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

Stars Of Major And Minor Leagues Drew Crowd Over The Years

By DOM AMORE, damore@courant.com

The Hartford Courant

6:05 AM EST, March 2, 2014

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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."

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.

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."

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."