From Thunder Loons to Fisher Cats: N.H.'s Rich (and Weird) History of Minor League Sports

Aug 21, 2015

When the Manchester Monarchs won their only league championship this year, and then promptly moved to California, it had to be the weirdest thing that’s ever happened in New Hampshire sports, right?

Not even close.

Over the years, New Hampshire teams have been involved in some of the strangest moves to have ever happened on a court or a field. In fact, you could make a case that the Granite State may be the one of the weirdest places in America for sports.

Manute Bol, shown playing for the University of Bridgeport in 1985, was a 7-foot-6 center from Sudan. He died in 2010.
Credit The Associated Press

You can start with Manute Bol, the 7-foot, 6-inch Sudanese basketball player who had a long pro career. Before playing for the NBA, he came to the state in 1985 with his University of Bridgeport teammates to play the then-New Hampshire College Penmen.

Bol was such a physical curiosity at the time that the court was ringed with curious onlookers. They weren't basketball fans, just people anxious to see him, recalls former NHC coach Dave Long.

“It was so packed that the players literally couldn’t go out of bounds,” said Long, who now writes a sports column for The Hippo. “The fire marshal almost shut us down – but I think it was because he was angry that he had to park so far down the road to get in.”

Not long afterwards, Bol was playing in the minor league United States Basketball League –  on the Rhode Island Gulls, where he was teamed with five-foot, seven-inch Anthony “Spud” Webb, one of the shortest men to ever play professional basketball.

Long couldn’t remember if the two ever played together in New Hampshire, but they may have. After all, the Gulls were in the USBL at the same time as the New Hampshire Thunder Loons.

“I think the (Thunder Loons) name came from On Golden Pond, which hit the movies a few years earlier,” said Long, who provided some public relations services for the team. “It was a summer league, and I remember I told them to play outside, which they didn't think too highly of."

But they should have, Long added, "'cause it seemed like about 130 degrees inside the gym for their first game.”

The logo for the Manchester Millrats

The Thunder Loons only lasted three years, folding in 1999, but professional basketball returned when the Manchester Millrats started playing in 2007. Affiliated with the Premier Basketball League, or PBL, the Millrats were a feisty bunch, quickly establishing themselves by winning most of their first games, including four against the league’s reigning champions, the Vermont Frost Heaves.

Apparently the states’ historic rivalry would occasionally spill onto the court. In one notable incident, two Millrats were bounced from the team for participating in a brawl that erupted at a Vermont game, forcing its cancelation. 

Video: Scenes from the Manchester Millrats' home opener against the Frost Heaves on Jan. 11, 2009 at Southern New Hampshire University.

The PBL's financial problems also presented problems for the Millrats. After several owners closed down their teams, the team was flown to places like Singapore and the Bahamas to fill out its schedule. Three years later, the team moved on. They now place as the Saint John Millrats in New Brunswick, Canada.

The team's departure helped fuel the idea that New Hampshire was a “hockey state” whose fan base couldn’t support a basketball team. But hockey had also tried - and failed - to make inroads in the state. In the late 1970s, the state shared a minor league hockey team with Cape Cod called The Freedoms. The team was affiliated with the long-gone Hartford/New England Whalers of the National Hockey League, but only lasted a single season.

New Hampshire's Actual Pastime

There's no arguing that the Granite State has maintained a strong relationship with another sport, our so-called National Pastime. Long before the New Hampshire Fisher Cats moved to Manchester in 2004, the thriving local baseball scene included teams like the Nashua Millionaires and the Manchester Blue Sox, both founded in 1926.

In fact, as far back as the late 19th century – before Major League Baseball was firmly established – many Granite State towns already had pro teams funded by local businesses. In the late 1800s, one team based in Laconia had a talented player/manager known as John “Bud” Fowler. Today, Fowler is considered a racial pioneer because he was one of the first black men considered talented enough to play on “white” teams. A 1885 newspaper story reported that “Fowler, the colored second baseman, made several remarkable plays and filled that position as well as it was ever cared for on the grounds.”

Later, Lakes Region business owners would regularly invite the Boston Red Sox to come up after their regular season to enjoy local “hunting and fishing.” In return, the Sox players would suit up for exhibition games with local teams. One year, legend has it that baseball executives didn’t want all the Sox players to play in the same uniforms for legal purposes, so George Herman “Babe” Ruth instead played with the Laconians.

A mural in tribute to Nashua's baseball history

In the 1940s, New Hampshire baseball took another step forward when the New England League installed a New York Giants farm team called the Manchester Giants. The local Giants played at Gill Stadium, and their biggest rivals were the Nashua Dodgers, a Brooklyn Dodgers team that played at Holman Stadium.

Again, New Hampshire baseball made history, because those Dodgers are now considered the first American team of the modern era to be integrated. Catcher Roy “Campy” Campanella and pitcher Don Newcombe joined the club in 1946; they would later go on to be teammates of Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn.

Given the era, what’s remarkable about the former Negro League stars playing here is how little trouble the young players endured, said Steve Daly, the author of Dem Little Bums, a book about the team. 

“Newcomb said the hardest thing about Nashua was finding someone who could cut a black person’s hair,” he reported.

When New Hampshire Rooted for The Yankees

As the New England League began breaking up in the late 1940s, the hated New York Yankees moved a farm team here. The Manchester Yankees replaced the Manchester Giants in 1948, but they stopped play halfway through the following season for financial reasons. By the end of 1949, the league was shut down altogether.

It wasn’t until about 25 years later that another pro baseball returned to the Granite State. And, again, it was the Manchester Yankees. The team wasn’t great, but it drew big crowds for a while – after it was given away to new owners.

“I remember we were sitting at the kitchen table in Massachusetts when my dad read in the old Boston Record-American (newspaper) that the original owner, John Alevizos, had to give the team away,” said New Hampshire sportscaster Ken Cail. “He’d been named a vice-president of the Red Sox and you can’t have two (MLB team affiliations.)”

Cail’s father, also named Ken, got together with another baseball buff named Ron Duke and, after some conversations with Aleviszos, took over the Manchester Yankees. Neither of the men had any experience in professional sports, so  the teenage Ken Cail got to be public address announcer and do what’s now called “public relations.”  Today, Cail is the play-by-play announcer of the Manchester Monarchs.

Gill Stadium in Manchester was the home park of many N.H. minor league teams, including two iterations of The Yankees.
Credit Via CharliesBallParks.com / http://www.charliesballparks.com/st/NH-Manchester-Gill.htm

According to Cail, the first year his father ran the team was a success, with around 100,000 fans attending 70 home games. But the crowds were down by more than half in three years – likely because the Boston Red Sox were growing in popularity and the price of tickets at Fenway Park wasn't much higher than admission into Gill Stadium. In 1971, three years after the new Manchester Yankees started playing, the team closed operations.

Over the years, a few other baseball teams have drifted through the state. The Nashua Hawks played a few seasons in the 1990s before being evicted for not paying rent to the city for use of Holman. The Nashua Pride was part of the independent Atlantic League and did reasonably well until the owners sold out in 2008. New owners changed the name to the American Defenders of New Hampshire and dressed the players in semi-camo uniforms. Unfortunately, they also reneged on their stadium rent and the city parked a tractor on home plate to prevent the team from taking the field.

The modern era of New Hampshire baseball was ushered in with the arrival of a farm team of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2003. That team is now called The Fisher Cats, but originally, they were meant to be the New Hampshire Primaries, with a logo featuring a Republican elephant and a Democratic donkey in baseball gear.

This original logo for the team known today as The Fisher Cats created a controversy in 2003.

Local reaction to the team's name was swift and harsh. After a storm of complaints, the owners let fans choose the current nickname in a contest, and the team began play in 2004, winning the Eastern League Championship their first year in New Hampshire.

A Granite State of Minor Leagues?

Are things looking up for New Hampshire's minor league sports scene? It would seem so.

The old AHL Monarchs are being replaced with a new Manchester Monarchs – in a new league, but with the same logo and the same lion mascot. And while pro basketball is gone from the state, baseball is thriving. The Laconia Muskrats and the Keene Swamp Bats play in a league that features some of the best college baseball players in the country, and the five-year-old Nashua Silver Knights is in another collegiate league – but this one (and the team itself) is owned by the same people who own the Lowell Spinners, a Red Sox affiliate that’s considered one of the best sports marketing groups in the country.

But if history is any indicator, no matter which way the winds blow with fans, franchises, and teams,  more strange things are bound to happen here.

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