From Gehrig To Bagwell, A Proud History Of Baseball In Connecticut

In 1945 Babe Ruth made an appearance with the Savitt Gems and got an at-bat in an exhibition game. He was 51. That's Bill Savitt next to the Babe in a photo taken after the game. Courtesy Of Cliff Keeney)

Little could John M. Greene, sports editor of The Courant, have known what he was chronicling, or how prophetic his words were as he began his dispatch from Hackensack, N.J., where the local pro team, the Hartford Senators, were playing an exhibition game against Columbia University on April 6, 1921:

"They uncovered one slugger of the 'Babe' Ruth type who is going to make a name for himself on the diamond once he becomes a regular student at the university," Greene wrote. "His name is Gahrig. … This afternoon, with big Alton Durgin heaving them up, Gahrig sent out a brace of circuit clouts [home runs]. The first one went into the centerfield bleachers and almost cleared them reaching the street, while the second one did clear the barriers and bounced out onto Broadway somewhere."

The aforementioned "Gahrig" was actually Henry Louis Gehrig, a 17-year-old who was entering Columbia. And here began a long, warm and, in one case, conspiratorial relationship between the Iron Horse, Hartford and its daily newspaper. He was one of countless baseball legends to come from or pass through the area — maybe for a day, a season or, like Gehrig, for several of their formative years — as their experiences were described by the oldest continuously published newspaper in the U.S.

Hartford — and Connecticut, for that matter — has a long, proud history of baseball. The Hartford Dark Blues played in the National League and Morgan G. Bulkeley was the first NL president. Babe Ruth played exhibitions here; Hall of Famer Warren Spahn pitched for the Hartford Chiefs, the top farm club of the Boston Braves; the Red Sox and Yankees have had farms teams in the state. The list seems endless, as does the arguing nowadays between Yankees and Red Sox fans in a state divided.

But back in 1921, the Senators were big and Hartford owner Arthur Irwin didn't forget Mr. "Gahrig," even if his name had been misspelled, and on June 3, 1921, in need of a first baseman, some complicated maneuvering brought Gehrig onto the Senators roster.

Gehrig was signed by Irwin to play first base, wrote The Courant, calling him a semi-pro: "He will be seen in a Hartford uniform this afternoon at the initial station."

Translated into modern sports writing, the "initial station" meant first base. But Gehrig was not a semi-pro, not at all. He was a student at Columbia University and his amateur status, his collegiate eligibility, would be destroyed if it were known he was now playing for pay in Hartford.

Apparently, Greene, who obviously knew the youngster's identity, was prevailed upon by Irwin and kept the secret, for in The Courant the very next day, the man playing the initial station for the Hartford Senators was identified as "Lewis," as in, "it looked like Hartford might score in the sixth when Scherer led off with a streaming double, but Lewis flied to [the catcher]." He went 0-for-3 against Pittsfield in his first pro game. Back then, only last names were used in the paper.

Gehrig did not last long in Hartford that summer. He hit .261 in 18 games, and someone in Waterbury spotted and correctly identified him. The Columbia coach, Andy Coakley, came up to drag "Lou Lewis" back to New York. "I did not do very well and was glad to return home," Gehrig told The Courant for a 1926 article. It was determined, eventually, that he would have to sit out a season.

Lou Gehrig had made a name for himself on the diamond when he returned to Hartford in the middle of 1923. By then he had signed with the Yankees, and after a few games in New York he was sent to Hartford and The Courant was again billing him as another Babe Ruth.

This made Gehrig, still just 20 years old, try too hard and he got off to a terrible start. His teammate and roommate, Harry Hesse, a wizened local player who went on to become one of the great Yankees scouts, set Gehrig up with blind dates and took him out drinking, but nothing was working. Pressure mounted on manager Paddy O'Connor to bench Gehrig.

O'Connor later told the story when he spoke, along with Gehrig, to the Hartford World Series Club in 1937, as reported in The Courant. "He was terrible. He wasn't hitting and his fielding wasn't so hot. … He told me he wanted to be a ballplayer so he could earn money to take care of his mother and father. That won me and I decided to string along with him. Then one Sunday in Bridgeport, Lou made his first hit and it was a home run over the center field fence. It gave me one of my biggest thrills in baseball."

The rest was baseball — and Hartford — history. On Sept. 1, 1923, Gehrig stepped up to the plate at Clarkin Field and, The Courant reported, "the bleachers sent forth a din that echoed in his ears from a few hundred of Hartford's youngest fans, with whom Lou is a big favorite." Gehrig hit what was called "the longest home run on record in Hartford" as the Senators defeated Bridgeport.

Gehrig hit .304 with 24 home runs in only 59 games and the Senators won the Eastern League championship. That fall, Greene told Courant readers that after a long talk with O'Connor, he could report that it was all but certain the popular manager and "the Eastern Babe" would be back in 1924.

Following spring training, the Yankees did "option" Gehrig back to Hartford to work on his fielding. He had a monster of a season in Hartford — .369 with 37 home runs. Facing Jesse Burkett, a veteran ex-major leaguer twice his age, Gehrig doubled, tripled and homered on his 21st birthday, June 19, 1924, the home run ball "sailing over the heads of the boys who watch the games from atop trucks on the shady side of the fence."

Within a few weeks he was gone for good. "Although Hartford watches Gehrig go with regret," The Courant opined on Aug. 30, 1924, the day he was called up to the Yankees, "local fans on the whole are delighted to see him make his way to the big show and will pull for him to develop into a genuine big leaguer."

Gehrig went on to play a record 2,130 consecutive games with the Yankees and hit .340 with 493 home runs before falling ill in 1939 and succumbing in 1941 to ALS. On Jan. 31, 1928, just after his landmark 1927 season, he returned to Hartford and addressed the Knights of Columbus, tearfully thanking the city for its "splendid support." During spring training that year, he signed hundreds of Senators Booster Club membership cards, and The Courant printed the long list of fans who received them.

That (18)70s Show

The first organized team in Hartford was the Charter Oaks, put together by Gresham Hubbell in 1862, The Courant's 98th year in business. All but lost in a sea of gray type, the first professional baseball game in Hartford was described by The Courant on May 2, 1874. The Hartfords defeated The New York Mutuals 10-7 before about 3,000 fans as the new bleachers happily "showed no signs of giving way."

"In the [third] inning, the Hartfords got hold of Mathews pitching, which up to this time had troubled them considerably, and sent the ball all over the field, making six tallies."