This article was written by David Arcidiacono
Benjamin Douglas Jr. of Middletown, Connecticut is a forgotten pioneer of early baseball. Of the six New England cities which have had major league baseball teams, Douglas started the original team in half of them. In 1848, Ben became the third of four sons born to a wealthy industrialist, Benjamin Douglas Sr. and his wife Mary. Douglas Sr. was owner of the Douglas Pump Factory, a prosperous business that had produced hydraulic pumps in Middletown for forty years. Douglas Sr. was a powerful man who once held several political offices including mayor of Middletown and Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut. Meanwhile, Douglas Jr. worked as clerk and timekeeper at the factory but found baseball much more interesting.
At the age of sixteen, Ben, of whom it was later said “would go ten miles on foot, over any obstacles, rather than miss seeing a good game,” organized the Douglas factory’s ballclub. He originally designated the baseball nine the “Douglas Club”, but quickly changed the name to the “Mansfields” in honor of General Joseph Mansfield, a Civil War hero killed at the Battle of Antietam as well as young Ben’s great uncle.
Douglas played on the Mansfields for five seasons and he was largely responsible for the administrative duties. As the Mansfields began to take on a more professional character, the extent of these tasks grew to include scheduling games (a huge job in the days before pre-set schedules and telephones), making travel arrangements, signing players, and overseeing ticket sales and the club’s treasury. The burden became so large that Ben, who played only sparingly in 1870 when the Mansfields were voted amateur champions of the state, and was listed as a substitute for 1871, then never saw playing action for an organized team again.
As the 1872 season approached, everything appeared to be in place for the Mansfields’ continued operation as amateurs. While arranging playing dates for the upcoming season, Ben contacted Harry Wright, manager of the Boston club, in hopes of enticing the popular Red Stockings back to Middletown for a game. Wright advised Douglas that the Red Stockings would only come back if the receipts were better than the previous year, when the gate money “did not come up to the expectations we were led to indulge in.”
When negotiations failed, Wright suggested that if the Mansfields were truly interested in playing professional clubs then they should pay the $10 entry fee and join the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. If they did, the professional clubs would then have no choice but to play them. Inspired by Wright’s novel idea, Douglas gathered the Mansfields’ officers together and laid out his proposal to join the professional ranks. The idea was approved and Douglas sent the $10 entry fee, fulfilling the league’s sole requirement for entry.
Despite Douglas’ hard work, the Mansfields folded in August 1872, beset by a lack of paying customers. The Middletown Constitutionnoted the passing of the team by saying, “Mr Benjamin Douglas Junior….has shown considerable pluck and ingenuity in bringing the club up to rank among the best in the country. He now retires with the best wishes of all concerned.”
Once the Mansfields ceased operations, most people felt there would never be another professional ballclub in Connecticut. Despite this, Douglas knew that the National Association still wanted a club located between New York and Boston but he was also painfully aware that a larger market than Middletown was required.
Convinced that Hartford was the answer, he became the driving force in returning professional baseball to Connecticut. A few months before the 1874 season, Douglas gathered Hartford’s prominent businessmen to an informational meeting regarding starting a professional team in Hartford. During the meeting Douglas convinced the men to open their wallets, explaining that professional baseball was not only good for the host city but also profitable to investors. His efforts resulted in over $5000 worth of pledges for a new Connecticut team.
Douglas was elected traveling secretary of the new Hartford Dark Blues and held that post for two years. During that span the Hartford club had some success, finishing second in 1875 after placing seventh their first season. Prior to the 1876 season when the Dark Blues became a charter members of the National League, Douglas declined reelection due to “business engagements.” The Hartford Times reported, “Mr. Douglas has worked hard for the interest of the Hartford club, and had it not been for him the Hartfords would not have attained the celebrity they have. It might be said that he laid the foundation stone of the club.” Douglas did remain peripherally connected with the team however, serving as one of the club’s directors.
By 1877, Hartford’s National League entry had moved to Brooklyn. With the new vacancy in Hartford, Douglas began plans to return a team to Hartford. He again succeeded in raising over $4000. Unfortunately the new National League rule requiring cities to have a population of 75,000 people forced Douglas to move to Providence, Rhode Island to keep his baseball dreams alive. As he tended to the business of getting a new National League team up and running in that city, he had suspicions that somebody on the Providence team wanted to run him out of the manager’s position and was planting false stories about him. His fears were realized before the season began as the board of directors voted to relieve him of his duties as manager.
Douglas refused to resign however, leading the directors to threaten to withhold the $1000 he had invested in the club unless he resigned. Douglas contacted Harry Wright hoping for some help:
“You know me Harry for many seasons. You know I have spent a large sum of money from 66 to 78 trying my level best to build up the Dear Old Game and now after my hard hard work here to be disgraced…It is not on account of drink for I do not drink. It is not on account of dishonesty for God knows I am honest. It is not on account of bad women for I care nothing for them. I have always tried to act the part of a gentleman and square man by all.”
“Did I not run the Champions of Conn 6 seasons, the Dear Old Mansfields of Middletown. Did I not break into the World of Manager 2 seasons the celebrated Hartfords, 2nd only to the Champion Bostons season of 75 and yet these greenhorns say my past record is good for nothing…I have lost 6 month’s time from business at home where I had steady salary of $1500/yr. I have spent money like water. First for Hartford where I raised $4000 this last season and only for action of League would have been there…Drew good clean money out of bk [bank] at home. My hard earnings paid Mesr [sp], Carey, York, Hines, Higham, Hague, Allison, Nichols, $700 – advance money last winter or I would lost them. Providence would have had no League team only for me, and this is my reward…Can you do anything for me Friend Harry. I don’t ask money Oh know for that I have enough only I do ask my friends in the game to protect against this outrage.”Ben Douglas Jr. to Harry Wright, 1877.
Douglas received a flattering letter from Wright but it was too late to save his position. Douglas replied to Wright:
“Your kind communication of the 10th came duly to hand & I can assure you it gave me great comfort. These people know more about base ball then I do, in their minds. After making a dupe of me they threw me one side….I had to resign my place or be kicked out. I had my whole heart in it sure, but I won’t bother you further…I retire with the consciousness of having done my whole duty and in return have been snubbed. No more Rhode Island for me.”Harry Wright to Ben Douglas Jr., 1877.
It was later reported that Providence forced Douglas’ out because he was arranging games with non-League clubs. This had been a common practice to gain more money. As Douglas told Harry Wright, “It’s a long jump from Providence to Chicago without getting one cent.” After leaving Providence, the Providence Dispatch reported that Douglas still held the support of many in the city who were “greatly in favor of Mr. Douglas, and, to speak the truth, he has been shamelessly used.” The team that Douglas assembled finished third in the six-team National League.
Within two weeks of leaving Providence, Douglas organized a team in New Haven and joined the International Association. Attendance was sparse and in a desperate attempt to keep his dream alive, Douglas moved the club to Hartford. Two months later the club was expelled from the league for nonpayment to a visiting club. The 1878 season spelled the end of Douglas’ baseball dream.
He returned to Middletown and rejoined the family pump factory. In 1893, he married Nellie Sault, daughter of a Brooklyn foundry owner. This came as a surprise to Douglas’ friends who apparently were unaware of the 44-year-old Douglas’ relationship with the 20-year-old woman. In 1905, Ben Douglas died in Connecticut Hospital for the Insane where he had lived for five years.
Ben Douglas summed up his love of the game when he told Harry Wright, “You know Harry that my whole soul is in base ball.”
Major League Baseball in Gilded Age Connecticut, by David Arcidiacono (McFarland, 2010)
Harry Wright Correspondence
Middletown Penny Press