Thursday, June 17, 2010

Hey, I Was There!

I heard the folks at NPR talking about a bit of my own history yesterday--the Nashua Dodgers in the New England League of 1946-7, where they played my home team, the Manchester Giants.

Why are they talking about the Dodgers now? Because the Dodgers fielded Don Newcombe, the black pitcher who went up to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1949, where he was Rookie of the Year, MVP and the Cy Young Award, all in the same year --and became the first black pitcher to start in the World Series.

Newcombe certainly qualified as a novelty or a curiosity in Nashua/Manchester in his time and no wonder: he was one of the first black ballplayers anyplace close to a major league team. At that point, of course, I had not the slightest notion of the back story: how Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers sent Newcombe to Nashua because it looked to be the only farm club that would take him (pr NPR, some guy in Iowa said he'd close the league down).

But it's worth pausing for a moment, I think, to reflect on the racial attitudes of Southern New Hampshire in those days. There was a core of principle here: I was taught in a mainline Presbyterian Church summer camp that the Negro (sic) was God's image in ebony, just as the white man was God's image in ivory. But principle didn't have to do with it. The fact was that in general, they just didn't care that much. They had other fish to fry and race for them was simply not that big of a deal.

Indifference coupled well, of course, with ignorance: to my recollection, there was one "Negro" in my 1953 high school graduating class (come to think of it, there was one woman in my law school graduating class--I have lived long, I have seen much). In 1948-9 our eighth grade teacher read us a book about a black man who had passed for white in New England. The whole point of the story was that it worked because nobody in that part of the world much knew what a black man looked like.

And so Rickey took his chance with Newcombe. Jackie Robinson broke the major league color bar under Rickey's tutelage the next year and in general, I guess you'd have to say that it worked all around--one of the unambiguous success stories in modern sports history.

[Fn.: Inconsistently, I think I can also claim to be the descendant of a slaveholder. I don't have the documents at my fingertips, but I've seen records indicating that a lineal ancestor in Massachusetts "became very prosperous and owned a Negro, Lot." I've seen other paper to indicate that maybe "Lot" also fought in the American Revolution as a freeman. I bet hever played major league ball though.

Fn2: Oddly enough, I have absolutely memory of Newcombe's breakthrough teammate, Roy Campanella. Maybe it was because Campanella (a catcher) had his back to me (I still carry a vividvisual image of Newcombe on the mound). Or maybe I just thought he was Italian.

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