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)

Ruth hit a few homers in batting practice. Late in the game, Cliff Keeney was called back from the on-deck circle to let The Babe hit, in what appeared to be Ruth's last game action.

"I wasn't pleased as I was having a good day at bat," Keeney told The Courant in 1998. "But when I saw it was Ruth taking my place I was no longer upset."

The Babe bounced back to the pitcher.

Covering Racial Issues

Nearly three quarters of a century after Frank Grant passed through Meriden and Hartford, Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier in baseball. Bill Lee, who became The Courant's sports editor in 1929, made his way to Brooklyn for Robinson's debut on April 15, 1947. In his "Malice Toward None" column, Lee wrote, "Everyone seemed to take Robinson for granted. I was in a position to note the comings and goings on the Brooklyn bench. There was nothing about Robby's bearing or that of his teammates to give any indication that something was happening that had never happened before in organized baseball."

Robinson, who settled in Stamford, wrote Letters to the Editor that were published in The Courant on more than one occasion.

The integration of baseball came too late for Hartford's "Schoolboy Johnny" Taylor. "In 1933, a scout from the Yankees read clippings on me and came up to Hartford to watch me pitch," Taylor told The Courant's George Smith in 1976. "He didn't know I was black."

Taylor, perhaps the most talented player ever from Hartford, had retired by 1947. He had played in the Mexican League and with the Savitt Gems. In 1949, he pitched in 33 games for the Chiefs, as the city's Eastern League franchise was by then known.

Hartford Chiefs, And More

The Chiefs, farm team of the Boston Braves, saw its share of talent. In 1942, Braves manager Casey Stengel told a young left-handed pitcher he had "no guts" and sent him on the next train to Hartford. The pitcher, Warren Spahn, returned to Boston after Stengel was gone and went on to win 363 games in the major leagues.

Tommy Holmes, who staged a 37-game hitting streak for the Braves, came through Hartford as well.

In 1950, the Braves sent a talented first baseman named George Crowe to Hartford. Though his favorite sport was basketball, Crowe was denied the chance to play in the early pro basketball leagues and turned to baseball. Crowe hit .353 with 24 home runs and 122 RBI and was the Eastern League's MVP.

"The rapid rise of George Crowe has been sensational," Courant columnist Ronald Melcher wrote at the end of the season. "… Big George practically carried the team on his back."

Crowe went on to play in the big leagues throughout the 1950s and became a mentor to young African Americans who were still fighting for acceptance.

Walt Dropo, the Moose from Moosup, was a three-sport star at UConn and covered heavily by The Courant. Chosen in the first NBA draft in 1947, he instead signed with the Red Sox and had a monster rookie of the year season in 1950 when he hit .322 with 34 homers and a league-leading 144 RBI.

Baseball's silly "Bonus Baby" Rules, which forced a team to promote a youngster to the big leagues if they gave him too big a bonus, affected local players. In 1953, Hartford Public catcher Nick Koback was signed for the Pirates by Branch Rickey for $20,000 and found himself in Pittsburgh the day he turned 18. "It's the life," Koback told The Courant that summer. "I've always wanted to be a ballplayer."

But two years on the bench, when he should have been in the minors developing his talent, took its toll and Koback played his last game in the majors before turning 21. "It was a stupid rule," Koback told The Courant in 2010. "I don't know what they were thinking."

True Baseball Area

If John Greene was willing to keep Lou Gehrig's identity a secret in 1921, his successor, Bill Lee, was not willing to do the same when UConn's Rollie Sheldon signed with the Yankees in 1960. The scout was Harry Hesse, Gehrig's old teammate with the Senators, and somehow there was a mixup. The Yankees thought Sheldon was 20, but he was actually 24.

Lee, covering spring training for The Courant in 1961, wrote, "… on the UConn baseball brochure last spring, Sheldon's age was given as 19. On the Yankee roster he is 21. Actually, Sheldon is probably somewhere between 23 and 24."