Holman Stadium Hosted First Interracial Team

Holman Stadium in Nashua, N.H. hosted what is considered the first racially integrated U.S. team in modern baseball — the Nashua Dodgers. Steve Daly, author of Dem Little Bums, talks about the stadium's role in integrating the game, and how it eventually fell on hard times.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This visit to New Hampshire is a homecoming of sorts for me. Not far down the road from these sparkling new studios in Concord, there's an old brick pile of a ballpark in Nashua.

Unidentified Male: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to Historic Holman Stadium for tonight's Atlantic League game between the Aberdeen Arsenals and your Nashua Pride.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Holman Stadium, originally erected by the WPA back in the Great Depression, hosted tens of thousands of events over the next three quarters of a century, and finally, known to many as Historic Holman Stadium. Ten years ago on a sabbatical from NPR, I did radio play-by-play for a minor league baseball team that made regular visits to Nashua. Those of us familiar with the primitive conditions in the press box in those days called it prehistoric Holman Stadium. The ballpark was upgraded a couple of years later. It's still in use today. But 64 years ago, this was one of the places where America's sad history of racial segregation changed forever.

Steve Daly joins us now from the studio of member station WBUR in Boston. He's the author of "Dem Little Bums," the story of the Nashua Dodgers. And Steve Daly, thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. STEVE DALY (Author, "Dem Little Bums"): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And in 1946, almost everybody remembers that the Brooklyn Dodgers sent Jackie Robinson to their Triple-A team in Montreal with plans to break the color line in Major League Baseball the following season. But Jackie Robinson wasn't the only African-American signed by the Dodgers that year.

Mr. DALY: No, he wasn't. Nashua played its role into the integration of baseball with the arrival of Don Newcombe, the pitcher, and the Hall of Famer catcher Roy Campanella. Both of those players were embraced by the city, fit in well with the team, obviously. They had a very successful team, won the championship that year. And they were, as I said, embraced by the team and the city and just felt very much at home.

CONAN: Branch Rickey, the then general manager of the Dodgers, of course, he - those days, the major league teams had much more extensive minor league systems than they do even now - but looked around to find a place where he could bring in African-American players and realized that was not going to be Georgia.

Mr. DALY: That's true. The first option that they looked at was a team in the Three-I League out in the Midwest. And the president of the league had told Buzzie Bavasi and Branch Rickey, if you send them here, we're going to shut the league down. They just had absolutely no interest in having those players there and dealing with any kind of racial overtones or any kind of unrest among the fans and the people that were there, as well as the players. So Nashua was kind of a place that they ended up as - in default. They had nowhere else to go. So Nashua - you know, the mayor and the business manager of the team welcomed them in and had no problem having them come in here.

CONAN: So, in a sense, in those days, Nashua, New Hampshire was - were there any other African-Americans there at the time?

Mr. DALY: From what I understand, there were probably less than 20. A few of them lived down outside of the - on the outside outskirts of town towards Merrimack, which is just to the north, lived down near a lumber yard. But for the most part, it was pretty much a melting pot. There were Greeks and Italians and Irish and French - a lot of French, obviously, being a big, strong community there. But it's funny how the fit in so seamlessly and were welcomed so easily, because there really hadn't been much exposure up there for many people that lived in the city.

CONAN: We're talking with writer Steve Daly about an historic ballpark in Nashua, New Hampshire. If there's an historic ballpark you know about, tell us about it. Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

I have to mention, though, Steve Daly, when I was back with - doing play-by-play for the Aberdeen Arsenal in the old Atlantic League 10 years ago, there was a story I heard about Campanella's year that season in Nashua, and that he won the - I think he hit 28 homeruns that year. And there was a local farmer who was giving away a prize for the -whoever led the team in homeruns that season would get a dozen chicks per homerun.

Mr. DALY: That's correct. Campanella did lead the team, and what it was, was most homers hit at home, at Holman, which...

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. DALY: ...back then there were - there was no fence. It was pretty much an all run-it-out-yourself. There were trees well beyond where the outfield fence is now. But it was Poke. And Campanella wasn't really gifted with great speed but he legged out 13 of them. And at the end of the season he brought 1,300 chicks home and from what I understand passed them along to his father who began a poultry farm down there in Philadelphia.

CONAN: Just outside of Philadelphia, yes. And those chicks were the origins of his breeding stock for his poultry farm outside of Philadelphia. It's a reminder of a very different time in minor league baseball. So many kids come into even that level of minor league baseball. Today if you go in to the parking lot of any minor league ballpark, you can generally see the year of the Escalade. That's when the player got the bonus for signing on.

Mr. DALY: That's very true, yeah. Back then, a lot of these players played it just for the love of the game because they certainly weren't making a lot of money. And as you mentioned, a lot of these players just never made it. I mean, a lot of the Nashua Dodgers from the four years that they were actually there never made it beyond the Nashua level. So there was so much competition back then. It was after the war. There were a lot of players that were serving in the war coming back, needing a place to play. And that, you know (unintelligible) - players that had kind of the mid-level talent were weeded out pretty quickly.

CONAN: 800-989-8255. And let's go to Jack, and Jack's on the line with us from Tallahassee.

JACK (Caller): Yes. Hi. (Technical difficulties)

CONAN: Jack, can you try to move to another spot, because we're having trouble with your cell phone. Oh, I'm afraid Jack's phone has betrayed him. In any case, Holman Stadium - and as you mentioned, the Dodgers were only there for four years. People also forget that the major league teams have moved their affiliates around into different cities, well, quite regularly.

Mr. DALY: They did. Back in the '20s, actually the turn of the century, Nashua had had professional baseball starting up many years ago. 1903, Moonlight Graham actually played with the Nashua Millionaires.

CONAN: The star of - you build it and they will come. You tell me the name of the film again. I'm just blanking on it.

Mr. DALY: And so am I.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. DALY: "Field of Dreams."

CONAN: "Field of Dreams." There you go, Kevin Costner.

Mr. DALY: "Field of Dreams," yes.

CONAN: Burt Lancaster played Moonlight Graham.

Mr. DALY: Right. He is the one at-bat in a major league career. But he did play in 1903 in Nashua. Clyde Sukeforth, who was actually the man credited with signing Jackie Robinson, played with the Nashua Millionaires in 1926. The Dodgers in 1946 were the first affiliated team to play in Nashua. As I mentioned, they were there for four years. California Angels had a team in 1983, and the Pirates actually had a team for three years following on the heels on the Angels, and they left town in 1986 to head to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

CONAN: But back in...

Mr. DALY: I'm sorry, it was 1986 when the Pirates left town.

CONAN: Back in 2000, the Nashua Pride had been there for a few years and there was always talk of, well, as great as Holman Stadium is, it's not a modern facility. You can't make money without the, you know, the luxury boxes and the super-duper scoreboard and all that sort of thing. Teams around the league were building brand-new ballparks and they were, well, just about licenses to print money.

Mr. DALY: Yeah. Holman is a unique animal because if you take a look at it now, the brick, you know, structure that has been there since 1937, and the clubhouses, from what I understand, are not the most up-to-date. But they do have the luxury boxes up across the top, nice new press box, probably a little better than the last time you were up there.

CONAN: I think so, yes.

Mr. DALY: Yes. But I mean, there's just something about being in Holman Stadium, just the magical feel of just - time stands still. It's one of those stadiums that's enclosed by pine trees in the outfield and you just feel, you know, you're lost in the feeling of baseball and there's nothing more to really think about, just sit there and watch the game and enjoy yourself.

CONAN: It's interesting. You said that in - back in 1946 there was no perimeter on the outfield. They had some really interesting contours back in 2000, when I was familiar with the ballpark, especially an area out in right center field, which was curious because that was where they drove it the batting cage before - for BP before every game, and there was some very unusual angles there. And if you rattled one out in there, well, you could just guarantee yourself just about an inside-the-park homerun.

Mr. DALY: It was an odd stadium. And the right field corner kind of really jutted off as well really deep right past the line.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DALY: In left field, later, probably in the mid-'90s or late '90s they erected the brick wall, a low slung brick wall probably four feet high or so, where they've actually put the numbers retired - Jackie Robinson's number, who did not play here, but his number is up there, Campanella and Newcombe's. It's shown some weird angles on balls hit off of that wall as well.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is Richard. Richard with us from Johnson City, Tennessee.

RICHARD (Caller): Yeah, I'd like to talk to you you're talking about weird angles. The Cardinal Park in Johnson City, Tennessee, it's been existing since 1935 and the Phillies and Yankees, and various programs have been affiliated with it. In right field there's a bank that if you hit the ball to right field, the right fielder has to run up a bank to get to the fence. It's the current home of the Johnson City Cardinals, which is a rookie league program.

And they're bringing a lot of players up from Latin America, out the Gold Coast League. And it's basically where if you're going to play minor league ball for these teams, the Devil Rays, et cetera, you're going to start right there. And it's really good baseball. It's really like an old-time stadium. And you come in and sit down and there's nothing fancy. And it's just really good minor league baseball. It's like the starting point of baseball, basically, if you're going to have a career.

CONAN: And it's interesting, we were talking about the players weeded out in the 1946 Nashua Dodgers. Even today, a rookie league team, 23 members of that team, look around - one or two, maybe three, will ever don a major league uniform. It's still that competitive.

RICHARD: Yeah, you can only play three years in the Appy League. And a lot of those guys, once they played their three years - they come up from the Dominican Republic, a lot of the guys are still just 19 or 20 years old. So I mean, they, you know, they move up, move out. But it's really good baseball. We go a lot and it's just a good atmosphere, you know, nothing fancy like a lot of - some of the bigger minor league, you know, Triple-A parks and stuff. But we really enjoy it too(ph). With the Johnson City works, the players live with families in town. They don't...

CONAN: No, the...

RICHARD: They don't stay in a dormitory or a hotel.

CONAN: They do that in a lot of lower-level minor leagues.

RICHARD: Yes.

CONAN: But thank you very much for the call, Richard. The Appy League, of course, the Appalachian League. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to - this is Milder(ph), is that right, in Fort Wayne?

MILDER (Caller): That's right.

CONAN: Go ahead.

MILDER: When I was in high school, I lived in Birmingham, Alabama. And I had the pleasure of playing in a wooden bat league at Rickwood Field, which is one of the - or I've heard it's the oldest. It might not be oldest but one of the oldest still continuously used fields in America. The Birmingham Barons and the Negro League Black Barons used to alternate, I think, like, weekends and weekdays there. And there is just something incredibly rewarding about hitting a double off the wall with a wooden bat off a, you know, a '20s-era Coca-Cola sign.

CONAN: And maybe Willie Mays or Hank Aaron hit one off that same sign.

MILDER: Absolutely. I mean, it was a really special experience. I don't know if they still host that tournament. Sadly, the Barons who still play in Birmingham, that's where - if you would remember, when Michael Jordan had his famous excursion into baseball, he played for the Barons.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

MILDER: But that was at the - what was then called the Hoover Met. Now I think it's called Regions Field, which is out in Hoover, one of the suburbs. Which is a real shame because I feel like they have left that area behind. And I know that they're really trying to move stadiums back towards town centers. Like here in Fort Wayne, they just built a brand-new facility right downtown that is drawing record crowds for the league and has really revitalized that area. And I go to games there frequently and really enjoy them.

CONAN: Well, Milder, thanks very much. I appreciate the phone call. Wooden bat league - if you didn't understand that expression, every -through high school and college, players use aluminum bats. But if you're going to get a professional scout's honest opinion of how a player plays, both pitchers and hitters, they need to see them with wooden bats in their hands. And of course, they set up these leagues for high schoolers and - late high schoolers and college players in the summer. The best known is the Cape League. And every year I do get the opportunity to do play-by-play one more time due to the Cape League All-Star Game for WCAI, our member station in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. And I don't know, do you get out to any Cape League games, Steve Daly?

Mr. DALY: I haven't, actually. But there is another league that's closer to my home base, the New England Collegiate League, which is, you know, it's not quite up to the Cape Cod League, but there's some really exciting players there. As a matter of a fact, the closer for the Oakland A's pitched for the Lowell All-Americans last year. So there's some really strong - I'm sorry, not last year, two years ago.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. DALY: But there's some really strong talent that is discovered in leagues like that. And that, you know, as we discussed earlier, with the weeding out of the talent, that's kind of the breaking point for a lot of players too, because many a player has kind of fallen by the wayside after putting the aluminum back down and grabbing the wooden one.

CONAN: They just had a game from that league in Nashua - in Holden Stadium in Nashua, I think last Monday night. And so they may be coming back.

Mr. DALY: Yes.

CONAN: The All-Americans, I think, I played there. Felicia(ph) is on the line. Felicia with - from Glendale, Arizona.

FELICIA (Caller): Hi. I was just calling to see if your guest had discussed Taylor Field in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It's still around. It's also on the historical(ph) marker. But I remember my mother telling me way back in the day in segregation how her father would go the Negro League Baseball games that were being played at that ball field. And also, two years later, just to bring it up to today, as far as the minor league teams coming through, Torii Hunter also played in that ballpark when he was playing for the minor leagues before he hit it big.

CONAN: You get a chance to see just about that whole team that became such a great team for the Minnesota Twins, were the Rock Cats in Double-A in the Eastern League - I had a chance to see them several years ago. But it's quite an opportunity to see, like, a whole group of players graduate together and go on to have success in the major leagues. Felicia, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

As you look towards the history of the Nashua Dodgers, Steve Daly, and Holman Stadium, obviously, the - that particular summer, 1946, a really important moment in American history that's little remembered.

Mr. DALY: It really was. And it's funny when you talk to people that have lived in the city for, you know, maybe 10, 20 years. A lot of the people that live in Nashua have no idea that this town was - this team was here. Obviously it had a pretty good impact baseball-wise. They finished second in division that year and then won the Governors Cup. But socially, obviously, it was just as much of an important team because they really were the first team based in the United States to have racial integration. You know, that's something Nashua can always hang its hat on.

CONAN: Steve Daly wrote about that story in his book, "Dem Little Bums," the story of the Nashua Dodgers. And he joined us today from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston. Thanks very much for your time.

Mr. DALY: Thank you.

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