Morgan Gardner Bulkeley IV, accomplished artist and sculptor, Red Sox fan, last in the direct genealogical line with that distinctly Hartford name, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the first time in the summer of 2012.
"It was fun to see my great grandfather there," Bulkeley, 69, said from his studio in Great Barrington, Mass. "I looked up his baseball story on the Internet and the letters people wrote in, wow. Somebody wrote this guy doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame, he never lifted a bat. It was an angry letter."
As a Hall of Fame voter under siege annually, Morgan, all I can say is welcome to my world.
Morgan G. Bulkeley is a bridge. Morgan G. Bulkeley is a high school. Morgan G. Bulkeley was a baseball stadium until it was demolished in 1955. Born the day after Christmas in 1837 in East Haddam, Bulkeley was a four-term mayor of Hartford. Bulkeley, who died on Nov. 6, 1922 at age 84, was a two-term governor of Connecticut and a U.S. Senator. He was president of Aetna for 43 years. And if a fair number of baseball historians want to argue that a metaphorical crowbar was used to get Morgan G. Bulkeley into Cooperstown, well, that's nothing compared to the real crowbar he used to smash a padlock at the state Capitol after the highly disputed gubernatorial election of 1890.
When The Courant gathered a 17-member panel in 1999 to select the 25 greatest Connecticut athletes of the 20th century, there was no shortage of possibilities. Fifteen years later, The Courant is celebrating its 250th anniversary as the nation's oldest continuously published newspaper. A much longer reach. Organized sports were either nonexistent or in their infancy during the first century of our publication.
The Crowbar Governor — how great is that nickname? — stands out as the premier sportsman of the first half of our existence. Among area businessmen who helped bring professional baseball to Hartford in 1874, Bulkeley became team president of the Hartford Dark Blues of the National Association a year later. In 1876, the team became one of eight charter members of the National League. At 29, Bulkeley served as the first president of the National League for 10 months — the first president of the first major sports league — before he moved the team to Brooklyn in 1877. Never mind the Whalers 120 years later, the Dark Blues became the first major league team ever to abandon a city.
In 1905, Bulkeley was one of the seven appointees to the Mills Commission that would officially endorse what most historians have come to call the myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown in 1839. Doubleday, a Union general who fought at Gettysburg, isn't the one Civil War veteran in the Hall of Fame. Bulkeley is. Serving with the 13th New York Volunteers under Gen. George McClellan and later under Gen. Joseph Mansfield, Morgan lost his brother Charles in the war.
Horse racing, in one form or another, was the one staple of the American sports scene dating to the Revolution. While Burdett Loomis was responsible for building Charter Oak Park that opened in West Hartford in 1873, Bulkeley would become president of the track and first vice president of the National Trotting Association. Make no mistake. Charter Oak, which closed for good in the 1930s, was on the Grand Circuit, the big leagues of trotting for a half century. The races were front page news in The Courant. Bulkeley loved the horses.
Bulkeley knew the great and powerful men of America's Gilded Age, finishing third in the vice presidential balloting at the 1896 Republican convention that would send William McKinley to the White House. And, at least in sporting terms, it is scant exaggeration to call him Howard Baldwin, Peter Karmanos, Ella Grasso, John Rowland and Mitchell Etess of Mohegan Sun all rolled into one.
"One of my dad's favorite things when he was young was his grandfather would take him up to his office and he'd sit on his grandfather's lap and watch the parades out of his window," Bulkeley IV said. "He would read the comics to my father."
In a fascinating 2011 book, "Crowbar Governor," Kevin Murphy called Bulkeley "shrewd, pragmatic, sometimes wildly vindictive, but he also was courteous, loyal and even kind. He wasn't a 'man for all seasons,' but he accomplished an enormous amount without receiving even a high school diploma."
The guy had more legs than a 19th century spider. There are stories of unapologetic vote-buying, but just as many of altruistic civic accomplishments and generosity. He'd bring underprivileged Hartford kids on the train for a day at the family summer home in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook.
"Before reading [Murphy's book] I never knew a lot of the stuff about his various political shenanigans," Bulkeley IV said. "But it sounded like it wasn't out of the ordinary for the time."
To begin to understand Morgan Bulkeley, you've got to start at his American roots. His father, Eliphalet, descended from Puritan minister Peter Bulkeley, who arrived from England in 1635 and founded Concord, Mass.
"He dreamed of a golden city on a hill," Bulkeley IV said.
The family of Morgan's mother, Lydia Smith Morgan, arrived on the Mayflower. Eliphalet, a judge, was one of the founders of the state Republican Party and the first president at Aetna Life Insurance. Yet it would be his son who would oversee Aetna's massive growth, increasing assets from $25 million to $200 million and, over four decades, going from 30 to 1,500 employees.
Aetna issued its first accident policy in 1891. Morgan Bulkeley bought it.
In retrospect, it's no surprise that when he returned from working for his uncle in Brooklyn after his father died in 1872, he jumped straight into the deep end of Hartford life. He became the first president of the United States Bank of Hartford. He got on the city council. He got into baseball.
He made sure the ballpark at the corner of Wyllys and Hendricxsen was state of the 19th century art for the 1875 season. The largest crowd in team history, nearly 10,000, watched the Boston Red Stockings beat the Dark Blues 10-5 in the May 18 opener. Judging by an ad he took out in The Courant, Mark Twain went home that day without his English-made brown silk umbrella: "I will pay $5 for the return of the umbrella in good condition to my house on Farmington Avenue. I do not want the boy [in an active state] but will pay two hundred dollars for his remains.'' That last part was a joke.
What wasn't a joke for Bulkeley was that the Hartford Baseball Grounds, leased from Elizabeth Colt, sat 1.3 miles from the trains at Union Station and that didn't help attendance for the smallest franchise city in the National League. While the Dark Blues had so many major league firsts — first triple play, first to be no-hit, first to play two games in the same day — it also was the first city to lose a major league team.
Beyond The Courant archives and Murphy's biography, there are some fine books on the old-time baseball and I've tried to cross-reference them in an attempt for historical accuracy. David Arcidiacono has written three on Connecticut baseball and Dave Fleitz devoted a chapter to Bulkeley in "Ghosts in the Gallery at Cooperstown."
Bulkeley brought in Bob Ferguson as player-manager in 1875. His nickname, "Death To Flying Things," referred to his defense, not to or our state bird, the American robin. The good news is Bulkeley's captain didn't drink. The bad news is he was a miserable sort. After a 13-4 loss to Boston in August 1876, pitcher Tommy Bond was livid with Ferguson making five errors at third base. The Courant reported that Bond accused Ferguson of "crooked work." Hippodroming was the word — hippodroming! — in those days for putting in the fix. This was a stunning accusation, given that Ferguson was known for his honesty. According to Arcidiacono, Ferguson wrote to the Hartford Times denying all charges and Bond recanted, admitting they were "unfounded and made in a moment of excitement."
This didn't clear the air. Bond soon told Bulkeley he wouldn't pitch anymore if Ferguson was running the show. Bulkeley took action — against Bond. He voided the rest of his 1876 contract and cut Bond lose. Bulkeley, with high political ambitions and taking over at Aetna in 1879, would soon be out of baseball himself, too.
With the writers overlooking names nearly a century old, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis formed a five-man Centennial Commission in 1937 to induct nonplayers into Cooperstown. Seven men were selected over two years, including managers Connie Mack and John McGraw. When American League founder and first president Ban Johnson went in, the commission had a tough choice between Bulkeley and William Hurlbert from the National League.
Hurlbert, from Chicago, was really the guy who founded the National League and took power away from the players and consolidated it with the owners. He needed support from the Eastern establishment and that half of the new league. He was looking to ban illegal gambling, Sunday games and liquor sales to curtail fan rowdiness, and Bulkeley could help him. In fact, there had been a fiery editorial in the 1873 Courant — I swear I didn't write it — lamenting the lack of honest baseball rivalries and too many gamblers and pickpockets. Although one story says the owners drew straws and Bulkeley got the short one, it is believed Hurlbert convinced Bulkeley to become NL president for a season at the meeting in New York. It was at the Grand Central, the largest hotel in America at the time and scene of the murder of financier Big Jim Fisk in 1872.
"I guess my great grandfather was brought in more for organization," Bulkeley IV said. "It was pretty rough and tumble."
While Bulkeley was needed for Eastern gravitas, Hurlbert made the important league decisions. Yet Hurlbert wasn't inducted into the Hall of Fame until 1995, after the Veterans Committee righted that wrong. Some have argued that Bulkeley is the least deserving Cooperstown inductee. That argument was never made in The Courant. For the record, The Courant gleefully reported that Al Kamm's local Yesteryear Stars played the New York State Oldtimers in Cooperstown the day Bulkeley — 18 years gone — was inducted during ceremonies in July 1939.
When you're dealing with old-time baseball, little is cut-and-dried. Everything has a curve right down to, well, the curve. Bulkeley's pitcher, Candy Cummings, the other Dark Blue enshrined in Cooperstown, has generally been credited with throwing the first curveball after watching the movement of sea shells. New Haven-born Fred Goldsmith, however, claimed he invented it.
Then there's the Mills Commission. Formed by Albert Spalding, pitcher, National League owner, sporting goods magnate, it was designed to end the argument over who invented baseball. British-born baseball writer Henry Chadwick argued that it came from the English game of rounders. Spalding and others believed — or wanted to believe — an American invented America's game. The answer they were hoping for came out of the blue. Denver mining engineer Abner Graves, then 71, claimed he had been in Cooperstown in 1839 when Doubleday set down baseball's rudiments.
Hmm. Graves would have been 5 in 1839. Doubleday had entered West Point that year and there are no records he was given leave, and despite extensive writings Doubleday never mentioned baseball except once to request some equipment for his troops in 1871 at Fort McKavett, Texas. The Mills Commission never investigated Graves' claims, yet on Dec. 30, 1907, announced that the evidence pointed to Doubleday creating the game. Graves would later spend final days in a mental asylum after killing his wife.
Powerful Cleanup Hitter
The craziest Bulkeley lore involves the sport of politics. Although Bulkeley didn't run for re-election in 1890, he would not surrender the throne. The gubernatorial election — a difference of 26 votes — was too close to call, there were "speckled" ballot irregularities that couldn't be certified. The Democratic Senate wanted its guy, Luzon Morris. The Republican House wanted its guy, Samuel Merwin. The legislature couldn't reach a resolution. It was nuts at the Capitol. Legend has it that Democratic state comptroller Nicholas Staub padlocked Bulkeley out of his office and the governor got a crowbar and ripped the lock off to, A, save the state from chaos or, B, as James G. Batterson, president of Travelers Insurance once suggested, because Bulkeley thought he was "Caesar."
What actually happened, according to a Courant research piece in 1957, was the Democrats wanted use of a little anteroom between House chambers and the governor's suite. Bulkeley didn't give permission. Staub had a lock thrown on. So the governor was actually locked in and denied side access to the House. The crowbar was used to push out, not in, and it happened weeks after the tensest part of the election furor. But, hey, why ruin the legend? Bulkeley would remain in office two more years after the state Supreme Court unanimously held that he was the lawful governor for the disputed period of time. He used $300,000 of Aetna money, later repaid, to keep the state running.
"Wild story," Bulkeley IV said.
That's how legends are made. By the time Courant sports editor Albert W. Keane welcomed Landis to Hartford in May 1928 for the dedication of Bulkeley Stadium in the South End, he credited the commissioner with saving the sport from falling into the hands of gamblers the way Bulkeley "struck at crookedness" a half century earlier.
Before Bulkeley Stadium closed in 1952, Lou Gehrig, Jim Thorpe, Warren Spahn, lots of big names played there for Hartford minor league teams. Babe Ruth, at 50 and soon to succumb to throat cancer, played there in an exhibition game in September 1945. It is believed to be the last time Babe appeared in a box score.
Hartford got into the swing of naming things after Bulkeley. There's the high school where sports figures as notable as former NFL coach Eric Mangini attended. There's the bridge over the Connecticut River. The state legislature had named Bulkeley chairman of the commission to oversee construction. The first bridge was flooded out. A covered bridge was destroyed by fire in 1895. When the largest stone arch bridge in the world — it still is — was completed at the cost of $3 million in 1908, 250,000 people jammed the streets of Hartford for a three-day celebration. The Courant front page was dedicated to the event. And upon his death in 1922, Hartford Bridge became Bulkeley Bridge. It's I-84. You've been on it. During rush hour.
Morgan Bulkeley Jr., who commanded Company B, 101st Machine Gun Battalion, and was gassed during extensive action in World War I, would die at 40 in 1926 of a brain tumor. A Yale man, he was treasurer at Aetna. After decades and decades of highly charged Hartford political and business life, however, this branch of the family would take a Henry David Thoreau turn off the Bulkeley Bridge.
"My family opted out of the Connecticut political and social terrain," Bulkeley IV said. "My father left to live out in the woods. For a year, he lived in a dinky little cabin on a pond in the middle of the Berkshires without any running water or electricity. He kept a journal. He did a lot of hiking.
"We always had animals when I was growing up. A broken wing or leg, people would bring them to us and we'd take care of them. A deer, a fox, raccoons, woodchucks, flying squirrels. It was like Noah's Ark."
Bulkeley III, who died in 2012 at age 99, blinded by glaucoma for the final 25 years of his life, went to Yale. Bulkeley IV did, too. They both swam there, although on a team with eight Olympians, including Don Schollander, in the mid-60s, Bulkeley IV called himself "excess baggage."
The woods were his love. The woods were where he learned to carve, to go birding with his dad. Much of his artistry has to do with the story of modern culture and nature colliding. Sometimes, he said, the results are "cataclysmic." He is a man capable of discussing the intricate details of a Colchester cemetery where the remains of 37 Bulkeley family members were found, and about Gershom Bulkeley, son of Peter, who defended accused witch Mercy Disborough. Yet, without any children, there will be no Morgan Gardner Bulkeley V.
"It's funny, one time I was in Hartford and I bought a pair of jogging shoes," said Bulkeley IV, who would spend many summers as a boy at Fenwick. "I gave the guy my credit card and he said, 'Oh my gosh.' He told me a story I'd never heard. Men would line up on the causeway out there with trumpets and play when Morgan drove across. As a boy, he'd go out, stand there and wait for the trumpets."
Buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, immortalized in Cooperstown, yeah, the Crowbar Governor would have loved the trumpets.Copyright © 2015, CT Now