This is the sixth in a series of articles from the Gill Stadium Centennial Committee leading up to the facility's 100-year anniversary celebration on Sept. 8.
Long before the New Hampshire Fisher Cats moved into a state-of-the-art minor-league ballpark on the banks of the Merrimack River and became one of the most successful franchises in the Eastern League, Manchester's Gill Stadium was home to professional baseball, if only sporadically.
The first professional team to call Gill (then Textile Field) home was the Manchester Textiles of the New England League, which played at the Class B level, the equivalent of today's Double-A, the level at which the Fisher Cats play. That team moved from Fitchburg, Mass., during the 1914 season — the year after Textile Field opened — and remained in Manchester through 1915. After that, the New England League merged with the Eastern Association to form the Eastern League, but Manchester's ownership moved the team to Lowell, Mass., before the start of the 1916 season.
Professional baseball didn't return to what by then was known as Athletic Field until 1926, when a team called the Manchester Blue Sox joined a new version of the New England League, also at the Class B level. That version of the league died in 1930, killed by the Great Depression.
The Blue Sox helped produce several major leaguers, most notably three-time All-Star shortstop Billy Jurgess and Manchester native Tom Padden. Jurgess went on to play 17 seasons with the Cubs and Giants, while Padden spent parts of seven seasons with the Pirates, Phillies and Senators before finishing his career back in the minors and back in Manchester.
History made post-WWII
The next version of the New England League sprang to life in 1946, with the Manchester Giants — affiliated with the New York Giants — one of the charter teams, along with the Nashua Dodgers, among the first integrated teams in professional baseball. Nashua's roster that season included catcher Roy Campanella, who would go on to win three National League MVP awards and gain induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame, and Don Newcombe, who would become the only major-leaguer ever to win a Rookie of the Year, Cy Young and MVP award during his career.
Among the players on the '46 Giants, many of them veterans just back from World War II, was one of those veterans, Manchester native John Raczka. A Manchester High Central graduate, Raczka batted a more-than-respectable .333 in 68 games but retired after the season due to shoulder problems. The Manchester player who would go on to the greatest fame was pitcher Bob Cain, who went 13-4 with a 2.38 ERA that season but is best known as the pitcher who walked Eddie Gaedel in the little person's only major-league at-bat. Padden was on the Giants' roster in 1946 but never played. Two years later, though, he was back as manager of the Manchester Yankees.
Manchester changed affiliations after the 1947 season, and competed as the Yankees in 1948 and '49, before the New England League suffered its final demise.
Eastern League arrivals
It was another two decades before Gill became home to a new version of the Manchester Yankees, when the New York Yankees relocated their Eastern League franchise from Binghamton, N.Y. That team, however, would last just three seasons before moving to West Haven, Conn.
The most prominent member of that first Manchester Eastern League team was Ron Blomberg, later to become, in 1973, the first major-league player to bat as designated hitter. The following year's Yankees featured right-handed pitcher Doc Medich, who would go on to win 124 big-league games in an 11-year career divided between seven teams. The 1971 Manchester team included eight players who went on to play in the majors, but no one of note.
The Red Sox affiliates who visited Manchester during those three seasons — from Pittsfield, Mass., in 1969, and from Pawtucket, R.I., in 1970 and '71 — did have some notable names, foremost among them Charlestown, N.H., native Carlton Fisk, who played in the Eastern League in '69 and '70. Other Red Sox minor-leaguers who played at Gill during one or more of those three seasons included Bill Lee, Rick Miller, Cecil Cooper, Roger Moret, Ben Oglivie and Juan Beniquez.
Fisk was one of two players to perform at Gill during that period before going on to a Hall of Fame career; Phillies third baseman Mike Schmidt was the other.
Gill served as home to a minor-league team for what likely was the final time when the Fisher Cats spent their first season in New Hampshire there while a new ballpark was being constructed on the riverfront in 2004.
Brought to Manchester by Drew Weber — also the owner of the short-season Single-A Lowell Spinners, he had purchased the Toronto Blue Jays' Eastern League affiliate and moved it from New Haven, Conn. — the Fisher Cats were an instant success, winning the EL championship in their first season in New Hampshire while averaging around 3,200 fans per game at Gill.
In 2005, the Fisher Cats moved into their new home, now known as Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, where their average attendance has consistently topped 5,500. Gill, having served as the Fisher Cats' temporary home, continued to host high school and youth games — in baseball and other sports — as it does to this day.