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)

The secret was out, but Sheldon went on to have a nice MLB career, going 11-5 for the World Champion Yankees in 1961.

The Chiefs were gone for good by 1952, but the Eastern League, now Double A, two steps from the majors, continued on with franchises in several cities. In 1972, the West Haven Yankees were managed by Bobby Cox, one of the first stops on a career that will lead him into the Hall of Fame this summer. In those days, the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry was alive here when West Haven played the Bristol Red Sox, who featured Fred Lynn and Jim Rice in the years before their sensational 1975 breakthrough in Boston.

When Dick McAuliffe of Farmington retired after a long, noteworthy career with the Tigers and Red Sox, he managed Bristol in 1975 — until Rico Petrocelli got hurt and the Red Sox needed infield insurance for the stretch drive.

"I really wish they could have gotten themselves an established third baseman from another team instead of me going up," McAuliffe said, as reported in The Courant on Aug. 20, "because I really enjoy managing Bristol. We have a great bunch of kids here and we're in the thick of a pennant race." So were the Red Sox, who reached the World Series that year.

The flow of Connecticut players to the big leagues, somewhat remarkable for such a small, cold-weather state, continued through the 1970s, '80s and '90s, by which time The Courant had full-time writers assigned to both the Yankees and Red Sox.

And history repeated itself in 1985, when the Yankees needed to "hide" another teenager in Hartford. Bernie Williams from Puerto Rico, still too young to sign, played a handful of games in the Hartford Twilight League in 1985.

In 1996, four players from Connecticut were named to All-Star Game — Mo Vaughn, Jeff Bagwell, Charles Nagy and Ricky Bottalico.

Bagwell, who played at the University of Hartford, was drafted by the Red Sox and, after hitting .333 at Double A New Britain in 1990, was traded to Houston on Aug. 30 for an aging reliever named Larry Andersen.

As raindrops pounded the metal bleachers above, Bagwell talked to The Courant about the deal and his disappointment at not being able to play for the "BritSox" in the upcoming Eastern League playoffs. "I'm a little angry," Bagwell told The Courant the day of the trade, "I wish I could stay with these guys for the rest of my life."

But he went on to win rookie of the year and MVP with the Astros and retired as one of their greatest players with 449 home runs. Though he was never implicated in any steroids investigation, the suspicions that he may used PEDs appears to be a factor in Bagwell falling short of election to the Hall of Fame. Four of the five Courant voters backed Bagwell in the 2014 Hall of Fame elections.

The college game in Connecticut is still producing pro-caliber players. On the night of June 4, 2010, more than 5,600 fans snarled traffic and filled Dodd Stadium in Norwich as UConn hosted an NCAA Tournament regional. The Huskies fielded a team with 14 players later drafted by MLB franchises, including Mike Olt, who debuted with the Rangers in 2012, and first-round draft picks George Springer and Matt Barnes, who could break through this coming summer.

The New Britain franchise, now the Rock Cats, is now part of the Minnesota Twins organization, and under the energetic and imaginative direction of Bill Dowling has become a summer-time fixture. Torii Hunter, who became a big league star, spent parts of four seasons with the Rock Cats and joked that he could have been mayor of New Britain. David Ortiz, Joe Mauer and many others have come through in recent years.

"I'd put Miguel Sano right up there with Joe Mauer as far as the buzz he's created here," Dowling told The Courant in 2013 about the latest local slugger

As The Courant approaches its 250th birthday, much has changed in baseball. But there are still questions about the age and identity of young players. The Twins signed Sano from the Dominican Republic only after MLB's exhaustive investigation determined his age and identity, and he became the latest "Eastern Babe Ruth" with 19 homers in 67 games.

"The enduring passion that fans in this area have for their beloved Red Sox, Yankees and Mets is matched only by their love of the game," Dowling says, "and this love of baseball spans the ages, is passed on by each generation to the next and represents one of the few constants in an ever-changing world."