The New England League: A Baseball History, 1885-1949
Minor league histories traditionally focus on the players and pennant races. Recently, the best studies have shifted the emphasis to the owners, the cities, [End Page 145] and the larger fabric of American social history. As well as anyone writing baseball history, Bevis blends socio-economic and cultural themes through-out The New England League, weaving ideas about the Protestant Sabbath, the decline of the textile and shoe industries, the changing nature of social classes, the centripetal pull of the metropolis, and the role of entrepreneurs into a richly textured work.
Bevis's previous book, Sunday Baseball, detailed an important cultural war that divided America for over two generations. Now, he argues that "the strictures against playing baseball on Sundays was the dominant theme of the history of the New England League from its formal inception in 1885 until . . . 1929" (1). However, there are reasons to question Bevis's insistence on the centrality of the Sunday ball issue. New England League owners, like National and American League owners, wished to attract "respectable" middle class fans, ones least likely to attend games on the Sabbath. Tim Murnane, who presided over the league from 1892 to 1915, opposed Sunday ball, and the heyday of the league, 1901-12, occurred without benefit of Sunday games.
Mill workers, of course, had little chance of attending baseball games except on the Sabbath, but owners seem never to have wanted to attract workers, staking their livelihood on middle-class spectators. As Bevis demonstrates, at the end of the nineteenth century, the middle class and upper-middle class began to leave the city center to streetcar suburbs. Small businessmen, lawyers, and plant managers "stopped attending ball games as often" (100), but a new middle class more than made up for the departed fan base. Presumably, these new customers came from the expanding middle class of professionals, engineers, accountants, clerks, and middle management types.
Like all of baseball, the New England League flourished during the deadball era before World War I. The New England League never experienced greater stability or turned more profits than in the decade between 1902 and 1912. Between 1906 and 1912, the same eight cities comprised the league. Throughout minor league baseball, this golden age came to an end around 1914. More research needs to be done to adequately explain why so many leagues and teams fell by the wayside in the three years before the United States entered the Great War. Bevis has found a few clues. The Federal League touched off a bidding war for players all down the line, especially in New England where the new league hoped to create farm clubs. Bevis offers even more local reasons: the textile and shoe industries began to flee to the South; longtime secretary-treasurer of the league, Jake Morse, quit to form his own league; long-established owners sold or moved their teams; and Tim Murnane, who had run the league since 1892, stepped down in 1915.
With Murnane gone, it took over a decade before Claude Davidson revived [End Page 146] the league. Unlike Murnane, the new president attempted to attract factory workers by playing twilight games and, beginning in 1929, Sunday games. Even so, the league stumbled through the Roaring Twenties to its demise in 1933. Bevis offers a complex of factors to explain this second failure of the league: the region's basic industries continued to lose jobs to the South; automobiles allowed fans new opportunities to use their spare time; the Boston teams drew people from New England League towns in increasing numbers; and legalization of paramutual betting finished the league.
The post-World War II years, 1946-49, provided a last hurrah for the old league. Bevis unravels a tale of intrigue between Davidson and Branch Rickey, with Buzzie Bavasi as the front man, to use Nashua and the New England League as "an out-of-the-way sanctuary to develop black players for the Brooklyn Dodgers" (257). When Jackie Robinson opened the 1946 season in Montreal, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe starred for Nashua with much less fanfare. Bevis presents convincing documentation that the choice of Nashua was no chance occurrence, but the result of Rickey's planning dating to the fall of 1945 when the Dodgers acquired the Nashua franchise and sent Bavasi to run things. In effect, Davidson built a league for Rickey. Everything went smoothly for three years, except for the rabid racism from the Red Sox farm team in Lynn. By 1949, Rickey no longer needed a secluded sanctuary, and New England fans turned away from their local teams.
Bevis is at his best in trying to explain the demise of the New England League. He rejects the easy explanation that television killed minor league ball, although he allows that the combination of radio broadcasts of major league games, television, and automobiles contributed to the death. He found that "Little League baseball became a focus of potential adult spectators . . . as they increasingly chose to attend twilight games played by their ten year old children" rather than attend minor league games (275). This makes sense, and, perhaps, Bevis's book will encourage others to look more fully at the negative impact of Little Leagues.
In the end, Bevis blames the proximity of Boston and its two major league teams for the collapse of minor league baseball in New England. The interlocking complex of radio and televisions broadcasts created broad followings for the Braves and Red Sox, as they diminished loyalties to local cities. Automobiles and group sales made it easy for fans throughout New England to get into the Hub for games. Essentially, "Red Sox Nation" consumed the minor leagues of Boston's hinterland. [End Page 147]