By PAUL DOYLE, firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hartford Courant
7:10 AM EDT, March 16, 2014
The news arrived to readers of The Courant on the morning of March 8, 1877, seven weeks before the start of the second National League baseball season.
Hartford, a charter member, was deemed unacceptable as a major league market. The city's "base ball" team, founded by Morgan G. Bulkeley three years earlier, would be moving to Brooklyn, N.Y., and would be known as the "Hartford club of Brooklyn."
The blurb in The Courant stated that the team would retain the prestige of its old name while "acquiring the prestige which comes from locating in a large city."
So there it was, 120 years before Peter Karmanos uprooted the Whalers from Connecticut's capital city. Hartford's first audition as a major league sports market was over after one season when the Dark Blues left for New York City.
Thus began the city's sports identity crisis.
From big league baseball during the gilded age to UConn basketball in the 21st century, Hartford's life as a sports market has been defined as much by what it's not than what it is. Nestled between Boston and New York, the market has continually been told it does not measure up to its large neighbors as a sports market.
Professional sports franchises in traditional (basketball, football) and non-traditional (arena football, indoor soccer) sports came and left, before and after the rise of UConn athletics as a national brand that has become a state identity. Minor league teams have failed, major league teams have flirted with the market, and facility proposals have stalled as city leaders struggle to craft a plan, decade after decade.
Is Hartford a big league town? Or a minor league community? Or has it evolved into New England's largest college sports market?
The questions that reach back to the Dark Blues' defection to Brooklyn and connect to the New England Patriots' decision to walk away from Adriaen's Landing still hover over the city today.
"We're more unique than, I think, any other place in the United States," said Jay Sloves of the Farmington-based marketing firm Elkinson & Sloves Inc, which has marketed and promoted sports events and teams in the Hartford market for more than 30 years. "To have that many high-level brand major league teams — football, basketball, baseball — within an hour and a half, two hours … It's unique."
Sports fans in Greater Hartford have always had choices and varied interests, and the more recent proliferation of TV options makes drawing fans to the city even more difficult.
But one thing is clear: Hartford-area pro fans thirst for a professional team to call their own. UConn athletics have risen to fill the void, but imagine a major league team representing Central Connecticut?
At No. 30, the Hartford-New Haven TV market is the largest in the country without a major league franchise. But some view that relatively small market size as a critical factor selling sports to consumers.
"The size of a given market probably matters more than proximity to other markets, in my view," said Peter Gold of Gold, Orluk & Partners, an Avon sports, event and cause marketing firm. "The biggest challenge for having success with teams and sporting events in Connecticut is our relatively small market size. Both New York and Boston are top 10 markets by population. Large markets are simply an easier sell and as a result more profitable from a ticket and advertising sales standpoint.
"That is not to say proximity is not a factor at all. If one hopes to bring NHL hockey back to Connecticut, for instance, one obstacle to success, tied to both size and proximity, is the influence of New York and Boston NHL brands — bleeding off the fan base."
So the bottom line question: Could Hartford support a franchise given its inability in the past?
"Of course," said Howard Baldwin, who brought professional hockey to the city in the mid-1970s. "It's a major league city. For years, those fans went to New York or Boston ... and they still do. So all that talk about whether they'll support a major league team? Well, they're supporting major league teams right now. They just support them in New York and Boston. It just takes the right leaders to make it happen."
Where To Play?
In the 1870s, that leader was Bulkeley, future Connecticut governor and the first National League president. Bulkeley's Dark Blues were a member of the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players in 1874 and 1875 before joining the National League as a charter member in 1876.
The team played on land leased from Elizabeth Colt, on Wyllys Street next to the Church of Good Shepherd. The Hartfords, as they were called in The Courant, were 47-21-6, finishing in third place.
But the team was sold and moved to Brooklyn after one season.
"The trouble has been in Hartford that too many people have volunteered their advice as to the management of the club, and a certain class have been displeased, as a matter of course, because their suggestions have not been adopted," The Courant's story said.
So despite what Bulkeley described as good crowds, Hartford was painted as a bickering small town that was unable to support a vast major league operation.
In 1926, Hartford was back in the big leagues when the sports promoter George Mulligan's Hartford Blues football team joined the NFL. The Blues played at the East Hartford Velodrome, but the team finished 3-7 and attendance was stifled by a bad weather throughout the season.
Mulligan was unable to pay his coaches and players — foreshadowing Hartford's other under-financed owners — and the team was dropped from the NFL after one season.
It would be almost 50 years before Hartford returned to the major league stage. The city had an array of minor league franchises in the ensuing years, but there wasn't a word about big-time team sports staking a spot in Hartford because the city lacked a major league facility.
But after decades of talk about building a minor league baseball stadium or an arena, city voters approved financing to build a downtown facility in 1968. As the Civic Center was being constructed, city and state leaders pursued a major league tenant and the fledgling American Basketball Association was the leading candidate.
In 1971, commissioner Jack Dolph — a Greenwich resident — publicly identified Hartford as a potential ABA market. Dolph talked about a regional team playing games in Hartford, Springfield and New Haven.
Over the next few years, the ABA-to-Hartford rumors were strong. West Hartford's Dan Doyle, then basketball coach of Kingswood-Oxford, was the face of an effort to land a franchise and was frequently quoted in The Courant, talking about the New York Nets playing part of their schedule in Hartford or the city landing an expansion franchise.
The franchise in St. Louis was said to be interested in Hartford before the ABA-NBA merger, but the Celtics strongly opposed the move. Ultimately, the Celtics agreed to play a few games in Hartford each season starting in 1975 as a way of blocking the ABA from moving a team into the Civic Center and Boston's trips to Hartford continued until 1995. Larry Bird, who made some highlight-reel shots in Hartford, said he didn't like the trip because the sun was in his eyes the entire westbound bus trip.
There also was a story that surfaced in the early 1970s that Charlie Finley was interested in moving his Memphis franchise to Hartford. The deal never materialized, but it caught the attention of Baldwin. His WHA franchise in Boston needed a home and Baldwin was not interested in moving his young family out of New England.
Knowing little about the market — Baldwin actually flew from Boston to Hartford for a meeting — he toured the city and met with business leaders known as the "Bishops." Baldwin said there was a clear, unified vision from the business and political community.
"They wanted us to succeed," he said. "The minute we stepped foot in Hartford ... we knew we were welcomed. Not only from a corporate standpoint, from a political standpoint. From the governor to the mayor to the corporate people, it was the warmest welcome one could possibly get. They can make a huge difference. They did in the '70s and the late '60s, and I haven't seen it since. It's too bad because it can happen again. It can be done but it takes perseverance."
Baldwin, of course, represents bookends in Hartford sports history. He presided over the Whalers' shift to Hartford and the franchise planting roots in the community through the 1980s. He left in 1988 — nine years before the franchise was relocated to North Carolina — and returned to run the city's American Hockey League franchise in 2010, a tenure that ended when the New York Rangers took the business operation of the team back.
The Whalers, famously called the "Green Bay of the NHL" by former general manager Emile Francis, enmeshed themselves into the community and provided Hartford with a sports identity. Remember, this was before the Tate George shot and UConn's ascension to national prominence as a men's basketball program. It was before Geno Auriemma turned Connecticut into a women's basketball state and long before the construction of Rentschler Field elevated the UConn football team.
Baldwin's team survived the collapse of the Civic Center roof, which forced it to play home games in Springfield. The franchise lost more than $2 million in its first three years in Hartford, yet the region's corporate community chipped in to keep the team financial viable.
That cooperation, Baldwin said, enabled the Whalers to forge an identity.
"When we played the Rangers and Bruins after we first got in the NHL, there was as many Rangers and Bruins fans as Whalers fans," Baldwin said. "By the time we left, that was flipped on its ear and people became Whalers fans. Honestly, we never worried about New York or Boston. We were Hartford's team."
For five consecutive seasons, the Whalers missed the playoffs. The made a run to Adams Division final in 1986, won their division in 1987, and were playoff qualifiers through 1992. Regardless of the performance on the ice, though, the team represented Hartford and that was significant for the market.
"One thing we learned ... Hartford was not necessarily a hockey town, it was a Whalers town," said Sloves, who did work for both incarnations of Baldwin's operation. "It was a social thing to be seen at a Whalers game. It was special."
There was a vibrant and passionate community of Whalers fans who loved the sport, but the attachment to the team, to the logo still runs deep. The franchise, of course, was mismanaged in the early 1990s and failed to qualify for the playoffs in the final five seasons in Hartford. Citing declining attendance, a decaying arena and weakening corporate support, Karmanos ripped major league sports from Hartford 17 years ago.
A minor league hockey franchise replaced the Whalers and there are some who have refused to support what they consider an inferior product. The Wolf Pack — known as the Whale under Baldwin's controls — drew will in the initial years, but attendance has steadily slipped and there are hockey fans who continue to resist the idea of supporting the New York Rangers' farm team.
Baldwin's Whalers Sports & Entertainment ran into financial trouble from the outset, signing an onerous three-year, $25,000-per-game lease with the XL Center. The company staged a 10-day outdoor hockey event at Rentschler Field that set it back financially with a $200,000 snow removal bill and WSE's debt mounted before Madison Square Garden Inc. severed ties.
Still, Baldwin's 21 months on Hartford's stage rekindled talk of the NHL returning and sparked the old the debate about the city's lot in life.
And just a year after the Whalers left, the New England Patriots announced they were coming to Hartford. The state was prepared to build a new riverside stadium for the team, quickly restoring the city's big league status.
"Patriots, big time," Courant sports columnist Jeff Jacobs wrote. "It will define us as a sports state."
But owner Robert Kraft eventually decided to pass on Hartford and the debate raged: Just what kind of sports town is Hartford?
Lots Of Basketball
Mark Yellin played basketball at Weaver High in Hartford and at Yale in the early 1950s. As a young Hartford lawyer in the 1960s, he often wondered why his hometown didn't have a viable professional basketball team to support.
The Hartford Hurricanes were an American Basketball League franchise in the late 1940s, playing at an old car barn on Wethersfield Avenue. But a city — and state, for that matter — that has always loved UConn basketball would seemingly embrace another professional team.
"Then I heard about the Eastern League," Yellin recently said.
It was 1966 when Yellin and his investors approached the Eastern Professional Basketball League. The Camden, N.J., franchise was for sale and Yellin's group didn't hesitate, purchasing the team without having a home gymnasium secured.
Yellin also hoped his team would help accelerate plans to build a facility in the city. If not, he planned to construct his own 6,500-seat basketball facility on land he owned in the North Meadows.
As it turned out, the Civic Center plans became a reality in 1968, two years after Yellin's Hartford Capitols began play at Hartford Public High. The Caps also played at the University of Hartford and, eventually, Bloomfield High before the team and league went out of business. Yellin's group owned the team from 1966-1971 and the franchise lasted until 1974 under another owner.
"We did very well," Yellin said. "There were games when we had to turn people away. We had a lot of people come out and they had a ball. They never forgot the fun they had."
The Caps' roster included former Duke star Art Heyman, former Hartford Public High star Eddie Griffin, and former major league pitcher and NBA player Gene Conley, who played baseball for the Hartford Chiefs in 1951. The team was affiliated with the Celtics, so K.C. Jones played a few games with the Caps at the end of his career.
Watching his team generate such interest, Yellin wondered if something bigger could succeed in Hartford.
"I always thought an NBA team would do well," Yellin said."People love basketball in this state."
After the Caps, the Hartford Downtowners represented the city in the Eastern Basketball Association for one season (1976-77), and it would be 16 years before Hartford was back in the minor league basketball world. In 1993, the owner of the Albany-based Continental Basketball Association moved his team to Hartford and the Hellcats were born. They eventually ceased operations and were bought by Brian Foley and renamed the Connecticut Pride. They didn't last, either, despite the presence of former UConn players such as current Huskies coach Kevin Ollie.
The Hellcats drew a CBA-record 11,762 for their first game at the Civic Center and there was an initial buzz around the team. But attendance dipped and the team folded two days after Hartford hosted the 1994-95 CBA All-Star Game. The owners, Hartford Sports & Entertainment Group Inc., simply ran out of money and the team ceased operation during the season. At one point, for one season, the Pride came back as an International Basketball Association team.
"What obviously hurt [minor league teams] was TV," Yellin said. "In the old days, if you wanted to watch a basketball game, you had to go to a basketball game. Now, people can watch games on TV."
And TV is an especially important ingredient in Greater Hartford, which has always had an older demographic.
"Markets with aging populations are finding it increasingly tough to sell tickets to live events," Gold said. "That issue is perhaps tied to the fact that we have entered an age when technology can deliver a better game experience than the real thing. Think about it — travel on a winter night and pay for tickets, refreshments and parking to sit some distance from the action or watch a brilliant high definition live broadcast."
In the '90s, the CBA teams were also competing with the rise in UConn's basketball program. Gold points out that the market's relatively small size and the lack of professional sports has benefitted UConn. "The advantages of less competition for hearts and minds and ticket dollars somewhat outweigh the disadvantages," he said.
The popularity of the UConn women's program led the American Basketball League to place a franchise in Hartford in 1996 and the Blizzard were a success, although the league disbanded in December 1998.
The Blizzard were part of a, well, blizzard of sports franchises that came and went around the turn of the century. Foley and his wife, Lisa Wilson-Foley, introduced the FoxForce of World Team Tennis in 2000, spending two seasons at the Armory before playing matches at Riverside Park. The team eventually played in Avon before disbanding in 2007.
There were failed bids by Foley and parking lot magnate Alan Lazowski to bring a WNBA team to Hartford. There was the Whalers defection and the Patriots drama, there was the city's failure to build a stadium for an independent minor league baseball franchise and there was the departure of an arena football team.
Stop and consider the 1990s in Hartford: the Connecticut Coyotes and New England Sea Wolves (Arena Football League), the Hellcats and Pride (CBA), the Blizzard (ABL) come and go, the Whalers leave, the Wolf Pack arrive. Sloves, who promoted arena football, said Hartford's a tricky market for second-tier sports.
In the pre-ESPN days, Hartford had a long list of minor league franchises that, for one reason or another, vanished. The Knights and Charter Oaks were football franchises that played at Dillon Stadium in the 1960s and into the 1970s, when attendance eroded. Dillon Stadium was also home to a North American Soccer League franchise, the Bicentennials, that never warmed up to the South End field.
There was a later attempt to capitalize on Hartford's growing soccer community in 1979 when the indoor Hellions debuted at the Civic Center. But owner William Chipman mismanaged team finances and the Hellions were off to Memphis in 1981.
That Rock Cats franchise, once a Red Sox affiliate, could have landed in Hartford. Owner Joe Buzas moved the team from Rhode Island to Bristol in 1973, but he looked at Hartford first. Ten years later, he considered Hartford before moving the team to New Britain.
Both times, the city had neither the existing stadium nor the political will to build a facility. So Hartford has been without baseball for more than 60 years.
As the Boston Braves were about to pull the Chiefs out of the city, The Courant's leading sports voice saw the future of Hartford.
"The city that was a charter member of the National League in 1876 and gave that league its first president, Morgan G. Bulkeley, is about to surrender its place in professional baseball," Courant sports editor Bill Lee wrote. "If the game dies here, goodness only know how many years will pass before Hartford is again represented."
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