don Newcombe, People’s World’s re-publishes a feature story on Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella found in the August 11, 1946, Sunday edition of the Daily Worker.

From the Sports Desk,

Al Neal

Two Strikes Against Jim Crow in a New England Town

By Edwin Garfield

Nashua is the second largest city in New Hampshire. To its 35,000 residents, this industrial and commercial city is known as “Nashaway.” The city is famous for its blankets and shoes, and the predominant French population is very union-conscious. Most of the workers are members of the CIO Textile Workers Union.

Nashua is in every way New England. There are lovely quiet streets in the suburbs, very few autos and all business is concentrated around a few blocks around Amherst St. The official buildings and the hotels are built in Colonial style. I expected to see Thomas Jefferson or Tom Paine sitting in the hotel lobby. But, instead, I found a group of modern men and women sitting in the Laton House, Nashua’s biggest hotel, talking and looking out of the large front window.

At the desk, a blonde woman said, “Campy and Don? Oh, they just went to the ballpark. Why don’t you amble over and see them there? They’re playing with Pawtucket tonight. Tell them to go out and win those. We need two wins.”

I drove down Amherst St. for a few minutes and there was Holman Stadium, home of the Nashua Dodgers, Class B New England farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers. On the roster of the Nashua team are Roy Campanella, Negro catcher, and Donald Newcombe, Negro pitcher. They are two of the five Negro ball players in organized baseball, all the property of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

The people of Nashua are “hot” for their Dodgers. The supposed cold and dignified New England character doesn’t hold true when it comes to baseball. The day we were there, the Nashua Telegraph said in an editorial, “The customers like the Dodgers pretty well as is evidenced by the way they turn out to see them play. It looks like the fans want ‘em back again next year.”

The Nashua Dodgers are now in second place, with 48 wins and 29 losses, for a percentage of .623. They are seven games back of the highly favored Lynn team, farm club of the Boston Red Sox.

FEW HOMERS AT HOLMAN STADIUM

Holman Stadium is a very modern baseball park, built by the WPA in 1933. It is owned by the city and is leased out to the Nashua Dodgers. There are stands running from back of third base around to first base, with about 2,500 seats. There are no bleachers. As with most of the baseball fields in the New England League, this one is of tremendous size. If Ted Williams or Hank Greenberg played in this league, they would hit few home runs.

At present, the distance from home plate to the evergreen shrubs outlining the open end of the stadium averages better than 450 feet, and while the Dodgers poled 19 homers on foreign fields, they made only four at Holman Stadium. There are no “cheap” home runs here. A long line drive between the outfielders and a very fast sprint around the bases is the only way to hit for the circuit here. In 1933, the Cardinals failed to hit one out of the park in an exhibition game.

In the press box, I spoke to Frank Stawasz, sports editor of the Nashua Telegraph and official scorer. “This has been a real unusual year in Nashua baseball,” said Mr. Stawasz. “We’ve had no real baseball in 16 years. But this year the farm team of the Brooklyn Dodgers attracts an average of nearly 1,800 fans, a record that is tops for the New England League and nothing short of amazing when you consider that the next city in size almost doubles our population.”

Unlike other cities, we’ve had no campaigns to raise funds by selling season tickets. There have been no special nights to stimulate attendance. All we’ve had was good baseball and the fans eat it up.”

I went to the Dodgers dressing room where the boys were putting on their uniforms. I was struck by their youth. I thought I was in a high school or college dressing room. I learned later that the average age of the team is 24. I asked for Campanella and Newcombe. “Hey, Campy, Mr. Rickey is here to see you,” they joshed.

“EVERYTHING OKAY,” SAYS CAMPANELLA

I spotted Campanella and went over to introduce myself. “Daily Worker?” asked Campy. “Say, do you know Nat Low? How is he? He’s a sweet guy.”

When I told Campy the former Daily Worker sports editor had been ill, he was concerned. “Say, that’s tough. A guy like that should be up and around. Give him my best, will you?”

This was the first time I had ever seen Roy Campanella. He is 24, about five feet 11 inches tall, broad shouldered, a long ball hitter, and a smart catcher. He hails from Philadelphia, went to the Simon Gratz High School there, playing on the baseball, football, and basketball teams. After graduation, he played for the American Legion team and was spotted by a scout from the Baltimore Elite Giants in the Negro National League.

Campy, as he is called by all Nashua, is enthused at the way things have worked out. He told me, “Everything’s fine, fine. I wouldn’t take anything for this chance.” Later Nashua pitcher Jim McFadden told me that Campy had turned down a big offer from the Mexican League to stay with Nashua.

“Mr. Rickey sent us up here to learn, and I have my mind set on making this work. If we have the stuff, we’ll get to the top,” Campy said.

Have you had any difficulties in the League?” I wanted to know.

“No, none at all,” replied Campy. “We eat, sleep, and live in the same places as the rest of the team. On the road, I room with Donald Newcombe or with one of the other players. The boys on this team are wonderful. That’s one thing about this team, it’s one for all and all for one.”

Campy, with his wife and three children, has a room at Nashua’s leading hotel, the Laton House. Mrs. Campanella, young and pretty, comes to all the home games. Campy has two girls and an adopted boy. The Campanellas adopted little Roy from a family who couldn’t support him.

Mrs. Campanella wouldn’t take a picture with the other players’ wives. Since the girls told me that they all got along, I was a little surprised. I asked Campy about it and his explanation gives you a pretty good idea of the kind of family he has.

“UP TO US,” SAYS NEWCOMBE

“You see,” he explained, “our kids go to the local school. We don’t want them to get stuck up. Too much publicity will only make them conceited. They’ve got to do well on their own. I guess it isn’t nice for me to say ‘no’ to the lensmen, but I don’t blame the missus.

“And that reminds me, Eddie, I want you to tell something to your readers. You know, people expect us to do better than any other players. Why, unless I hit two home runs in every game, my friends are heartbroken, Sure, we carry a great responsibility. We know that. But heck, we’re no supermen. We’re ballplayers like the other fellows.”

Donald Newcome joined us then. Don came to Nashua from the Newark Eagles in the Negro League. Before that, he also played ball with the American Legion. He reiterated Campy’s remarks, “Yes, it has been swell. The fans, teammates and the skipper have been A-1. It’s up to us now.”

I asked Don if the grind was tough. Night games, double-headers, traveling by bus, and the small dressing rooms. Newcombe smiled and said, “Campy and I are used to that. Where do you think we came from? Not the New York Yankees.”

Campy told us that he was corresponding with Jackie Robinson of the Montreal Royals. “Just got a letter from him yesterday. He’s something though, isn’t he?” he asked admiringly.

A tall fellow entered the dressing room and Campy rose to greet him. It was Walter Alston, manager of the Nashua Dodgers. “Skipper, this is a reporter from the Daily Worker,” Campy introduced us. We shook hands and walked into his private room. He smiled when I asked him about Campy and Don. “Why,” he answered, “they’re both fine boys. They’re really tops in character. Both are happily married gentlemen and satisfactory in every respect. I think they’ve got great opportunity and they’re giving it the best in them.”

“How do they look to you, skipper?”

“Well, Campy is not hitting as high for us as we expected. But there’s a reason for that. He hits a very long ball and there’s too much room in these ballparks. Instead of going over the wall, it travels 400 feet and into the hands of the outfielder, who is playing out of sight for Campy. As it is, he’s hit nine home runs, is third in the league. The leader has 11. Campy’s ankles have been bothering him and that’s slowed him up. His only weakness is a tendency to go after bad pitches. But I guess when they give you nothing good to hit at, you lose patience. That boy will go up, as far as I can judge.”

“And Newcombe?” I asked.

“Donald Newcombe is one of the fastest pitchers I’ve ever seen. He hurt his arm a few weeks ago and that’s slowing him down just now. His record is eight wins and three losses.

“Skip” Alston invited us to sit on the bench during the games. The veteran manager is well liked by his players and there’s a camaraderie unusual between manager and ball players.

COULDN’T DRIVE THEM OUT

He told us an interesting story. In Lynn, the manager of the Red Sox, a little upset by a Campanella home run off his leading pitcher, got into a tangle with the Nashua players.

“I’ll drive those two colored boys out of the league in a week’s time,” he threatened.

“Well, what happened?” I asked.

“They’re still in there, aren’t they?” was Alston’s sharp reply. “And,” said a Nashua player, “the Lynn pilot knows it too!”

In the dugout, the players joshed and kidded around. Campy caught the first game. Every time he came up to bat, the players on the bench would look at me and gesture, “Watch this!” Campy flied out deep to right field on his first at bat. Then he sent a wicked line drive to the shortstop on which the fielder made a nice catch. His last time up, he whacked a line drive past third base for a two-bagger.

The two Dodger batboys sat down next to me. Andy Kehoe is 13-years-old and very proud of the Brooklyn Dodger satin night game uniform he wears. He thinks Newcombe is the best pitcher in the league. Rolland Hawks, 14, said to me, “I wish I could hit like Campy.”

I moved over next to Jim McFadden, Dodgers pitcher. McFadden worked the second game and won a two-hitter, 3-0.

“That fellow, Campanella, is the best. Brother, if there was a left field wall here, they’d be playing on top of it. He hit one in Lynn off Roger Wright, brother of the Braves’ Ed Wright, that went half-way up the 400-foot light pole and was still going when I last saw it. He won a ball game for me in Fall River with the longest smash I ever saw. Campanella can do everything—hit, run, and catch.”

McFadden is 20 years old, from California, and already has five years in organized baseball. His record is seven wins and four losses.

“And I’m a good hitting pitcher, too,” McFadden boasted. “Yeah,” Newcombe came back, “he’s hitting the size of his hat, 7 1/2.” The bench laughed, and McFadden grinned.

I asked McFadden what Campy’s chances were to go up. “ Sure, sure,” he said, “if he doesn’t, there’s something wrong. Why they never give him anything good to hit at. The pitchers are scared. Sure glad he’s on my side.”

As with all minor league teams, the business manager takes care of all the organizational details, from buying new bats to paying the ticket collectors. The man with that job in Nashua is “Buzz” Bavasi, experienced executive in the Dodger system. Mr. Bavasi told me that attendance figures on the road, especially in cities where there are Negroes, have gone up considerably. “It would be hard to tell that in Nashua because we only have 12 Negroes in the whole city. Our attendance has been A-1.”

“What do you think of Campy and Newcombe?” I wanted to know.

“Oh, I’ve never met any better boys. The folks in town are crazy about them, invite them to supper, greet them in the streets. They’re very popular. Wonderful boys.”

Manager Alston sent Newcombe to the bullpen to warm up in case of trouble. I walked out with him. Two bobbysoxers screamed and waved at Don. He waved back. From all sides, the fans waved and shouted greetings. “I really feel at home here,” he said. “It’s wonderful to be one of the crowd. I sure hope we don’t fail any of our fans.”

THEIR PLAYING AVERAGES

The first game was over, with Nashua winning 4-0. The players went to the clubhouse. In a few minutes, Don Newcombe walked out, talked with a few fans and then grabbed the water hose and proceeded to water the field. The fans screamed with delight as he sprayed the dugout of the visiting team. The regular ground crew came out to take the hose and Don “dared” them to come closer as he sprayed the ground in from of them. The fans laughed, the ground men got into the game, and the players cheered Don.

Sports editor Stawasz told me that Campy and Don are so popular that “they can do nothing wrong.” He showed me the records of the two Negro players.

Campanella has been up 235 times, has 66 hits, including nine doubles, four triples, and nine home runs. He has batted in 48 runs and is currently hitting at .281. Just this past week, he got 12 hits in 34 times at bat and drove in 11 runs, with an average of .353. Significantly, the Dodgers won seven and lost two this week, pushing up to second place.

Donald Newcombe won two of those games in two starts. His record is now eight wins and three losses. He has pitched 93 and two-thirds innings, giving up 26 runs, 70 hits, has walked 50, struck out 69 and has an earned run average of 2.40 per game. At bat, Don has been up 42 times, has 15 hits, including three doubles, two triples, and two home runs. He has driven in 13 runs and is batting .357. he is often used as a pinch hitter.

A cheer came up from the crowd as Don Newcombe stepped on the field to the bullpen. “You see,” said Stawasz, “all he and Campy have to do is just take a step and the crowd cheers.”

In the stands, we spoke to W.F. Smith, a newsstand dealer. He told me that he had stopped going to the games until this year. But this year—“well, Campy and Don are here. They’re perfect. Sure, they’re Negros. So what? Plenty of white ballplayers wish they had their ability. You know, if those two fellows aren’t treated right, we fans will go down there and punch the guilty on the nose.”

“You know,” he continued, chest expanded, “Campy comes down to my stand for the papers. We talk things over.”

Sitting behind the Nashua dugout were Mr. and Mrs. Harry Shaw. Mrs. Shaw—an attractive housewife, is a real fan, and “that way” about the Nashua team. She told me that that whole team is a bunch of nice, clean boys.

“Why we have been trying to get Campy and Don to have supper with us, but they play so many night games. No, I never notice the color of their skin. It just doesn’t enter my mind.”

Her husband Harry told me that he thought Campanella was a better catcher than Birdie Tebbetts of the Detroit Tigers. Tebbets is a Nashua boy.

As I turned to go, Mrs. Shaw called me back for a new story. It seems that a few weeks ago, the Manchester Giants catcher, angry at a called pitch on Campy, threw some dirt on the Negro catcher, Mrs. Shaw felt that it wasn’t done to Campy especially, but to an enemy player. “But,” Mrs. Shaw said, “the crowd went wild with anger. I thought they were going to go down there and ruin that Manchester player.”

Behind home plate, high up in the stands were two small manufacturers. Both Donald Jeffery and Russel Kean were all for Negroes in baseball. Mr. Jefferey said, “Why, campy and Newcombe are the favorites out here. When they appear, the crowd cheers, whistles, and applauds more than at any other time.”

Mr. Kean told me, “I came out tonight only because I thought Newcombe was going to pitch.” Jeffery was very proud of Nashua. He turned to his friend and said, “You know, I think Mr. Rickey sent these two colored players to Nashua because he knew that we don’t go for that racial stuff.”

In the front row was a local Congregational minister. He asked me not to use his name but told me he “never believed in the color line. If the boys produce, they should play. The whole town has taken to them.” The minister was opposed to putting up fences in the outfield, even though it would mean home runs for Campanella. “This is real baseball, not that band box kind in the big leagues.”

My attention was brought to the playing field again by a roar from the crowd. With the Dodgers leading 2-0 in the ninth, manager Alston sent Campanella up to pinch hit. The Pawtucket pitcher gave him nothing good and Campy walked. “That’s the way it’s been all year,” said the minister disgustedly. “They just don’t give him anything good.”

“IF THEY HAVE THE STUFF…”

High up in the grandstand I spoke to Harrison Askew, Negro employee of the Coppers Coke Co., in Nashua. Mr. Askew has been living in Nashua for 20 years. He was very proud of Campy and Newcombe and was amazed at the hitting power of the Negro pitcher. “They’re great ball players and a credit to the American people,” he said. I liked the way he said, “American people.”

Dodgers legend Don Newcombe died Feb. 19. | AP

There was a cheer from the crowd. The Dodgers had retired Slaters and won the twin bill. The fans surged onto the field. Walking to the clubhouse, the players were surrounded by them. I got a terrific kick out of seeing two fans on either side of Newcombe, arm and arm with the lanky pitcher. Campy was stuck near first base by dozens of youngsters clamoring for autographs. I waved “so long” to him, and he waved back before returning to his fans.

I was struck by the naturalness of the whole evening. There was no tension, no sign of any unusual occurrence. It is true that the Nashua fans are not too aware of the significance of having the first Negro ball players in organized baseball. They see it as nothing to get excited about. They all said, “if they have the stuff, they belong.”

Roy Campanella and Donald Newcombe, by their skill and power and courage in the field, have endeared themselves to the fans, manager, and teammates. The people of Nashua look at them as the Boston fans look at Ted Williams or the Brooklyn partisans at Dixie Walker. The Nashua club intends to run a popularity contest. I will lay it on the line that Campy and Don run one-two in that contest.

Driving home through the cool New Hampshire country, I thought of these things. I thought of the day when in every baseball city and town there would be Robinsons and Campanellas and Newcombs on the rosters of all teams. That day will come if freedom-loving people help carry the fight against Jim Crow and discrimination. I thrilled with pride as I recalled the days long ago when the Daily Worker first raised the cry, “End Jim Crow in baseball.” Ten years ago, it was a slogan. Today it’s becoming a reality.


CONTRIBUTOR

Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.

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