The New England League was a mid-level league in American minor league baseball that played intermittently in five of the six New England states (Vermont excepted) between 1886 and 1949. After 1901, it existed in the shadow of two Major League Baseball clubs in Boston and alongside stronger, higher-classification leagues.
In 1946, the NEL, the International League and the Canadian-American League - which all included farm teams of the Brooklyn Dodgers - were the first 20th century leagues (except for the "outside 'organized baseball'" Negro Leagues) to permit African-Americans to play. The following season, Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby would integrate the major leagues.
The New England League played its first game in 1886, with clubs in Massachusetts and Maine. Its first champion was the Portland club. The league was inactive in 1889-90, then resumed play from 1891 to 1915 (with the exception of 1900) under the presidency of Tim Murnane, the Boston Globe sportswriter. When the minor leagues were assigned classifications in 1902, the NEL was graded Class B, at that time two levels below major league status, equivalent to Class AA today.
Disruption caused by the outlaw Federal League and the coming of World War I caused the loop to reorganize in 1916 as the Eastern League, and ended the NEL's most long-lived period of operation. The league attempted to revive in 1919, then closed down in early August. Seven years later, the NEL returned in 1926 with eight clubs in the region's mill towns, but the Great Depression devastated the minor leagues, and the NEL was no exception: it disbanded June 22, 1930. A 1933 revival was followed the next season by a name change to the Northeastern League - and another shutdown that would last through the 1940 baseball season.
The New England League was revived in May, 1941 as a semi-pro league with eight franchises. Many players were in the military assigned to nearby bases, including some major league players (often playing under an assumed name). Football Hall of Famer/Major League umpire and NBA coach Hank Soar sometimes played for Pawtucket. Pawtucket's No. 1 pitcher in 1945 was "Ralph Wilson", in reality once and future Major league pitcher Randy Gumpert.
The teams in 1941 were the New Bedford Whalers (which relocated to Cranston, Rhode Island on July 31), Pawtucket Slaters, Lynn Frasers, Worcester Nortons, Woonsocket Marquettes, Quincy Shipbuilders, Fall River, and Manchester (New Hampshire) Dexters. Pawtucket won the championship.
1942 saw seven teams take the field but one, the Fitchburg Blue Sox, dropped out early in the season. Pawtucket, Lynn, Manchester, Worcester, Quincy and Woonsocket all returned and Pawtucket again won the championship in October when the best-of-7 series against Manchester was halted after five games due to poor weather. In the middle of the championship series the Slaters hosted a game against the Boston Red Sox in front of over 9,000 fans.
Pawtucket played their first game at the new Pawtucket Stadium (present-day McCoy Stadium) on July 5 against Lynn with over 6,000 fans in attendance.
By 1943, with the war, the League operated with just four teams. Pawtucket, Woonsocket and Quincy were back and joined by the Providence Frigates of Cranston.
Providence, which defeated Pawtucket for the championship in 1943, changed ballparks in 1944, moving from Cranston Stadium to Municipal Stadium in Central Falls, Rhode Island. Joining them were Pawtucket, Lynn, Woonsocket and Quincy. Lynn bested Pawtucket 3 games to 2 for the 1944 championship.
In 1945 Cranston returned to the fold joining Pawtucket and Lynn, the return of the Worcester Nortons and two new teams: the New London Diesels and the Lawrence Millionaires. The Cranston Firesafes defeated Pawtucket for the championship, 4 games to 1.
From 1941 to 1945 the member teams regularly played exhibition matches against teams from other leagues. Major League teams, Negro League teams, famous barnstorming teams and military teams all found their way into New England League ballparks. For example, Pawtucket, with once and future major league players such as Danny MacFayden, Bob Whitcher, Ted Olson and Ed Murphy, hosted the Philadelphia Phillies, Boston Braves, New York Black Yankees, and in other years teams such as the Havana All-Stars, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, Boston Colored Giants, House of David and the Brooklyn Dodgers.
In 1946 with the postwar baseball boom, the New England League was restored to an "affiliated" eight-team, Class B circuit, but only half the teams had ties to a major league organization. Four of the six 1945 teams made the crossover: the Pawtucket Slaters (Boston Braves), Lynn Red Sox (Boston Red Sox), Cranston Chiefs (independent) and Lawrence Millionaires (independent). They were joined by the Manchester Giants (New York Giants), Nashua Dodgers (Brooklyn Dodgers) and two other independent teams: the Portland Gulls and Fall River Indians. Its most notable member, the Nashua Dodgers, was a Brooklyn farm club where, in 1946, African-American players and future Dodger greats Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella made their debuts as part of the handful of men who broke the baseball color line. The players succeeded on the field and were very complimentary in remarks about their Nashua experience in later years.
In 1947 the Cranston Chiefs had a working agreement with the Cincinnati Reds, and the Fall River Indians had the same arrangement with the Chicago White Sox. The still independent Lawrence Millionaires cancelled their home game against Pawtucket on July 14 and became the Lowell "Stars" the following day playing in Pawtucket, wearing the uniforms of a popular semi-pro team of the same name. A name-the-team contest never panned out, and the press began calling the team the Lowell Orphans; after August 18 they became a "road" team. Following the 1947 season the franchise was moved to Springfield as a farm team of the Chicago Cubs, and the Springfield Cubs became the only New England League team to survive the 1949 season, as one of the Cubs' two Class AAA team from 1950-1953.
Nashua was the most successful member of the postwar league, winning three consecutive playoff championships from 1946-48. But by the middle of 1949, it became clear that the New England League was not viable. The league began the season with eight teams. The Providence Grays dropped out on June 20. In mid-July the New York Yankees announced they were withdrawing their support of the Manchester team, forcing the franchise to suspend operations. The unaffiliated teams in Lynn and Fall River then also announced they were suspending operations, and on July 20, 1949, the New England League closed out their "first half" with Nashua in first place, followed in order by the other surviving teams: Pawtucket, Portland and Springfield. The "second half" season of 38 games resumed with the four remaining teams and concluded with Pawtucket in first place, followed by Portland, Springfield and Nashua. Both halves combined shows Pawtucket as the best team some 10½ games above second-place Nashua. The Brooklyn Dodgers refused to allow Nashua to participate in any playoffs, wanting to pull the plug on the Nashua operation immediately, thus giving the Portland team a first-round bye in the playoffs, which saw Springfield defeat Pawtucket, 2 games to 0, then Portland taking Springfield in seven games. The league's final regular-season champ was the Pawtucket Slaters, a farm club of the Boston Braves, but the Portland Pilots, a Phillies affiliate, won the playoffs, thus bookending the championship earned by the Maine city's entry in the NEL's maiden season 63 years earlier.