The 1937 Newark Bears have gone down in history as one of the greatest minor league teams of all time, and rightly so. After running roughshod over the International League and scoring a dramatic comeback against the Columbus Redbirds in the Little World Series, they were feted by thousands of New Jersey baseball fans in the streets of Newark. The 1938 Bears treated Newark to an even greater show of dominance, winning a record 104 games with a club that, by most traditional measures, was even better than its predecessor. The most noteworthy change was on the top step of the dugout. Ossie Vitt, manager of the ’37 club, had moved up to the majors as manager of the Cleveland Indians. Vitt was beloved in Newark, so the Yankee brass needed to make a popular choice for his replacement. They picked first baseman Johnny Neun (right), a major-league standout for the Tigers in the 1920s who had played for Newark from 1932 to 1934. The organization shipped him to the low minors in 1935, grooming him as a player-manager. Now he was the top man in Newark.
Neun inherited the best outfield in the minors, as well as the best catcher. The Yankees were strong at those positions in the Bronx, creating a log-jam at Kansas City and Newark, its top two farm clubs. The Bears’ outfield featured Charlie Keller, who had been hailed as the top minor-leaguer in 1937 in his first year of pro ball. Gee-Gee Gleeson, in center field, had a live bat and a knack for driving runners home. He was also known for busting it out of the box, putting pressure on enemy defenses and regularly turning singles into doubles. Right fielder “Suitcase”·Bob Seeds was a magnificently streaky power hitter whose nickname reflected a well-traveled baseball résumé. The Newark pitching staff included three quality starters: Marius Russo, Atley Donald and Red Haley. Russo would go on to become a World Series hero for the Yankees, while Donald developed into key man in a couple of Yankee pennants. The man who handled the pitching staff, Buddy Rosar (left), would go on to a successful career in the big leagues, mostly for his defense. But with Newark in ’38, he was not only an expert fielder and handler of pitchers, he was also the league’s leading hitter with a .387 average.
The Bears basically sewed up the pennant in the first two months, roaring out to a double-digit lead. The team’s primary headline-maker was Seeds. Ater switching to a longer, heavier bat, the big swinger clouted 28 homers and amassed 95 RBIs in the first 59 games. His minor-league season ended in June, however, when the New York Giants bought him from the Yankees for $40,000. He added 9 homers and batted .291 in the second half for the Giants, who finished third, five games behind the Cubs. Keller was second in the league behind Rosar in batting, with a .365 average. Gleeson batted .310 with 50 doubles. The Bears also got all-star season out of first baseman Lee Scarsella, third baseman Pinky May and shortstop Mickey Witek. All three were newcomers to the club, having replaced players who were promoted to Kansas City or the big club. Donald, Russo and Haley combined to go 50–17, with Haley—who missed several weeks with a case of pleurisy—leading the league in winning percentage (.895) and Donald tops in strikeouts (133).
The Yankees were the top seed in the Governor’s Cup playoffs, the postseason tournament of the International League. They dropped three of their first four games to the Rochester Red Wings but allowed just one run in the final three to win 4 games to 3 and set up a championship showdown with the Buffalo Bisons, who had swept the second-place Syracuse Chiefs. The Bears overwhelmed the Bisons in five games to advance to the Little World Series against the Yankees’ other top farm team, the Kansas City Blues. It marked the first time in Junior World Series history that two farm clubs from the same organization vied for the title. That’s how loaded New York’s farm system was during the Depression years. Making things even more interesting is that a few members of the Blues had been in uniform for Newark the previous season, including pitcher Marv Breuer and Muscles Gallagher, who led the Blues with a .343 average. Tiny Bonham had won 8 of 10 decisions for Newark earlier in 1938 before being promoted to Kansas City.
After dropping the first game at home 3–0 on three unearned runs, the Bears powered their way to a 12–4 victory, led by Gleeson’s (right) home run and four singles. They took a one-game lead to Kansas City after defeating the Blues 7–1 in Game Three. The Blues knotted the series at 2–2 before their home fans, but Joe Beggs—who spent most of the year with the Yankees—beat the Blues for the second time in the series in Game Five, 6–1. Breuer, who pitched well for KC throughout the postseason, evened things up against the Bears 4–2 to force a seventh game.
Game Seven, played in Kansas City in front of 15,000-plus fans, featured Beggs for the third time in the same week. The Bears staked him to an early 4–0 lead, but he couldn’t hold it. Six straight hits sent him to the showers and gave KC a 5–4 lead. The pitching hero for the Blues was reliever Al Piechota, who scattered five hits over the final 5 innings to seal an 8–4 victory.
Each member of the Bears received a $500 check for the loser’s share, which was about a month’s pay for most Americans. It made the train ride home a little easier after blowing their series lead. But whereas thousands of fans had greeted the 1937 team when its train pulled into Newark’s Penn Station, only 10 people—six adults and four kids—were on hand when the Bears disembarked in 1938.