Baseball is relatively popular in Connecticut. Last year, more than 400,000 fans passed through the turnstiles at Dunkin’ Donuts Park to cheer the Hartford Yard Goats — nearly achieving pre-pandemic attendance records.
Yet the Yard Goats are now the only minor league affiliated team left in Connecticut after Major League Baseball’s (MLB) reorganization in 2020. The Norwich Sea Unicorns, formerly a Detroit Tigers affiliate, was left on the outside looking in as a result of the restructuring, but eventually joined the New Britain Bees in the Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL).
Even the Bridgeport Bluefish of the Atlantic League — a professional league independent of the MLB — relocated to North Carolina in 2017. No team has replaced them nor the New Haven Ravens, who became the New Hampshire Fisher Cats after the 2003 season.
But Connecticut wasn’t always a ‘desert’ of professional baseball. In fact, around the turn of the 20th century, there was a network of squads associated with the Connecticut State League (or Connecticut League) in nearly every major city in the state. One club was even owned by a Hall of Famer.
The Hartford Dark Blues
The last major league baseball team in Connecticut was the Hartford Dark Blues. Formed in 1874, the team was part of the National Associated of Professional Base Ball Players — a precursor to the National League (NL). At the time, the league sought a location between Boston and New York as a “layover midway,” according to SABR writer David Arcidiacono in a 2003 article for the Hog River Journal (now Connecticut Explored).
Ben Douglas, Jr., a native from Middletown, who unsuccessfully tried to form a club in his hometown, became aware of the league’s intention, and gathered Hartford businessmen to pitch them a team in the city. One enthusiast was Morgan Bulkeley, the future 54th governor of Connecticut, who pledged $5,000, and Gershom Hubbell, who organized the amateur Charter Oaks ball team. The trio leased land from Elizabeth Colt — widow of gun manufacturer Samuel Colt — and built the state-of-the-art Hartford Ball Club Grounds on the corner of Wyllys Street and Hendricxsen Avenue (near the Church of the Good Shepherd).
Two years later, the Hartford Dark Blues represented the “smallest of the eight cities” invited to join the National League, while Bulkeley was named the league’s first president. The team debuted against the New York Mutuals in Brooklyn, N.Y., on April 27, losing 8-3. After the initial defeat, the ball club improved its prospects, winning nine consecutive games, and finished 47-21 on the season (second in the league).
The team featured prominent players, including manager Bob Ferguson, future Hall of Famer Candy Cummings (who may have invented the curveball), and Tommy Bond, who eventually pitched three consecutive 40-win seasons.
However, the 1876 season was the Dark Blues’ last in Hartford, as Bulkeley moved the club to Brooklyn in “hopes of better gate receipts,” according to Arcidiacono.
‘Orator’ Jim O’Rourke and the Connecticut State League
The first NL game was held on April 22, 1876, between the Philadelphia Athletics and the Boston Red Stockings. Athletics’ pitcher Lon Knight successfully recorded two outs in the top of the first — but then Jim ‘Orator’ O’Rourke (a Bridgeport native) stepped to the dish.
At that point, O’Rourke made a name for himself by his “tendency toward lengthy rhetoric,” according to his biography by the Baseball Hall of Fame. But he then cemented himself in history with a single to left field — becoming the first person to hit safely in the oldest, and still active, baseball league.
O’Rourke played in major league games between 1872 to 1904 throughout his Hall of Fame career, amassing more than 2,600 hits and a .310 batting average. Along with his many accolades on the field, O’Rourke also graduated from Yale Law School in 1887, and practiced law in between playing baseball. But several years after playing in the majors for the Washington Senators, the Bridgeport native “assembled eight Connecticut teams into the Naugatuck Valley League” in 1896, which was then “reorganized and renamed the Connecticut State League,” according to SABR.
From 1896 to 1912, the league had teams in Bridgeport (named the Orators in honor of O’Rourke), Bristol, Danbury, Meriden, New London, New Haven, Waterbury, Torrington, Hartford, Norwich, Willimantic, New Britain, Stamford, Rockville — and even included teams from Massachusetts like the Springfield Ponies and Northampton Meadowlarks.
It should be noted that a Connecticut State League existed prior to O’Rourke’s involvement, but that league folded in 1891 — and it featured, for one year, an all-Black team, the Ansonia Cuban Knights that included Hall of Famers Frank Grant and Sol White. The team, sadly, endured its share of discrimination, but O’Rourke was different as the league’s president. During his tenure, he hired Harry Herbert for the then-Bridgeport Victors in 1895; Herbert was a black man, and with the hire became the first African American from Bridgeport to play professional baseball and, possibly, the first African American in minor league history (though that last claim, made by former Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch may be unlikely).
According to SABR, the 62-year-old O’Rourke played his final game on Sept. 14, 1912, as catcher for the New Haven Wings in a game against Waterbury. With his retirement as president, the once vibrant league eventually folded.
Hall of Fame Talent
When fans walk into Dunkin’ Donuts Park, they’re bound to see a mural of Lou Gehrig wearing a Hartford-branded jersey. It’s not a mistake. Though a short-lived stint (as Lefty Gahrig and Lou Lewis) in June 1921, the 18-year-old Gehrig played first base for the Hartford Senators, helping the club win five of his first six games with multiple-hit performances. His final game came on June 15 where he went 1-for-4 in a 9-2 loss against Springfield, finishing with a .261 (12-for-46) average with a double, two triples and four RBIs in his Senators’ career. Gehrig eventually played for the New York Yankees in 1923, etching himself into baseball lore and the Hall of Fame.
(It should be noted that Gehrig’s mother, Christina, was briefly a resident of Milford, Conn., and helped form the Milford Little League. A city field is named in her son’s honor.)
But as for home-grown Hall of Fame talent, whom can Connecticut boast about?
Roger Conner — a Waterbury native — is known as “The Babe Ruth of the 80s” — at least so says his obituary. But in a time when the home run was not king, Conner hit a record 138 in his 18-year career — a record that stood 23 years after his retirement in 1897. The record was surpassed by none other than Ruth.
Ned Hanlon of Montville was another fixture in baseball in the late 1880s, but more so for his defensive prowess and managerial style. According to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Hanlon “used innovative tactics to earn the nickname ‘The Father of Modern Baseball.’” The biography continues that, “Known as ‘Inside Baseball,’ Hanlon’s philosophy centered on teamwork, speed and execution. He incorporated baseball’s first regular use of plays like the hit-and-run, the sacrifice bunt, the suicide squeeze and the double steal.” All of these plays are still utilized by teams today.
Then there is Jeff Bagwell. Though born in Boston, Mass., Bagwell’s family moved to Killingworth when he was a one-year-old (so the state can claim him!). When he reached the majors, Bagwell became a notable power hitter, amassing 449 home runs and 2,314 hits in his 15-year career with the Houston Astros. He earned Rookie of the Year (1991), four All Star nominations and MVP (1994) en route to Cooperstown, which he was voted into in 2017.
Connecticut has a rich history with baseball — with more stories suited for a book! It’s this author’s wish that a Connecticut State League still existed (though not at taxpayer expense like modern ballparks) because there’s nothing better than hearing the crack of the bat echo through the twilight, summer sky.
Till next time —
Your Yankee Doodle Dandy,
What neat history do you have in your town? Send it to yours truly and I may end up highlighting it in a future edition of ‘Hidden in the Oak.’ Please encourage others to follow and subscribe to our newsletters and podcast, ‘Y CT Matters.’