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In 1937 there was no argument that the New York Yankees were the best team in baseball. They won 102 games, they coasted to their second straight American League pennant by 13 games and crushed the Giants in five games in the World Series. But what was the second-best team that year? According to many, it wasn't the Giants, nor was it the American League runner-up, the Detroit Tigers. It was the Newark Bears, a Yankees' Double-A franchise (in those days there was no such thing as Triple-A), a juggernaut that took the International League like F.D.R. took Landon.
The Bears won 109 regular-season games in 1937, plus 12 postseason games on the way to winning the Little World Series. The club led the International League by an incredible 25� games. The top four pitchers had a combined record of 73-16. The team batting average was .299. They were shut out only once in 167 games. Seven of the 10 regulars hit .300 or better (another hit .298), and the top five hitters were first, second, fourth, fifth and eighth among league regulars. Only five players in the league scored 100 or more runs that season and four of them played for the Bears. The team averaged almost six runs per game and had a winning percentage in its home ball park of .789; overall, the record was .717. Only one player on the roster failed to make it to the major leagues.
The Bears of 1937 produced a brilliant flash before the minor leagues' lamp began to dim. The '40s and '50s brought television, and major league games could be seen where only minor league ball had been available. Expansion robbed the minors of most of their prime market areas and gobbled up talent that previously might have stayed on the farm a little longer. Attendance fell off, support from the major leagues dwindled, teams went out of business, leagues died. Today the minor leagues consist of only four divisions—Rookie leagues, Class A, Double-A and Triple-A—and college baseball has cut into them.
But in the late 1930s, the minors prospered. Following the St. Louis Cardinals' lead in developing a farm system, the Yankees soon created a chain of powerhouses from Double-A down to Class D. In the spring, Yankee training camps bulged with young talent that competed not only to fill spots on the parent club, but to make the Newark roster rather than Kansas City, Kansas City rather than Binghamton, Binghamton rather than Norfolk. Newark was especially desirable because it was right across the Hudson from New York, thus offering the players opportunities to impress the Yankee brass. Newark was where Ed Barrow, the Yankees' general manager, put his likeliest prospects.
A couple of hot ones topped the Bears' roster during the spring of '37. Rightfielder Charlie Keller, a 20-year-old from the University of Maryland, was slamming the ball around hard enough to be called "the next Babe Ruth." And Joe Gordon, an impressive-looking infielder from Oregon, was being groomed by Newark Manager Oscar Vitt as the eventual replacement for aging Yankee Second Baseman Tony Lazzeri.
The Bears got off to only a so-so start. By May 11, they were 9-6. Then the team began to move. A month later Newark was 35-11, and by July 1, with a 53-15 record, the Bears had a 16�-game league lead. With such a runaway, one might have thought that attendance would drop around the league, that the folks in Jersey City, Buffalo, Syracuse, Toronto, Baltimore, Montreal and Rochester would turn their attention to more pressing matters of the time: the search for Amelia Earhart in the Pacific, the marriage of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the progress of the Dionne quintuplets, the budding courtship of Abner Yokum and Daisy Mae. But, to the contrary, attendance reached record levels.
In Newark, fan interest was particularly intense. Farm Director George Weiss could always get a rise out of Barrow by reporting attendance figures superior to those of the Yankees, but that year both knew they were watching greatness. Newark was a city of factories, with neighborhoods populated by blue-collar workers who loved their city and their team. They worked hard, and old Ruppert Stadium, a charmless fortress of concrete and steel, was a place where they could buy a cheap seat, sit in the stands with their friends and watch the athletes pass through on their way to the cherished Yankee pinstripes.
Not many Newarkers had the money to venture to a Yankee game. Once the Kellers and Gordons and Spud Chandlers and Tommy Henrichs made the big leagues, they became just names in a newspaper box score. But as long as they wore the hometown N, the fans could love them as their own.
When the 1937 regular season finally ended, the Bears were 25� games ahead of Montreal, with a 109-43 record. Keller had hit .353 in his first year of organized ball. Babe Dahlgren, the third baseman, hit .340. The two catchers, Buddy Rosar and Willard Hershberger, hit .332 and .325, respectively. First Baseman George McQuinn hit .330. Gordon hit only .280, but he had 26 home runs. The two outfielders besides Keller—Bob Seeds and Jim Gleeson—hit .305 and .298. Utility Infielder Frankie Kelleher hit .306. Big Joe Beggs led the pitchers with a 21-4 record. Fastball artist Atley Donald was 19-2, Vito Tamulis, the little lefty, 18-6, and another hard thrower, Steve Sundra, was 15-4.
In the playoffs the first- and third-place teams in the league and the second- and fourth-place teams squared off, then the winners met and the survivor of that battle was matched against the American Association champion in the Little World Series.