Morgan Bulkeley: The Biggest Sportsman To Come From Hartford

Morgan G. Bulkeley, former Connecticut governor and first president of baseball's National League. (The A.G. Spalding Baseball Collection / N.Y. Public Library)

Morgan Gardner Bulkeley IV, accomplished artist and sculptor, Red Sox fan, last in the direct genealogical line with that distinctly Hartford name, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., for the first time in the summer of 2012.

"It was fun to see my great grandfather there," Bulkeley, 69, said from his studio in Great Barrington, Mass. "I looked up his baseball story on the Internet and the letters people wrote in, wow. Somebody wrote this guy doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame, he never lifted a bat. It was an angry letter."

As a Hall of Fame voter under siege annually, Morgan, all I can say is welcome to my world.

Morgan G. Bulkeley is a bridge. Morgan G. Bulkeley is a high school. Morgan G. Bulkeley was a baseball stadium until it was demolished in 1955. Born the day after Christmas in 1837 in East Haddam, Bulkeley was a four-term mayor of Hartford. Bulkeley, who died on Nov. 6, 1922 at age 84, was a two-term governor of Connecticut and a U.S. Senator. He was president of Aetna for 43 years. And if a fair number of baseball historians want to argue that a metaphorical crowbar was used to get Morgan G. Bulkeley into Cooperstown, well, that's nothing compared to the real crowbar he used to smash a padlock at the state Capitol after the highly disputed gubernatorial election of 1890.

When The Courant gathered a 17-member panel in 1999 to select the 25 greatest Connecticut athletes of the 20th century, there was no shortage of possibilities. Fifteen years later, The Courant is celebrating its 250th anniversary as the nation's oldest continuously published newspaper. A much longer reach. Organized sports were either nonexistent or in their infancy during the first century of our publication.

The Crowbar Governor — how great is that nickname? — stands out as the premier sportsman of the first half of our existence. Among area businessmen who helped bring professional baseball to Hartford in 1874, Bulkeley became team president of the Hartford Dark Blues of the National Association a year later. In 1876, the team became one of eight charter members of the National League. At 29, Bulkeley served as the first president of the National League for 10 months — the first president of the first major sports league — before he moved the team to Brooklyn in 1877. Never mind the Whalers 120 years later, the Dark Blues became the first major league team ever to abandon a city.

In 1905, Bulkeley was one of the seven appointees to the Mills Commission that would officially endorse what most historians have come to call the myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown in 1839. Doubleday, a Union general who fought at Gettysburg, isn't the one Civil War veteran in the Hall of Fame. Bulkeley is. Serving with the 13th New York Volunteers under Gen. George McClellan and later under Gen. Joseph Mansfield, Morgan lost his brother Charles in the war.

Horse racing, in one form or another, was the one staple of the American sports scene dating to the Revolution. While Burdett Loomis was responsible for building Charter Oak Park that opened in West Hartford in 1873, Bulkeley would become president of the track and first vice president of the National Trotting Association. Make no mistake. Charter Oak, which closed for good in the 1930s, was on the Grand Circuit, the big leagues of trotting for a half century. The races were front page news in The Courant. Bulkeley loved the horses.

Bulkeley knew the great and powerful men of America's Gilded Age, finishing third in the vice presidential balloting at the 1896 Republican convention that would send William McKinley to the White House. And, at least in sporting terms, it is scant exaggeration to call him Howard Baldwin, Peter Karmanos, Ella Grasso, John Rowland and Mitchell Etess of Mohegan Sun all rolled into one.

"One of my dad's favorite things when he was young was his grandfather would take him up to his office and he'd sit on his grandfather's lap and watch the parades out of his window," Bulkeley IV said. "He would read the comics to my father."

In a fascinating 2011 book, "Crowbar Governor," Kevin Murphy called Bulkeley "shrewd, pragmatic, sometimes wildly vindictive, but he also was courteous, loyal and even kind. He wasn't a 'man for all seasons,' but he accomplished an enormous amount without receiving even a high school diploma."

The guy had more legs than a 19th century spider. There are stories of unapologetic vote-buying, but just as many of altruistic civic accomplishments and generosity. He'd bring underprivileged Hartford kids on the train for a day at the family summer home in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook.

"Before reading [Murphy's book] I never knew a lot of the stuff about his various political shenanigans," Bulkeley IV said. "But it sounded like it wasn't out of the ordinary for the time."

Crafty Starter

To begin to understand Morgan Bulkeley, you've got to start at his American roots. His father, Eliphalet, descended from Puritan minister Peter Bulkeley, who arrived from England in 1635 and founded Concord, Mass.

"He dreamed of a golden city on a hill," Bulkeley IV said.

The family of Morgan's mother, Lydia Smith Morgan, arrived on the Mayflower. Eliphalet, a judge, was one of the founders of the state Republican Party and the first president at Aetna Life Insurance. Yet it would be his son who would oversee Aetna's massive growth, increasing assets from $25 million to $200 million and, over four decades, going from 30 to 1,500 employees.

Aetna issued its first accident policy in 1891. Morgan Bulkeley bought it.

In retrospect, it's no surprise that when he returned from working for his uncle in Brooklyn after his father died in 1872, he jumped straight into the deep end of Hartford life. He became the first president of the United States Bank of Hartford. He got on the city council. He got into baseball.

He made sure the ballpark at the corner of Wyllys and Hendricxsen was state of the 19th century art for the 1875 season. The largest crowd in team history, nearly 10,000, watched the Boston Red Stockings beat the Dark Blues 10-5 in the May 18 opener. Judging by an ad he took out in The Courant, Mark Twain went home that day without his English-made brown silk umbrella: "I will pay $5 for the return of the umbrella in good condition to my house on Farmington Avenue. I do not want the boy [in an active state] but will pay two hundred dollars for his remains.'' That last part was a joke.