Born: 1997 – Atlantic League founding franchise
Died: 2009 – The American Defenders cease operations.
Stadium: Holman Stadium
- 1998-2004: Chris English
- 2005: Frank Boulton, Peter Kirk & Steven Kalafer
- 2006-2008: John Stabile
- 2009: Terry Allvord, Dan Duquette, et al.
Nashua, New Hampshire has a fascinating but unsteady history with postwar baseball. In 1946, Branch Rickey placed a Class B Brooklyn Dodgers farm club in the city’s Holman Stadium. Rickey chose Nashua after his Danville, Iowa farm team refused to take on two promising African-American players, Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella. The Nashua Dodgers would be the first racially integrated team of the modern era, one summer before Jackie Robinson arrived in Brooklyn. Nashua also featured a 34-year old first baseman named Walter Alston winding down an unremarkable minor league career. As player-manager, Alston led the Nashua Dodgers to the New England League title in 1946. He later won four World Series crowns as manager of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers and joined Roy Campanella in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1983. For all that remarkable legacy, the Dodgers lasted only four seasons in Nashua, folding in 1949.
Baseball did not return until 1983, when George Como, Jerry Mileur and Ben Surner bought the Holyoke (MA) Millers double-A Eastern League club and moved it to town. After one season as a California Angels affiliate, Como and Surner signed on with the woeful Pittsburgh Pirates. During the Pirates three-year run in Nashua from 1984 to 1986, Pittsburgh finished dead last in the National League East three years straight, posted the worst record in baseball in 1985 and became the focal point of an infamous FBI cocaine sting that ultimately ensnared the Parrot Pirate mascot. In May 1986 Nashua fans purchased only 150 advance tickets for a local exhibition game against the big club from Pittsburgh. Nashua officials cancelled the game due to lack of interest, piling on more national embarassment for their parent club. Como and Mileur moved the club to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania that winter.
By the early 1990’s, Holman Stadium no longer met the improved standards required by the Professional Baseball Agreement, the set of commandments governing the partnership between Major League Baseball and its farm clubs. Like many small communities with charming but outmoded Works Progress Administration ballparks, Nashua had been shut out of affiliated ball. What arrived next were independent leagues, beginning with the low budget North Atlantic League in 1995. The Nashua Hawks took roost in Holman in 1995. A year later they were evicted midseason, with City officials padlocking the gates against the club thanks to unpaid bills.
In late 1997, Chris English, a hedge fund manager from suburban Boston arrived in town representing the Atlantic League, a far more respectable and well-financed independent start-up whose investors were involved in major ballpark construction projects in Bridgeport, Long Island, Atlantic City, Newark and Bridgewater, New Jersey. The Nashua Pride would be an anomaly within the Atlantic League in many ways. The team was distant from the league’s New York-Philadelphia axis and there would be no $30 million stadium project in Nashua. Instead, English and his General Manager Billy Johnson embarked on a renovation of Holman Stadium, which included the installation of 2,800 box seats salvaged from the recently demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to replace the flat concrete slabs of Holman’s old grandstand.
The Pride averaged 1,581 fans over 57 home games on sales of approximately 250 season tickets during that first season in 1998. Former Major Leaguer Milt Cuyler began the 1998 season in Nashua before earning a September call-up to the Texas Rangers, helping to establish the Atlantic League as a worthy destination for ex-Big Leaguers.
The Nashua Pride hit their peak in the summer of 2000. English and Johnson hired former Red Sox star Butch Hobson as the club’s new field manager. Hobson was something of a cult figure in New England. The Alabama native played football for Bear Bryant before coming up with the Sox in 1976. The next season, Hobson hit 30 home runs batting primarily out of the #8 spot in the line-up, a virtually unheard of feat in the pre-steroid era. Sox fans tended to forgive Hobson’s erratic fielding (43 errors in 1978), knowing that he suffered from loose bone chips floating in his right elbow. He was known to manually adjust the painful chips between plays. Hobson only played three full seasons in the majors due to his injury problems, which added to the mystique of what might have been for the handsome cornerman.
Hobson later managed the Red Sox through three fallow seasons from 1992 to 1994. In 1996, Hobson, an admitted partier during his playing days turned born again Christian, was arrested in a cocaine sting while managing the Philadelphia Phillies triple-A farm club. Hobson refuted the charges, ultimately pleading no contest and performing community service. Although the incident may have derailed his opportunity to return to the Majors as a Manager, Red Sox Nation never seemed to hold it against him and he was greeted as a returning hero in Nashua during the summer of 2000.
Buoyed by a veteran roster stocked with former Major Leaguers such as Casey Candaele, Milt Cuyler, Sam Horn, Glenn Murray, John Roper, Ken Ryan, and others, the Pride won the 2000 Atlantic League Championship, sweeping the Somerset Patriots in four games. At the box office, the Pride drew 140,000 fans – an average of nearly 2,000 per game and an increase of 50,000 fans over the inaugural season two summers earlier.
In addition to a beloved manager and a winning team, the Pride also benefitted from the ever-growing notoriety of The World Famous Monkey Boy, a mischievous dancing mascot portrayed by the Pride’s ticket manager Chris Ames. Monkey Boy arguably rivaled Hobson in local popularity during the 2000 season and Ames would ultimately take the character with him as a national touring act that continued for many years after he left the Pride.
English commissioned a documentary film crew to chronicle his ball club during the 2000 season. 81-year old Curt Gowdy provided the voice over narration. After negotiations to sell the documentary to pay cable and Japanese broadcasting interests fell through, a (mostly) family-friendly 58-minute edit was released on VHS format in the spring of 2001 under the title Stolen Bases. The film owed its title to a central scene where Hobson, upon being ejected, ripped a base out of the ground, autographed it and handed it to a kid in the Holman Stadium grandstand on his way off the field. Stolen Bases had two private screenings in Nashua and was briefly offered for mail order purchase through Baseball America paired with a Butch Hobson Bobble Head doll.
In 2001, with Pride attendance on the upswing, the City of Nashua approved $4.5 million in upgrades to Holman Stadium. The improvements included a new steel second level with luxury suites and expanded press box, 2,800 new chairback seats, and new administrative, retail and box office space. The renovations were completed in time for the 2002 season, but the season seemed cursed from the outset. Manager Butch Hobson missed time in June for an angioplasty. On July 4th, 2002 the Pride embarked on a 21-game losing streak, the third longest in minor league history at the time. Attendance declined for the second straight year to 120,960, from the 2000 peak of 140,000.
In early 2003, the Toronto Blue Jays double-A affiliate in New Haven, Connecticut announced plans to relocate to Manchester, New Hampshire for the 2004 season. The Pride would now face competition from Major League-subsidized farm clubs located both 15 minutes to the north (Manchester) and fifteen minutes to the south (Lowell Spinners) along the Route 3 corridor. At the end of the 2004 season, Chris English threw in the towel after seven seasons of operating in the red.
“After they announced Manchester, it became clear we needed to move,” English recalled in 2011. “The 2000 ALPB Championship was one of the most entertaining years of my life. But no one could save Nashua.”
English handed the reigns to BKK Nashua, LLC, a consortium of fellow Atlantic League owners including league founder Frank Boulton (the “B” in BKK), Peter Kirk (“K”) and Steve Kalafer (“K”). With English’s departure, the BKK trio effectively controlled seven of the eight Atlantic League clubs, excluding only Mickey Herbert’s Bridgeport Bluefish franchise. League founder and CEO Boulton owned the immensely profitable Long Island Ducks and also controlled the Atlantic City Surf franchise. Kalafer, like Boulton, owned one wildly successful club (the Somerset Patriots) and one troublesome one (the Newark Bears). Kirk, a highly respected operator with a long track record in affiliated ball, had two Pennsylvania-based Atlanic League expansion teams preparing to debut in gleaming new stadiums under construction in Lancaster (2005) and York (2006). And collectively, the BKK trio had stepped in to purchase the Camden Riversharks club earlier in 2004 after its founder died suddenly .
In 2005, the Nashua Pride returned to the Atlantic League Championship Series for the third time in Hobson’s six years at the helm. And for the third time, they would face their arch rivals, Sparky Lyle’s Somerset Patriots. The Patriots swept the Pride this time around, 3 games to zero. Off the field, the 2005 season was difficult, as the opening of the New Hampshire Fisher Cats new stadium in nearby Manchester and budget reductions combined to reduce the Pride’s announced attendance to an all-time low of just 1,270 per game.
In the fall of 2005, Frank Boulton arranged a sale of the Pride to local real estate developer John Stabile and engineered the Pride’s transfer to the Can-Am League. The Can-Am League was another Northeast-based independent loop, which played a shorter schedule than the Atlantic League in cities stretching from New Jersey to Quebec City. Nashua became the first of several struggling Atlantic League franchises to be relegated to the lower cost Can-Am League. Atlantic City and Newark would follow in subsequent years. The sale of the Pride to Stabile put the franchise in local hands for the first time after eight seasons.
With the jump to the Can-Am League in 2006, the era of recognizable stars in Nashua essentially came to an end. Between 1998 and 2005, former Major League All-Stars Dante Bichette, Pete Incaviglia, Lance Johnson, Felix Jose suited up for the Pride as did 1989 National League Rookie-of-the Year Jerome Walton and closer Mel Rojas who signed a $13.75 million dollar contract with the Chicago Cubs in 1996, but earned only $3,000/month to pitch for the Pride in 2002. The Pride also sent several players to the Major Leagues, most notably the future Anaheim Angels All-Star Brendan Donnelly who pitched for the Pride in 1999 and made his Major League debut with the Angels at the age of 30 in 2002.
The Pride lasted three years in the Can-Am League, winning a league title in 2007. Community enthusiasm and attendance rebounded somewhat under the Stabile family’s ownership, but the team continued to run deficits of several hundred thousands dollars annually. Hobson departed after the 2007 season to return to the Atlantic League with Peter Kirk’s Southern Maryland Blue Crabs, but not before trotting out the base stealing trick one more time for Can-Am League fans in Lynn, Massachusetts.
The Pride lasted one final summer without him. In September 2008, after losing another half million dollars, an exhausted John Stabile sold out to Boston Baseball All Stars, LLC. Boston Baseball All Stars CEO Lt. Commander (ret.) Terry Allvord had toured the country for years with his U.S. Military All-Stars teams. Now in control of Nashua’s Can-Am League franchise, Allvord and his partners re-branded the team as the American Defenders of New Hampshire. The club would also play in uniforms modeled after desert camouflage fatigues.
Allvord’s military-themed promotions quickly crossed the line past conventional patriotic flourishes. The team’s mascot, a plush soldier in fatigues and war paint was named “Ground Zero” and sported the uniform number 9-11. The management initially sought to stop play each night at 9:11 PM to play Lee Greenwood’s three-minute long God Bless the USA, even if the game was between pitches of an at bat. Can-Am League officials quickly put the kibosh on that one.
The gimmick didn’t play in Nashua. American Defenders crowds often numbered fewer than 100 fans. The team traded or released its best players in midseason to dump payroll. General Manager Chris Hall, the final holdover from the Stabile regime, was let go in favor of Boston Baseball All-Stars investor Dan Duquette, the former Boston Red Sox GM who fired Butch Hobson in 1994. In August 2009, the City of Nashua evicted the American Defenders from Holman Stadium, parking a tractor on home plate to prevent the team from finishing its home schedule. Ironically for an organization that wrapped itself in the flag, the team’s list of unpaid creditors included the Nashua police and fire departments that assigned first responder details for the games.
In 2011, stable ownership returned when Lowell Spinners owner Drew Weber formed the Nashua Silver Knights, a collegiate wooden bat league team. In a nod to the Pride’s glory day, the Silver Knights booked a return engagement from the World Famous Monkey Boy, which ended abruptly and bizarrely when Chris Ames was assaulted by a member of the opposing Martha’s Vineyard Sharks. The Silver Knights also held a Nashua Pride reunion night in 2012, which attracted former Major Leaguers Glenn Murray and John Roper, along with former owner Chris English, among others.
“Bucs Flop – Even in N.H.”, The Associated Press, May 1, 1986