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)

This was the National Association, the forerunner of the National League, and the local team, later known as the Dark Blues, became quite popular. On a cold, damp spring day in 1875, a prominent writer living on Farmington Avenue came to the grounds and dropped an expensive, English-made umbrella through those bleachers. A youngster ran off with it, prompting the writer to take out an ad in The Courant on May 20, offering readers $205 to help him recover his property. "I will pay $5 for the return of that umbrella in good condition," Samuel L. Clemens wrote. "I do not want the boy in an active state but will pay $200 for his remains."

We don't know what happened to the boy or Mark Twain's umbrella, but it's a good bet that both enjoyed watching W.A. "Candy" Cummings pitch for the Blues. The team became a charter member of the National League in 1876, the year their owner, Morgan G. Bulkeley, was league president.

Cummings, who is said to have invented the curveball, though Fred Goldsmith of New Haven may deserve at least a share of that distinction, worked his magic before about 1,000 fans at the Hartford Baseball Grounds on Oct. 18, 1875, shutting out the St. Louis Brown Stockings. "From the fifth to the close, the St. Louis men were put out in 1-2-3 order," The Courant wrote.

By 1877, Cummings, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939, had moved to Cincinnati and the Dark Blues were playing home games in Brooklyn, N.Y., ending Hartford's time as a Major League Baseball city.

In 1886, a talented youngster named Ulysses Franklin Grant stepped off the train in Meriden to begin chasing the dream of playing in the National League. "Grant, the colored boy, twirled the ball for the visitors but was only fairly effective," The Courant wrote on May 8, 1886, describing Meriden's loss to Hartford in a minor league game.

Grant was one of a group of African Americans trying to break into baseball during the 1880s, and by all accounts he was among the best players of his time. He hit .325 for Meriden that summer, and by June The Courant was writing about him without noting his race. "The fielding on both sides was good, with Grant showing fine work," a story said.

Grant left for Buffalo in July, one short step from the big leagues, but never got farther than that. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.

More Hall Of Famers

In 1885, Hartford featured a "Sliver Battery," a pitcher named Gilmore and a catcher named Cornelius McGillicuddy, who were both tall and angular. The catcher was better known as Connie Mack, but when the Washington club came to buy Gilmore, they left Mack behind for another year.

"He knew how to steady a young pitcher and he possessed fine judgement," The Courant wrote in a 1905 feature story after Mack had managed the Philadelphia A's to the American League title.

Roger Connor of Waterbury hit 138 home runs in the major leagues from 1880 to 1897, the career record later broken by Babe Ruth. In 1901, he was heavily involved in minor league baseball in the area, and The Courant reported he was trying to buy the Hartford franchise and move it out of the Eastern League to the Connecticut State League. He left baseball for good in 1908.

The game hit its stride by the turn of the 20th century. Nearly all the major cities in Connecticut had minor league teams, and it was common for major league teams to stop here on days off to play exhibition games. Players from Connecticut in the big leagues were numerous during this period.

Meriden's Jack Barry became the shortstop of Connie Mack's famed $100,000 infield, helping The A's to win the World Series in 1910, '11 and '13. In 1917, Barry was named manager of the Red Sox.

"The new leader of the Red Sox," wrote The Courant, "is 29 years old and has been prominent as an infield member of world championship clubs in Philadelphia and Boston."

He managed one year, then enlisted in the Army and served in World War I. Barry became the head coach at Holy Cross in 1921 and, in '52 he coached the last New England team to win the College World Series.

Gehrig wasn't the only future Hall of Famer to play for the Senators in the 1920s. Leo Durocher, from Springfield, was Paddy O'Connor's shortstop in 1925, before the Yankees bought him.

Connie Mack, now in his 70s, was still managing the A's and brought them nearly every year to Hartford. On May 23, 1930, Mack brought his defending world champs to Hartford and promised to play his regular lineup. Mack was ill that day, but Jimmie Foxx and Al Simmons played and baseball's "high commissioner," Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was among the 6,000 who jammed Bulkeley Stadium. The Senators beat the A's, who then made the 7:12 p.m. train to New York to play the Yankees the next day.

In 2008, Bob Feller, age 92, was approached by a Courant reporter during the Indians' spring training. Feller asked the first question: "Do you know what P-O-M-G stands for?"

The reporter correctly answered "peace of mind guaranteed," and the interview continued. The signature slogan of Hartford's Savitt Jewelers had a way of sticking with the major league stars, such as Feller, who came through to play with or against the semi-pro Savitt Gems through the years.

Babe Ruth was a gem to the end. On Sept. 30, 1945, The Babe, now 51 years old with the last of his 714 home runs a decade behind him, came for an exhibition game. When emcee and radio personality Bob Steele asked him about hitting, Ruth said, "some days the balls look like watermelons, some days like peanuts," reported The Courant's Jimmy Cunavelis.