It Happened in Jersey: Baseball
This Means War!
Prior to spring training in 1943, baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis issued a wartime edict that no team could train in the south or west, in order to free up the rails for the military. The Yankees and Giants trained in New Jersey that March and April. The Yankees spent 1943 in Asbury Park while the Giants headed for Lakewood. In a game full of superstitious players, it seems odd in retrospect that the New York teams would choose the sites of two of the great disasters of the previous decade-—the deadly fire and beaching of the S.S. Morro Castle off Asbury Park and the explosion of the Hindenberg in Lakewood.
The Giants had it pretty good. They rented out all 45 rooms at an old resort hotel, which they nicknamed the Brannick Arms after the traveling secretary, Eddie Brannick. The Giants assembled at the team’s office in Manhattan, ferried across the Hudson and then traveled to the edge of the Pine Barrens by train. From the Lakewood station to the hotel, the players traveled by “tally-ho” horse and buggy. Due in part to gasoline rationing, the Giants would do much of their local traveling—including from the hotel to the county baseball complex—this way. The players also had several bicycles at their disposal. The baseball diamonds were built hastily by the team’s groundskeeping crew on the golf course at the old Rockefeller estate, where John D. Rockefeller spent his summers in the early decades of the 20th century. It had become a county park in 1940, three years after the billionaire’s death. The Jersey City Giants, the club’s top farm team, trained nearby. Upon his arrival in Lakewood, player-manager Mel Ott was presented with an enormous key to the city.
Although the Giants would drop 99 games and finish dead last that season, they had plenty of star power on the roster. Ott, catcher Ernie Lombardi, right fielder Joe Medwick, pitcher Carl Hubbell and first baseman Johnny Mize were all future Hall of Famers. Infielders Dick “Rowdy Richard” Bartell and Billy Jurges, and pitcher Van Lingle Mungo, had already played in nine All-Star Games between them. All of these players, with the exception of Mize and Mungo, were in their mid-30s or older, exempt from the draft. The big first baseman didn’t last the month of March, however, as he was called to duty in the Navy. Mungo was drafted the following season.
The Lakewood deal was struck between Ocean County freeholders and team owner Horace Stoneham, a Jersey Boy. The Giants trained in town each spring from 1943 to 1945 and then headed to Florida in 1946.. In 1944, the Giants switched to the Hotel Monterey and in 1945, the players actually stayed in the old Rockefeller mansion, which famous for its 17 full bathrooms. Dick Young joked that the Giants were the cleanest team in baseball.
The Yanks spent one season in Asbury, often dealing with the wind and fog that rolled in from the ocean or off Deal Lake. They played on the fields of Asbury Park High, including one constructed especially for their visit, creating an irresistible distraction for the students there. The school’s old football coach, Clipper Smith, led morning calisthenics. Batting practice often devolved into a power-hitting contest. Catcher Ken Sears and outfielder Roy Weatherley—who would become productive reserves in the Bronx—both put balls into Deal Lake, which was more than 450 feet away. Sixteen years earlier, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig had done the same during a postseason barnstorming stop. In 1943, the star power in Asbury was provided by young guns Joe Gordon and Charlie Keller, along with veterans Bill Dickey, Spud Chandler and Frank Crosetti. Keller and Gordon made it through the year before their numbers came up in the draft. Chandler led the league in wins and ERA in 1943 and won the MVP.
The Yankees stayed at the Albion Hotel at Second Avenue and the Boardwalk. Its décor was futuristic, with many of the fixtures having been copped from exhibits at the World’s Fair. Its nightclub, the Rainbow Room, was a major hot spot, even with coastal blackouts in force. In 1944, the Yanks moved their spring training site south, to Atlantic City. The New York players stayed in the Senator Hotel (right). The Red Sox, who had trained the previous two years as Tufts in Medford, MA, joined them in AC in 1945, staying at the Claridge. The Yankees held indoor workouts in an airplane hangar when the weather was uncooperative. Both teams held workouts indoors at Convention Hall for the amusement of the troops.
While the Giants ended up in the National league cellar in 1943, the Yankees finished first in the American League in 1943 and defeated the Cardinals in the World Series. Following their two springs in AC, the Bronx Bombers missed the pennant, finishing behind the Browns in 1944 and Tigers in 1945.
That Unforgettable HIC! Season…
One of the longest standing team-name misnomers is that Houston’s 1962 National League expansion team was named after a brand of liquor. The Colt .45’s (later to become the Astros) were actually named in honor of the pistol that “won the West.” Was there ever a pro sports team that actually named itself after booze?
NBA historians will point to the Sacramento Kings, who trace their roots back to the Rochester Royals in the 1940s. The original club, assembled as an independent pro team in the 1920s, were backed for many years by Seagram’s; players sported the company’s name and logo on their uniforms until 1942. But Seagram’s was not a specific product, it was a company that made spirits.
Does New Jersey get the nod? Back in the late 1970s, a number of national sponsors—including ESPN—got behind a softball organization called the American Professional Slow Pitch League (APSPL). In keeping with the traditional connection between softball and alcohol, APSPL teams included the Kentucky Bourbons, Cincinnati Suds and Milwaukee Schlitz, all of which are good candidates.
In 1979, the Trenton Statesmen found a new team sponsor and changed their name to the Champales. Strictly speaking, the Champales were the first to be named after a specific brand of booze.
The player-manager of the Champales was Joe Pepitone, shown here in a collectible wire photo from the Journal. They went 30--–30 and lost in the first round of the playoffs to the Bourbons—who lost to the Schlitz in the APSPL World Series. The Champales’ best player was Gary Richter. Their top slugger, Mike Kolb, slugged 22 homers in 60 games. Alas, 1979 was the one and only season of Champale softball. The club disbanded after the season when a rival circuit—the North American Softball League—was created by Ted Stepien, the spendthrift owner of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
The 1937 Junior World Series
The greatest team, some say, in the history of minor league baseball was the 1937 Newark Bears. Every player who stepped in the batter's box that season—with the exception of pitcher Jack Fallon—logged time in the big leagues either before or after that season. The Bears were led by sluggers Joe Gordon and Charlie Keller. Gordon would go on to have a Hall of Fame career; two years in the military and a bad back kept Keller from joining him in Cooperstown.
Naturally, when the International League champions squared off against the Columbus Red Birds of the American Association, fans filing into Ruppert Stadium on Wilson Avenue were expecting two or three wins before the series moves west to Ohio. And what fans they were. In the depths of the Depression, the blue-collar workers of Newark showed incredible support for their home team—often outdrawing the Yankees in the Bronx. Farm Director George Weiss delighted in reported attendance numbers to his boss, Jacob Ruppert (for whom the stadium was named), across the river.
The Red Birds, however, were no slouches. Their club featured future Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter, as well as a pair of soon-to-be NL ERA kings, Mort Cooper and Max Lanier. Even so, the smart money was riding on the Bears, who had won 109 regular-season games and then swept four-game playoffs against Syracuse and Baltimore to reach the championship of minor league baseball.
Incredibly, the Bears would leave Newark a few days later without having added to their impressive win total. Fans watched in astonishment as Columbus took each of the first three games—5–4, 5–4 and 6–3. The Bears' defense was uncharacteristically poor, as the team failed to record big outs and committed 11 errors.
Before heading off to meet their fate out west, the players called a team meeting. All evidence to the contrary, the Bears agreed amongst themselves that they were still the better ball club—and that if they played the remaining games as well as they had played all season, they still stood a chance of winning in 7. The three games in Newark were a terrible aberration.
As it turned out, the players’ confidence was well founded. They swept the final four games in Columbus, Two blowouts and a 1–0 thriller evened the series, and the Bears put together a pair of big innings in the finale to win 10–4 and take the series.
Thousands of fans greeted the team upon its return to Penn Station. The city held a parade for the Bears up Broad Street. The players were invited to Yankee Stadium, where the Yankees were playing the Giants in the World Series. They received a standing ovation from the Bronx crowd and were seated in a special section.
Yankee See, Yankee Do: The 1938 Newark Bears
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 (left), 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 (right), 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 (left) 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.
Ironically, the only thing that kept the 1938 Bears from being mentioned in the same breath as the 1937 Bears in the greatest-ever discussion of Yankee farm teams... was another Yankee farm team.
The 1932 Brown Out
A half-decade before the Newark Eagles established their power base in New Jersey, the city played host to another Negro League team, the Newark Browns. The club was a barnstorming outfit that played several games a week, often against white semipro opponents. The Browns were part of the East-West League, a new organization created by Cum Posey. Unfortunately, the eight-team EWL folded during the summer of 1932, in part because the New York Black Yankees—owed by entertainer Bill “Bojangles” Robinson—and other top independent teams declined to join.
However, the league’s framework survived in the form of the more stable Negro National League, which began play in 1933. The Browns played for about 6 weeks and during that time were winless against EWL opponents.
Fans who attended the Browns game got a glimpse of black baseball royalty in the person of player-manager Johnny Beckwith (left), whose career was beginning to wind down at age 32. He played third base for the Browns and other teams during his career. Beckwith was a right-handed slugger who drove epic shots down the left field line. As a teenager, he was the first player to clear the center field laundry structure at Crosley Field in Cincinnati and once hit a ball at Washington’s Griffith Stadium that struck a 40-foot sign some 460 feet from home plate. In 1927, the year Babe Ruth slugger 60 home runs, Beckwith was credited with 72. During his career, he faced major league opponents in 25 exhibition games during his career and batted .313 with seven home runs and 25 RBIs.
Other notable players on the Newark Browns were infielder Harry Jeffries, outfielder Willie Gray, pitcher Henry McHenry and power-hitting catcher Heavy Johnson (right). All had long careers in baseball. The Browns played their home games at the Meadowbrook Oval, located in in the Ironbound section of the city. Despite several aging stars and fringe players, they were known for their hustle and high-spirited play.