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Road Scholar: Nashua, New Hampshire – Integrated Baseball with the 1946 Nashua Dodgers

New England does a fine job of preserving its history and landmarks, especially ballparks. Baseball’s roots run deep in New England, to the game’s origins, and many fields from the early 20th century (and late 19th century in Rhode Island) remain open and in use, even if they’re not serving as the social epicenters of mill towns and small cities as they did in their heydays.

A fine example is Holman Stadium in Nashua, New Hampshire. Like many of these ballparks (Muzzy Field in Bristol, Connecticut, holds a special place in my heart), affiliated minor league baseball abandoned them long ago when expansive parking lots, airy concourses and the most modern amenities became priorities. They’re now ideal locations for collegiate summer leagues, where young ballplayers get some extra game experience from June through August heading into their schools’ fall ball seasons. Holman Stadium plays host to such a team – the Nashua Silver Knights of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League – while also serving as Rivier University’s home field.

But unless you live in the immediate area of these ballparks, their unique histories are rarely told.

Holman Stadium is easily accessible from Manchester, NH, where the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats thrive as a Toronto Blue Jays affiliate. Holman exists as so many other similar ballparks, in the shadows of the bigger stage but considered economically obsolete by modern professional baseball standards. They are points of civic pride for their towns and appreciated by those interested in history.

During the 1946 season, Holman Stadium was a remarkable place to be. The Nashua Dodgers were a new minor league team in town, competing in the mid-level New England League and playing in the city-owned stadium. It was no accident that Nashua was chosen as a Dodgers affiliate.

Team president Branch Rickey was pushing social boundaries at the time by signing multiple African American ballplayers, and Nashua, with its large population of French-Canadians and progressive newspaper, was considered a town that would embrace integrated baseball.

Two of Rickey’s newest players – Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe – started their careers in Nashua and starred for that ’46 Dodgers team, which became the first U.S.-based team to integrate in the modern era. Why the “U.S.-based” designation? Because Jackie Robinson was in Montreal in ’46 breaking the color barrier in the International League a season before his history-altering call-up to the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Campanella and Newcombe, of course, became iconic Dodgers and World Series champions. Campanella, his career cut short by a horrific car accident, landed in the Hall of Fame and Newcombe, who passed away earlier this year, won Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP awards. In Nashua, they played for manager Walter Alston, himself a future Hall of Famer and four-time World Series champion manager of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers. The trio’s long-standing relationship began at Holman Stadium in a small town of 34,000 people.

That historic ’46 season played out remarkably well for the Dodgers, who finished 80-41 and won their first of three consecutive New England League titles. For a team that was setting a standard of integration in professional baseball, few incidents occurred. And in one game, Alston was ejected and Campanella took over as manager, marking the first time in American history that a black man managed a team with white athletes.

I don’t want to give away too many details because Nashua journalist Steve Daly wrote a fine book titled “Dem Little Bums: The Nashua Dodgers” that chronicles everything.

Campanella, Newcombe and Alston eventually moved on to Brooklyn and the New England League folded under financial pressure that sank many minor leagues in the 1940s. But Holman Stadium remained and retains its character after all the years since the Dodgers left town.

When I visited, I noted the low-rise section of brick wall in left field, so similar to The Dip at Dodger Stadium. To me, it’s a wonderful detail and visual evidence of Holman Stadium’s connection to the Dodgers.

With a dying battery, I did a poor job of documenting the various plaques and markers within the ballpark that honor Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe and the short-lived Nashua Dodgers. Really, you need to make time to pull off the interstate and walk through this gem yourself when you’re in the area. Kudos to the town for celebrating the ballpark’s important history.

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