Stop # 4 – Nashua, NH

This is my first stop on this adventure in which I’ve traveled by myself, although I did have company before and during the game – more on that shortly. This time around, in keeping with the What I Missed theme, I plan to travel on back roads whenever possible. I’ve seen pretty much Interstate highway in this country from east to west, north to south and back and forth more times than I can count. I’m done. Unless I have to travel a highway to get to a particular place or I am in what I hope will be a rare situation of being in a hurry, the Avoid Highways flag on Apple Maps will always be on. There is a lot more to say about this, in fact it is one of the main themes of what I hope will be another book, but I will save that for later.

The back road route from Hartland to Nashua took me down along the shores of the Connecticut River to Bellows Falls, Vt. I stopped in the village of Charlestown to snap a picture of the road sign commemorating the town’s most famous native son. I also stopped briefly at the site of the first bridge across the river….see below.

After wending my way through small towns in southern New Hampshire I arrived in Nashua four hours before the game, just as intended. I walked up and down Main Street enough times to get a sense for the place. There are lots of restaurants – some more enticing than others. There is a lovely public library sitting above the Nashua River which runs straight through the center of the city. At just under 100,000 residents, Nashua is a city of its own, separate from the larger Manchester to the north and much larger Boston to the southeast. It has successfully transitioned from the industrial era mills and factories that were powered by the proximity to the river to an extension of Boston’s high-tech hub. The Web reveals that Nashua was twice named the Best Place to Live in America by a magazine that rates such things. I’m not a city guy but it is true that this place has a lot to offer. It also, like most mid-sized cities these days, seems to have its share of challenges. Along with the restaurants and a very pretty walking trail along the river, are plenty of payday loan stores and vape shops.

But what Nashua has, more than most cities, is baseball history. In 1946, the Nashua Dodgers became the first racially integrated team in the sport when Branch Rickey sent future Hall of Famers Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe to play in the city. Both men recalled for many years the warm welcome the people of Nashua gave them that summer despite the fact that they were virtually the only black men in the city. Before the game the city commemorated that history by unveiling a marker placing Holman Stadium, which was home to the Dodgers and every Nashua team since, on the Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire. There were already streets near the ballpark named for both men and an amazing mural on the back of a tire store that has been in business since before 1946.

The hometown team had a tough night of it. I met my friend Tom Odjakjian for a brief dinner downtown before the game and then he followed me for the five-minute drive up to Holman Stadium. OJ has recently retired after a long career as one of the busiest (and most popular) executives in college athletics and sports television. It was fun to relive not only some of our past history together (see In League With America) but also to hear him draw on a seemingly endless supply of stories about sports and the people in and around the games. My friend Tim has a unique talent, if you give him the date you were born he can generally tell you what the number one song on the radio was at the time. OJ does the same with people. Name somebody in sports and more often than not, Tom knows him or her and can tell you a story about his interactions with them. Our two hours at the game together went by way too fast.

I learned at the game that the Silver Knights have won six titles in the eleven years of the Futures League’s existence and they are the defending champs. It was not apparent on the field, however. Soon after Tom left to return to the Cape (yes, he drove several hours to Nashua and back for this game) I made my way to the exit. The Silver Knights were trailing 17-1 and they ended up losing 20-1 to the Westfield Starfires.

It was a pretty good crowd for a Tuesday night in which local schools are still in session and folks hung around even as the game became increasingly lopsided but it was pretty obvious that there were no future hall of famers on either bench. It is hard to tell if the folks in Nashua care. But I’ll tell you who should care.

Because of the significance of the evening there were several people wearing Dodgers shirts at the game and that would have been even more true when the team was affiliated with the club through the 1949 season. It would have also been true when the city aligned with the Angels and then Pirates in the early 1980s. 12 players from the 1986 Nashua Pirates team went on to play in the major leagues and I am guessing there are still folks in this city that pull for the Pirates because they saw some of those players. But that 1986 season was the last year of affiliated baseball in this city. They are not making new Dodgers and Pirates fans here anymore.

What I had Missed

I got the most lovely compliment the other day, though it was delivered secondhand. My mother-in-law Ann read In League With America and liked it enough that she has shared it with some friends. The reaction has been generally positive, I think, but one friend apparently liked this book so much she practically insisted that I write another. If she reads this, I’ll say first, thank you! I don’t think you could say a nicer thing to a writer than, I would like to read more. I’ll also say, that’s my plan.

In League With America was intended to tell the story of a moment in time. Sue Easler and I had an Excellent Adventure indeed. If you have read the book, I am hopeful that you will agree. But more than three decades have passed since then and I have found that I have more things I wish to see and more things I want to say. Over the course of the last few weeks, as I dipped my toe into the waters of another baseball road trip, those things have become a bit clearer in my mind.

My friend Tom Odjakjian, whom you read about in In League With America, asked me a question the other day. We were making plans to go to a game together, tonight as a matter of fact, and he asked, “What time do you try to get to the park? I realized that I didn’t have an answer to that question. I was preparing to set out for the first three stops of a 50-game tour I plan to do this summer and I had not yet established any norms.

In 1991, Sue and I got to the parks in one of two different time windows. Early in the trip we would arrive early afternoon, introduce ourselves and shoot some video then head off to a campsite. We would return a few minutes before the first pitch. Later in the trip as we became increasingly tired and our days were full of other things, we tended to go to the park after finding a campsite and would arrive 30-60 minutes before gametime.

In 2003, I tried to do the same on my Extra Innings Tour but I was older and more exhausted and that summer, even more than the first, seemed to be a season of trying to catch up. There were more days than I like to admit that I was not even present for the first pitch of the game.

So what should it be this time around? This past weekend, I began to answer that question. Last Thursday, my son Alistair and I went to ballpark #1 of what I guess I will call The In League With America Tour. We went to Centennial Field in Burlington, Vermont – about 90 minutes northwest of my home. Alistair had school so we did not arrive until about 5 pm for a 6:30 game. On either of the other two trips I would have parked the car in the stadium lot and gone inside to watch batting practice and fill out a scorecard.

This time, I chose differently. We drove down the hill from the stadium to downtown Burlington and the shores of Lake Champlain. The lake is such a central part of the city that it figures into the team’s nickname. The Lake Monsters refer to a sea creature, Champ, who as legend would have it, lives in the depths of the lake.

Alistair and I have both been to Burlington dozens of times, he goes to the city for flying lessons every few weeks. But it felt important to see and acknowledge the place first and then go the baseball game rather than just skipping over the place if we were running late. That’s because, I have realized, this trip might well be best referred to as the “What I Missed Tour.” This time around, I hope to get to most stops several hours before game time and walk around the streets. I’ll check out museums and parks. I will seek out local foods and read every historical sign I can find. I’ll ask residents if they go to see the local team play and, if they remember the minor league team that once, but no longer plays in most of the stadiums I’ll see this season. And then, I’ll go to the ballpark.

The last paragraph of In League With America reads thusly:

I won’t ever see all the minor league teams in one season again. That story has been lived. But I hope someone will. Better yet, I hope they’ll do as some friends have and endeavor to see them more slowly over multiple seasons, savoring what makes each one of these small towns and cities unique. I’ll be out there seeing some too. You’ll find me in places like Pine Bluff and Pittsfield searching for ghosts and future stars.

The search continues tonight in Nashua, New Hampshire where in 1946 the first racially integrated professional baseball team, the Nashua Dodgers, took the field at Holman Stadium.

April 6 An Update

Hello readers, no real blog post today. I am writing this from a Hampton Inn in Martinsville, Virginia and am anxious to get out to see Hooker Field, which used to be English Field and the home of the Martinsville Phillies and then Astros. Martinsville’s history with affiliated baseball started in 1939 but ended in 2003, the last time I was here.

Although I had hopes of updating my blog everyday it turns out that I already know that I don’t wish to spend the first few hours of every day sitting in a hotel room writing when I could be seeing that which I set out to see. I think there is a solution to this but it will have to wait until I am sitting at a computer for a bit longer.

Here, though, are a few pictures from the first three days of this journey. More from Atlanta tomorrow