By Tony McClean
Updated: January 28, 2007
NOTE: In celebration of this yesterday’s civil rights game — BASN looks back at the pivotal season of 1946 when the Homestead Grays’ run of Negro National League pennants was halted by the Newark Eagles.
NEW HAVEN, Ct. — For nine seasons from 1937 to 1945, the Negro National League was dominated by the legendary Homestead Grays.
Led by future Hall of Famers Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, the Grays won nine straight pennants, two Negro League crowns, and served as the Negro League’s premier franchise.
1946 would be a pivotal year on and off the field for the Grays and Negro League baseball in general. In October of 1945, Jackie Robinson would sign with the Brooklyn Dodgers. The former Kansas City Monarch would begin his minor league career with the Montreal Royals in April.
The year would also serve as the end of and era of sorts as the Grays’ run of nine straight National League pennants would be halted by a team that had been nipping at their heels for several seasons.
During the Grays’ run of greatness, the Newark Eagles always seemed to just fall short of dethroning Homestead. They finished second to the Grays five times during that nine year stretch.
The Eagles were incepted in 1936 when the Newark Dodgers merged with the Brooklyn Eagles. The team shared Ruppert Stadium with the minor league Newark Bears, the New York Yankees’ top farm team.
The Eagles were also the first professional team owned and operated by a woman, Effa Manley. Manley and her husband, Abe, both proved to good judges of baseball talent as a look of their rosters will attest.
Among the players that played for Newark were future Hall of Famers Leon Day, Willie Wells, and Ray Dandridge. However, it was two other Hall of Famers that would help lead the Eagles to their great run in 1946.
While they were known as mainly as outfielders during their major league careers, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin formed one of the Negro League’s best double play combinations during the early 1940′s.
A product of Lincoln (Pa.) University, Irvin signed with the Eagles in 1938 under the name of “Jimmy Nelson” to maintain his college eligibility. A shortstop by trade, Irvin was told that because of prowess of Wells (whose .404 average led the league that season) and Dandridge (.346), the only way he could make the team was as an outfielder.
Doby would join the Eagles in 1942 and made an immediate splash. At the age of 17, Doby won the league’s batting crown with a .427 mark. He became the only the third rookie in Negro League history to turn the trick and was also voted as a starter in the East-West All-Star Classic.
Ironically, Irvin had won the league’s battle crown (.395) the season before. A contract dispute with Manley just before the start of the ’42 season would see Irvin jump ship and play for Vera Cruz of the Mexican League.
Much like Doby did in the states for the Eagles, Irvin enjoyed a stellar season in his new venture. He just missed winning the league’s triple crown. Irvin led the league in hitting (.397), homers (20), and just missed the RBI crown by 3 runs.
Irvin drove in 79 runs in 63 games and was named the league’s MVP.
It would take another four years before Doby and Irvin would be on the same Newark roster, but for Eagle fans it was worth the wait. Both players along with pitcher Leon Day would return to the team in 1946 following their military service.
Day would set the tone for Newark’s season as he tossed a no-hitter against the Philadelphia Stars on Opening Day. The righthander didn’t allow a runner past first base. In fact, the no-no was a prelude to another standout for season for Day and manager Biz Mackey’s entire pitching staff.
Day (14-4) was the workhorse as he led the league in strikeouts, innings pitched, and complete games. Teammate Rufus Lewis (15-5) would lead the league in wins while another Eagle hurler, Lemuel Hooker (8-3) led the league in ERA with an amazing 2.12 mark.
However, it was Newark’s Max Manning that was named the league’s George Stovey Award winner that season. The 6-foot-4 bespectacled lefty known as “Dr. Cyclops” was an overpowering fastball pitcher who also threw a devastating curve and slider.
After losing his first game of the season, Manning would win 14 straight starts and finish the regular season at 14-1. Counting non-league games that season, Manning would win 16 straight overall.
The Newark staff finished the year with a team ERA of 2.79, a great feat considering the small dimensions of Ruppert Stadium. In fact, all four of the Newark starters would finish in the top five of all major pitching categories that season.
As for Doby (now at second) and Irvin (now at short), the pair would lead the league in double plays. At the plate, Doby’s .360 mark led the team with Irvin just behind at .349.
They finished fourth and fifth respectively in the overall batting race.
Most importantly, the Eagles won both halves of the National League race (47-16 overall) and dethroned the Grays after several second place finishes. Despite an MVP season from Josh Gibson, the Grays finished 27-28 mark.
The Eagles would go on to face the Kansas City Monarchs in the Negro League World Series. Several major league scouts were on hand to view this series which featured six future major leaguers and four future Hall of Famers.
The first six games would follow the same pattern: a Kansas City win followed by a Newark win. Eventually the series would be decided in winner-takes-all Game Seven at Ruppert Stadium.
A Kansas City error and an Irvin single would plate the game’s first run. However, a Buck O’Neil homer (who had only hit one homer during the regular season) would tie the game in the sixth. The Monarchs took the lead in the seventh, but Newark would rally in the bottom of the eighth.
With one out a following walks by Doby and Irvin, Johnny Davis doubled to drive them both in and give the Eagles a 3-2 lead. Despite getting only three hits on the day, the Eagles would take Game Seven and win the series.
Irvin was the unanimous choice as the Rube Foster Award winner as the series’ most outstanding player. He hit a sizzling .462 during the series (12-of-26) with three homers and eight RBIs.
The seven-game series completed the greatest season in the franchise’s history. After losing Doby to the Cleveland Indians in 1947 and witnessing the departure of Monte Irvin to the New York Giants, the team stopped operations in 1948.
However, the memory of that championship season has not been forgotten.
On July 15, 2006, the Newark Bears of the Atlantic League held a special tribute to the 1946 Negro League World Series Champion Newark Eagles before the game against the Atlantic City Surf.
Along with the pre-game speech by Bears General Manager John Brandt, the Bears unveiled a banner commemorating the team labeled “The Greatest Negro Team Ever.”
Looking back at the talent on that team, the declaration wasn’t far off.
NOTE: The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues and the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues contributed to this article.