by Chris Boucher
Bucky Lew integrated pro basketball before retiring in 1926. Twenty years later, the Dodgers placed three Black players in their minor league system—Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella in Nashua, and Jackie Robinson in Montreal. The Dodgers moved Robinson up to the majors the next year.
The logical connection between Lew and Robinson is obvious. Lew compared himself to Robinson in perhaps the last interview he gave a reporter.
Speaking to Gerry Finn of the Springfield Union in 1958, Lew said: “All those things you read about Jackie Robinson, the abuse, the name-calling, extra effort to put him down… they’re all true. I got the same treatment and even worse…. I took the bumps, the elbows in the gut, knees here and everything else that went with it. But I gave it right back. It was rough but worth it. Once they knew I could take it, I had it made.”
There may even be a more direct connection between the two. Lew started his pro career with a team in Pawtucketville, also known as High Canada because of its large French-Canadian presence. The Dodgers placed their first Black players in cities dominated by French-Canadians as well. Like Lowell, Nashua has a significant French-Canadian population, as obviously, does Montreal. Is that only a coincidence?
While the Franco-American influence on the Pawtucketville Athletic Club may not be obvious based on it deriving its name from the neighborhood, the names of the players demonstrated it. The roster included players with surnames like Allard, Dionne, Raicot, and Rousseau.
It’s also possible the PAC clubhouse was in the same building as the Club Social de Pawtucketville, today’s Pawtucketville Social Club, which was founded in the late nineteenth century to support Franco-American assimilation. Perhaps the large, two-story room at the back of the building is where the PAC basketball team practiced.
The Dodgers may have uncovered that in doing their due diligence. In “Dem Little Bums: The Nashua Dodgers,” Steve Daly says Dodgers Branch Rickey specifically placed players in Nashua after a discussion with Fred Dobens, editor of the Nashua Telegraph, who assured Rickey the players would be accepted and supported.
Since other cities had declined, why was Dobey so sure? Is it a stretch to believe he was aware of Lew, whose Lowell Five was not only well received in Lowell but Nashua as well? Dobens, born in 1905, would have grown up reading about the exploits on Lew in the papers.
Of course, the Lews were in Lowell before Lowell was Lowell. Barzillai Lew, a free man, settled north of the Merrimack Rover, purchasing a farm in in what was then Dracut about the time he finished his stint in the Revolutionary War. The French-Canadians descended afterward.
Rickey’s move was a success. All three baseball players moved on to the majors and the Dodgers won pennants and world championships with them. Campanella and Robinson are in the Hall of Fame, and Newcombe will be reconsidered now that the Hall has decided to consider Negro leagues stats along with those from the MLB.
Interesting, the baseball Hall may be clearing a path for the basketball Hall as well. Bud Fowler, who played integrated ball in Lynn and later formed his own Black barnstorming team, was elevated to the hall as an executive in 2022. And Lew’s resume runs deeper.
At any rate, one Franco-American connection is clear. If my grandfather Armias hadn’t left Quebec for Lowell in the 1920s, and settled in Pawtucketville as a neighbor to the Lews, I may never have heard of the man nor developed the interest in his accomplishments that inspired me to write his only book-length biography.
Chris Boucher is the author of “The Original Bucky Lew: Basketball First Black Professional.” He’ll be sharing stories and pics from Lew’s career at la la books on May 20 at 2 pm.