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Newark Bears Fan Interviews
Robert Cvornyek, author of
Baseball in Newark
Newark Bears Fan: What led you to write about baseball in Newark?
Robert L. Cvornyek: That’s actually sort of a bittersweet story. My dad had unfortunately taken ill about two years ago, and I was spending a lot of time in New Jersey with him and my mom. One of the things that we really shared in common was baseball. Both my mom and dad had been big Newark Bears fans in the thirties and forties, so I kind of grew up with stories of the Bears. My dad, in particular, had been very fond of Charlie Keller. My mom knew many of the Bears because she lived literally right up the block from Ruppert Stadium. So that was something I had kind of grown up with. And when I came back home to help my dad through a tough time, baseball again came back, and we spent many a night sharing stories, sharing photographs, and ultimately that’s how the book emerged. I had done a good deal of research, prior to actually doing this book, for a paper that I had presented at Cooperstown at the National Baseball Hall of Fame, dealing more with baseball in the thirties and forties [in general], but the idea of baseball resurfacing in Newark in 1999 made a wonderful story!
So baseball had already been a research theme for you?
Exactly. I had been a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), had presented papers at Cooperstown, and this just became a natural extension of all of that.
So is that born of just being a baseball fan from when you were a kid?
I played baseball in high school, and then went on to play sports in college as well, so sports had always been part of our family. I can always remember my dad coaching me as a kid, my mom in the stands, so we had developed a common language around the house around sports. It had always been a big part of our lives. The fact that I can now research and write a little bit about it has just been wonderful.
Is this in any way related to black labor after the introduction of the AFL-CIO? [Professor Cvornyek's previous publication was on this topic.]
(Laughs) In a way, I guess it is! I’ve always been interested in issues of identity: in this instance, baseball, [not only] shaping the identity of the city, but also shaping the identity of the white working class in Newark in the thirties and forties, [and] also the emerging black neighborhood. Increasingly in the twenties and thirties with the growth of the African-American community in Newark, the Eagles (the team which played in the Negro leagues) I think played a critical role in shaping black identity in Newark during that time as well.
The book is mostly photographs, with captions. How did you conduct the bulk of your research -- where did you find the photographs, who did you talk to? Did you meet with any of the old players or current players who are featured in the book?
One of the biggest sources was the Newark Public Library. The Newark city historian, Charles Cummings, was absolutely wonderful in allowing me to go through their photograph archives, and there were just a number of wonderful photographs of baseball in Newark. And as you know, the city and baseball in some ways grew up together: baseball, which had been around since before the Civil War… there’s just a wonderful history of the game and the city together. He allowed me to go through a number of those photographs. So that was a great source for me, as was the New Jersey Historical Society, who also had some very, very good photographs. I also was able to meet and work with Larry Hogan, who several years ago had co-produced a film called “Before You Could Say Jackie Robinson,” about black baseball in New Jersey. He was able to provide me access to a number of photographs that dealt with the Newark Eagles. Larry Hogan is now working with the Baseball Hall of Fame on establishing a much more substantive wing on the black leagues, so he is a wonderful contact and has become a good friend over the years.
When you found these pictures, how did you identify who was in the pictures?
Oh, that was a real sort of detective story because in many instances there was very little or no identifying information with the older photographs, especially the ones in the late nineteenth century. So it became a process of going to the newspapers or whatever other sources I could find to corroborate the little information that I did have. Newspapers of course have always been a great source, box scores (for names). Sportswriters in Newark have been great, actually. There’s a wonderful story simply in the sportswriters of Newark, who have done a wonderful job of telling the story of the sport in the city! So that was a great resource as well. Plus talking to Mr. Cummings at the Library, talking to people at the Historical Society. Professor Hogan was also able to get me in touch with a number of the players who had played in Newark: Monte Irvin (see his Hall of Fame entry), for example -- I was able to talk to him. Regrettably, Max Manning, who was a wonderful person as well as a great baseball player, passed away recently, but I was able to talk to his daughter, Belinda, to get some additional sources of information. So, a curious combination of old printed sources -- mostly newspapers -- but also some interviews and talking with some people who were around in the thirties and forties.
The other source is the Effa Manley papers which the Newark Public Library currently holds. It’s a wonderful collection. Effa Manley, as you may know, was the owner of the Newark Eagles, in fact the only woman owner of a black baseball team. I don’t know too many other women owners during that time (in the thirties and forties) -- [she was] certainly a pioneer in a number of ways! She had kept a tremendous amount of what we now call archivable material related to the team, and that was turned over to the Newark Public Library several years ago and that’s open to the public.
Out of all the pictures in the book, do you have a favorite, or a couple of favorites?
The Pito Ramirez photo which appears early on in the book is a wonderful photograph, simply because in some ways I had always seen Newark as a battling city, a working city, a tough city, and that picture of Pito Ramirez symbolized it for me. The return of baseball to Newark -- you could see it in his eyes, very determined. He’s a winner, like the city in many ways.
You used photographs from a number of people working currently. In fact it was through Colin Burke’s collaboration with you that we found out about your book. How did you come to each other’s attention?
The Newark Bears have a number of photographs at the ballpark in their front offices, and it became clear to me that there were one or two photographers whose work clearly stood out, Colin being one of them. Initially, when I had contacted the director of public information -- it was Ross Blacker at the time -- [he said I should] take a look at photographs from Colin, Kyle [Burke], and Gordon Forsyth. Those were the ones he said that had contributed the quality photographs to the team.
Of the photographs that you collected that you didn’t use, what was your favorite of those that you couldn’t put in the book?
There were certainly some hard choices I had to make about photographs! There were some photographs which, regrettably… time wasn’t kind to them, and unfortunately we could not reproduce them. So there were some old Newark Bears, from the thirties and forties, a guy by the name of Jack Fallon for example, he had a wonderful photograph but we just simply couldn’t use it because it was in such bad condition. Same thing with some of the black league ballplayers as well. People just didn’t preserve them as carefully as they could have or should have. My all-time favorite photograph -- there are two, actually! -- one is of Charlie Keller, who was my father’s favorite player, and my dad, as a youngster, kept a scrapbook of Charlie Keller, … and it was fun to rediscover a lot of his interests as a kid growing up. He had kept this wonderful scrapbook of Charlie Keller, starting when Charlie Keller was a Newark Bear and followed him all the way through the Yankees. The other one is -- and if you take a look at the book you’ll see in the older Newark Bears section some photographs with handwriting on them -- that’s actually my mother’s handwriting, she had taken pictures -- there’s one picture in there of Fred Collins, whom she had liked as a ballplayer. Those photographs have more of a family meaning, so for those reasons I was very happy to be able to put them in the book.
Your book is a part of a series, “Images of Baseball,” from Arcadia Publishing. Did they approach you, did you approach them? How did you find yourself writing a book that fit into a series?
Actually, they had approached me. I had presented a paper at Cooperstown on the Newark Bears, and the idea of the paper was taking a look at, now that the Bears are back in town, I used that as an opportunity to talk a little bit about the history of baseball in Newark. Shortly after that paper got published in the proceedings of the conference I got contacted by Arcadia asking if I was interested in doing one of their books on Newark. My sense is that they understood the significance of baseball in Newark, and they said it would be a great idea if someone did something on Newark.
Any other baseball-related projects on the horizon for you?
Yes, actually two. I’m working on a traditional history of baseball in Newark in the thirties and in the forties -- that’s a long-range project. Short-range project will be a collaborative project with Larry Hogan from Union County College where we’re looking at how the memory of black baseball was kept alive from the twenties until the sixties: what were the ways in which people understood the game. In other words, there weren’t a lot of traditional histories of black baseball written. There’s a sort of dividing line in 1970 -- after 1970 you get a number of histories of black baseball; prior to that very little was written. So we’re trying to uncover how the memory of black baseball was kept alive before 1970, and again, much of it rests with sportswriters, local historians, amateur historians. The interesting thing that we’re finding is that funerals tend to be a place where a good deal of information about black baseball was kept alive. So if a black baseball player who had played earlier in the century passed away, the funeral, which is generally a private ceremony, becomes a public ceremony in that there are commemorations. A good deal of the history of black baseball, we’re finding, comes from what you would think would be a private ceremony. But again, newspapers, sportswriters, certain festivals -- for example, opening day -- there would always be sort of a throwback to remembering an earlier time. There were some old-timers’ games which the black leagues played in -- of course the East-West Classic All-Star Game -- so there are ways in which people kept the memory of the game alive but not in the traditional way you would think -- people writing histories, or people writing articles.
So we’d find you these days hanging around graveyards and old-timers’ games!
It sounds kind of crazy, but what we’re finding is that many of the major black newspapers -- the Amsterdam News in New York, the Chicago Defender, the Pittsburgh Courier -- these newspapers from the twenties through the sixties had done a wonderful job of keeping the memory of the old black ballplayers alive.
(The conversation turned to the current Bears.)
I can only tell you that to have the current Bears come back, it’s wonderful for the city, but it’s absolutely wonderful for my mother, who like I said was a Newark Bears fan in the thirties and forties. When there was talk of bringing the team back, in the late nineties, my mother immediately got on the phone (I was living in Rhode Island at the time) and said, “they’re thinking about bringing the Bears back!” And of course whatever newspaper coverage would be in the Star-Ledger she would immediately send up. So I was getting excited -- our whole family was getting excited. To be able to go to a Newark Bears game with my mother -- to actually sit down and watch a game after having heard about it for all these years, was just one of the greatest joys of my life. I can remember, literally, sitting there, at the very first game that we saw together, and it was just a wonderful, wonderful moment. I took her for Mothers Day, we try to get there when there’s fireworks, whenever there’s something a little interesting or a little special. Sitting next to my mother at a Newark Bears game -- I don’t think it gets any better than that!
Has she had any insights into the comparisons between the old Bears games and the new Bears games?
I’ll tell you one thing: we cheated a little bit and went to a Jackals game, only because we were interested in seeing the Yogi Berra Museum. And she said to me, “Don’t take me to any more Jackals games -- those fans aren’t like Newark fans!” She is very much taken by the way in which Newark fans know the game, are interested in the game. They’re knowledgeable fans, they want to see their team hustle and play hard. It was interesting to watch her reaction. She feels very comfortable at Riverfront Stadium, with the fans and with the team.
For us, we sort of like the idea of the determination of the younger ballplayers. I mean, if there’s a sense of purity to the game, you can see it in some of the younger Bears players, in terms of their determination and the integrity with which they play the game. Combine that with some of the salty veterans -- that’s a wonderful combination! You get these young, really fresh-faced kids who are out to conquer the world -- you know they’re learning from some of the older guys, and the older guys are still sort of living the dream, which is to play baseball. You enjoy the games simply on a baseball level, the level of playing the game, the strategy of the game… but then there are these other subthemes working out at Riverfront Stadium -- certainly the history of baseball in Newark is one. But the fact that you’ve got young kids who are really doing everything they can to make it in the league, older players who are dispensing wisdom, also looking in some cases to get back into the [majors] -- it’s a curious combination that you can only get at Bears and Eagles Riverfront Stadium!
Newark Bears Fan thanks Mr. Cvornyek for making himself available for this interview.
Reprints of this interview are available from Newark Bears Fan. Click here to request one.