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Jules Tygiel
June 27, 1983
The summer of 1946 was filled with promise for the blacks who followed in Jackie Robinson's heroic footsteps
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June 27, 1983

Those Who Came After

The summer of 1946 was filled with promise for the blacks who followed in Jackie Robinson's heroic footsteps

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Roy Campanella, the recipient of the above wire, was one of four black players who, along with Jackie Robinson, appeared in Organized Baseball in 1946. Robinson's dramatic breakthrough at Montreal and. the force of his personality so dominate the integration saga that the experiences of Campanella, Don Newcombe, John Wright and Roy Partlow are often overlooked.

The announcement in April 1946 that Campanella and Newcombe had signed contracts with the Dodger organization naturally created less of a stir than had the news of Brooklyn's signing of Robinson five months earlier. But in both the white and black communities, it reaffirmed the sincerity of Branch Rickey's efforts to integrate baseball. Fred H. Dobens, the president of the Nashua (N.H.) Dodgers, to which Campanella and Newcombe had been assigned, said that the parent club was "carrying out its plan to give deserving Negro players a chance to make good in Organized Baseball down through its farm clubs." The press adopted this theme. The Brooklyn Eagle commented that when the Dodgers signed Wright, "The boys in the back room" had scoffed, " 'He's there to keep Jackie Robinson company. There'll be no more Negroes in organized baseball.' " The signing of Newcombe and Campanella proved they were "whistling off key." They could no longer dismiss Rickey's activities as a publicity gimmick.

The black press, while welcoming the latest development, debated the wisdom of the choices. Wendell Smith in The Pittsburgh Courier described Campanella as "the best hitting catcher in Negro baseball" and Newcombe as "the most promising hurler." Sam Lacy of the Baltimore Afro-American displayed less enthusiasm. He withheld comment on Newcombe, with whom he was unfamiliar, but he expressed skepticism about Campanella's talents. If the Dodgers had obtained the services of "the best catcher in colored baseball," Lacy saw this as a "distinction that is definitely on the dubious side," given the poor quality of catching in the Negro leagues.

With the formalities of their signing and its attendant publicity at an end, Campanella and Newcombe embarked for Nashua. They were an odd couple. Campanella hardly even looked like a baseball player. He stood 5'9" and weighed nearly 200 pounds, a "sumo wrestler pared to catcher's size," according to Roger Kahn in The Boys of Summer. Newcombe, at 6'4", towered over his companion. A strapping giant—Newk then weighed 215 pounds—he had the long arms and broad shoulders characteristic of his trade. Campanella, although only 24 years old, was a confident, relatively mature veteran of nine Negro league seasons. The 19-year-old Newcombe harbored doubts about his talents. "I never really thought I had that kind of ability," he says today. "[The Dodgers] liked me because I was so big and could throw the ball hard. But I was always wild. I didn't know where the ball was going."

Campanella and Newcombe, thrust together as the only blacks in New England baseball, became close friends. Campanella radiated an infectious enthusiasm and love for the game. "He had a dash that was always a pleasure to share," wrote Lacy.

Rickey didn't indoctrinate Campanella and Newcombe as thoroughly as he had Robinson, but he gave them careful instructions on how to behave. Campanella received a letter from Rickey advising him to avoid disputes, ignore taunts and sarcasm, and simply play ball. Before their departure for Nashua, Campanella and Newcombe met with Robinson in New York to discuss the coming season. "The three of us got together because we were embarking on this new idea and we had to have sort of a game plan to find out how we were going to operate as players," says Newcombe. The trio discussed the difficulties that they might face and agreed to abide by the rules set down by Rickey. Throughout the season, according to Newcombe, he and Campanella kept in contact with Robinson, exchanging ideas and comparing their experiences.

Nashua, wrote Wendell Smith, was "a typical New England town, quiet, liberal and staid in its ways." Located 40 miles north of Boston, Nashua's residents appeared to have no qualms about welcoming black athletes. "These people are wonderful," the ebullient Campanella told the Courier. "Newcombe and I go anyplace we want to, do anything we please and are treated like long-lost sons." Newcombe and Campanella and their families were the entire black population of Nashua. They rarely saw the other blacks in the area, who lived at a lumber mill several miles outside of town. "We even had to go to the white barber shop," recalls Newcombe. "He didn't know how to cut black hair. We got scalped many times by the barber who tried.... He could have said, 'No, I don't cut black people's hair,' but he tried."

Newcombe and Campanella found themselves under the command of Player-Manager Walter Alston. Destined to become one of baseball's most famous skippers, Alston was, as was Nashua General Manager Buzzie Bavasi, in the early stages of his ascent through the Dodger organization. In 1946, at 34, the soft-spoken Alston was concluding an unsuccessful career on the field and had already managed for five years. He had played more than a decade in the minor leagues and in 1936, in his only at bat in the majors, had struck out. In 1944 Rickey, whose brother Frank had originally signed Alston to a St. Louis contract, offered him a job as player-manager of the Brooklyn Class B farm club in Trenton, N.J. After two years there, Alston moved to Nashua, which played in the Class B New England League.

Rickey didn't consult Alston about whether he would accept the two black players, nor did he give him any special instructions. "Nobody asked me a thing, and I never said a word about it," says Alston. "They sent me Newcombe and Campanella, and I didn't think too much about it except to wonder how good they were as ballplayers. I was wondering if they could help our club.

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