It was an event not specifically important in the lives of anyone perhaps except Doug Spiel and Danielle Dronet and the few employees that still work in the stadium in Newark New Jersey built in the infectious belief of a former N.Y. Yankee star that baseball could flourish there again. They were certainly not happy to see the stickers that adorned the equipment late last month as a place where history was made yet not well rewarded or remembered by the game of Professional Baseball came to an end once more.
The Newark Bears held a liquidation sale and the stadium that Rick Cerone, a very good former Yankee catcher had convinced Essex County New Jersey to finance so that the glory days of a once storied franchise could be restored. It will now host high school, college and perhaps, in a final indignity, move the bases and mound in for Little League games.
Baseball went missing from Newark for nearly half a century when the Bears were born again. It was once a remarkable place where soon to be top prospects and eventual Hall of Fame Players played. It was owned and operated in the Negro Leagues by the only woman baseball executive now in the Hall of Fame. A player by the name of Moe Berg, later a spy in World War II once played there as a New York Yankee hopeful. Don Newcomb, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin and others passed through there on the way from the 1946 Negro League Champions to the white Major Leagues. They enjoyed it there, played well, and marked time as they peered across the river to New York and waited for Jackie Robinson to succeed so that they could follow. It was a place to dream and to hope for the AAA minor leaguers of the New York Yankees for many years after that and then sadly, without a Major league affiliate to bolster the budget in recent years only a place for fading “used to be” stars that refused to accept that it was over such as Ricky Henderson and Jose Canseco to play and try once more to make it back to “The Show.”
The last owners, the affianced Doug Spiel M.D. who, appropriately it would seem specializes in pain management, and Ms. Danielle Dronet, a marketing specialist bought the franchise a few years ago. Yet not even their unbounded enthusiasm, long days and nights of work, and a lot of their own money could turn it around. They thought they could. They were mistaken. Now, the batting cage (Lot Number 166) languishing behind the fence and the table the auctioneer will use (Lot Number 42) and even the team bus was for sale. As the soon to be jobless equipment manager said, “pretty much anything that isn't actually part of the stadium” was to be sold.
Spiel and Dronet never lacked for enthusiasm in their quest to make a go of it. Spiel spent a million dollars of his own money to pay vendors and they did everything they could think of to attract sponsors and of course sell the 6,200 tickets to every home game, even hiring a group of dancing girls known as the Honey Bears.
Dronet says that the bureaucracy of Essex County, in that way New Jersey is said to have of crushing the good with the bad, did everything they could to see to that they failed and lacked interest in the team’s survival despite the fact that the county will have bond debt obligations for stadium construction until 2029.
But in the end, it was the tickets. The “fannies in the seats” that didn't happen. It was also a storm called Hurricane Sandy that arrived without paying her way in and had her way with the stadium. It was a failed attempt to turn the couple’s stadium into a reality show, a scamming promoter who announced Justin Bieber would be performing for a charity (much to Bieber’s surprise), and finally, a burglary that cost the team most of its electronic equipment that brought them to the brink and the Fat Lady tuned her vocal cords in the wings all winter in 2012.
Last season the Bears were last in the Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball with a record of 37-63. It claimed a generous estimate of 500 average attendance when 2,000 at least were needed to maintain the owners’ sanity. In November, The Can-Am League dropped Newark and the Fat Lady sang in earnest.
That in the end is what led to the super pretzel warmer becoming lot 83; assorted napkin holders, lot 122, and a framed picture of Monte Irvin, the first black New York Giant stealing home yet another.
After a half century absence of baseball, in 1999 at an expense of $34 million to the citizens of Essex County and the high hopes of Rick Cerone and several baseball visionaries after him never saw the development promised by the county around the stadium. In the ethereal glow of light from the city, the stadium stood alone to be seen by so many New Jersey commuters out the train windows without a notion that coming there to see a ballgame with the family might be a fine idea. Why not the Mets, the Yankees, or even the Jackals in Little Falls? Why come into this city?
As Doug Spiel said, “What if you gave away 3,000 tickets and nobody came? What does that tell you? What if the City and County Officials had free box seats and came maybe twice a year, what does that tell you?”
What if no major league team would affiliate with you because you were in Newark, yet the Mets would start a new franchise in Brooklyn, the Yankees were as far away as Trenton, NJ. What does it tell you about a sport always starving for new talent with an alleged solemn commitment to inner city baseball programs?
This was the franchise of the storied Newark Eagles, the best in the Negro leagues in 1946. This is where Roberto Clemente and so many of the eventual stars of the Yankees, Dodgers and Giants played and was owned by Effa (Effie) Manely, the most famous woman in baseball history and the only one in the Hall of Fame who along with her husband Abe operated the Eagles from 1935 until 1946 and then did so on her own until 1948 after his death. This interracial woman, trained as a hat maker kept the books, made the travel arrangements and altered the face of the Negro leagues, demanding and getting better accommodations and food for her players, and who made even the team bus, the luxurious Flexible Clipper a symbol of the team’s success.
Yet baseball apparently has no time for that now or memory of it. There is no time or appetite for its own history beyond Jackie Robinson Day held in the spring every year when all players, mangers and coaches in both leagues wear his number 42 in his memory. For a multibillion dollar industry which pays a feckless Commissioner 20 million dollars a year to oversee the chaos of instant replay and the vicissitudes of egomaniacal owners, it is apparently too much to ask to find a way to help a franchise exist, perhaps even flourish in Essex County in a stadium bought a paid for by the citizens of New Jersey. The former affiliate of The New York Yankees for so many years, perhaps ten miles as the crow flies from the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx apparently isn't as “special” as Trenton, a hundred miles further on.
Perhaps in another 50 years someone with the zeal and the willingness to work as hard as Spiel and Dronet did will come along and try again to remember, to make it right, to give baseball and its history back to this city that gave it so much and perhaps they will succeed and perhaps not. Whatever happens, do not count on Major League Baseball to have a memory longer than the last World Series, or the will and the money to help.
On a Saturday in late April at 10 AM, the auction was held. The weather was fair and in the 50’s. All who made successful bids had their faces shown on the “Jumbotron” (lot 187) in center field, and the Newark Bears Professional Baseball Team is gone and that seems very sad and wrong.