Hartford’s Minor League Club, Part I: The Hartfords (1878-1901)

Hartford in Minor Leagues:

  • International League (1878)
  • Connecticut State League (1884-1885)
  • Southern New England League (1885)
  • Eastern League (1886-1887)
  • Atlantic Association (1889-1890)
  • Connecticut State League (1891, 1895)
  • Atlantic League (1896-1898)
  • Eastern League (1899-1901)

Notable Players:

Hartford, Connecticut, has been represented by 71 affiliated and unaffiliated minor league baseball clubs. It began when the Hartford Dark Blues of the National League moved to Brooklyn in 1877, and the city was left without a professional club. In an era when teams traveled by train or steamboat, Hartford was an ideal location for organized baseball. A prime mover in forming the Dark Blues, Ben Douglas Jr. raised $4,000 from shareholders to establish Hartford’s first minor league team in 1878. Initially, Douglas organized the club in Providence, Rhode Island, then he moved operations to New Haven, but ultimately selected Hartford.

Hartford Base Ball Grounds, 1877.
Hartford Courant excerpt, March 5, 1878.

The Hartford Courant referred to the club as The Hartfords. They held games at the Base Ball Grounds on Wyllys Avenue. The club joined the International Association after being denied entry into the National League due to the city’s small population (about 40,000). However, major League caliber players appeared for Hartford in 1878 such as Candy Cummings, Everett Mills, Jack Lynch and Joe Battin. Yet, the team was a short-lived entity. The Hartfords were expelled from the league after failing to pay a mandatory guarantee to the Buffalo club.

Jack Lynch, Pitcher, Hartford, 1878.
Jack Lynch, Pitcher, Hartford, 1878.
Everett Mills, First Baseman, Hartford, 1878.
Joe Battin, Third Baseman, Hartford, 1878.
Candy Cummings, Pitcher, Hartford, 1878.
Hartford Courant excerpt, July 19, 1878.

Hartford’s first foray into minor league baseball ended on an embarrassing note. Consequently, the city was without a professional club for the next five years. Finally in February of 1884, Hartford Base Ball Park Association, a joint stock corporation founded a new team in the Connecticut State League. The Hartfords of 1884 played at a new ballpark on Ward Street. Baseball enthusiast and cigar magnate, Charles A. Soby was team manager as well as President of the Connecticut State League. He directed affairs from the Hartford Base Ball Headquarters on Main Street, a leftover base of operations from the days of the Hartford Dark Blues.

Charles Soby, Manager, Hartford, 1884.
Hartford Base Ball Headquarters, 258 Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut, 1884.

In 1885, the Hartfords competed in the Southern New England League of which Soby was again appointed President. Former Dark Bluesoutfielder, Jack Remsen took over as player-manager. Before becoming a Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack was Hartford’s wiry catcher at 22 years old. Backup catcher, Tony Murphy was one of the first baseball players to wear a chest protector. Henry Gruber, from Hamden, Connecticut, and Frank Gilmore from Webster, Massachussetts, did most of the pitching. Hartford natives Bill Tobin and Jack Farrell rounded out an underachieving roster who fell short of a championship title.

Jack Farrell, Second Baseman, Hartford, 1885.
Henry Gruber, Pitcher, Hartford, 1885.
Jack Remsen, Player-Manager, Hartford, 1885.
Connie Mack, Catcher, Hartford, 1885.

The Hartford Base Ball Club of 1886 contended in the first iteration of the Eastern League. The club dealt Connie Mack to the Washington Nationals midseason. Another Hall of Fame inductee, Hugh Duffy spent his first professional year in Hartford. After an lackluster season, a new joint stock company assumed ownership of the club. Among investors of the Harford Amusement Association were the Mayor of Hartford, Morgan G. Bulkeley and famed author, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). The association hired Charles E. Daniels, a professional umpire from Colchester, Connecticut, as manager for the 1887 season.

Investors like Bulkeley and Twain back base ball in Hartford, 1887.
Investors like Bulkeley and Twain back the Hartford club, 1887.

Under Charlie Daniels the Hartfords of 1887 fielded their best lineup yet. That year, “General” James Stafford began his career with Hartford. Steve Brady, former captain of the New York Metropolitans and hometown hero of Hartford, batted .350. Ed Beecher led the league in doubles and Henry Gruber was one of the league’s top pitching aces. At season’s end, the Hartfords placed third in the standings. The Eastern League disbanded and Hartford was forced to forgo organized baseball throughout the year of 1888.

Steve Brady, First Baseman, Hartford, 1887.
General Stafford, Second Baseman, Hartford, 1887.
Ed Beecher, Outfielder, Hartford, 1887.

The Hartfords reappeared on the minor league scene in 1889 as part of the Atlantic Association. Hartford man and first time player-manager, John M. Henry recruited Phenomenal Smith and Joe Gerhardtto contend for a title. However they finished in third place behind Worcester and Newark. Then Hartford failed to retain top tier players in 1890 and sunk to last place. Third baseman Ezra Sutton and catcher George Stallings of Boston fame were the team’s lone bright spots. A game of particular note came on July 23, 1890, when Hartford’s first game illuminated by “electric light” took place at the Ward Street Grounds.

Phenomenal Smith, Pitcher, Hartford, 1889.
Joe Gerhardt, Second Baseman, Hartford, 1889.
George Stallings, Catcher, Hartford, 1890.
Baltimore vs. Hartford, 1890.

After another mediocre season in the 1891 Connecticut State League, the Hartfords lost favor with fans and investors. The club disbanded and the Panic of 1893 prolonged their absence. Eventually, a new team surfaced in the summer of 1894. John Henry, Charlie Daniels, Steve Brady and his brother Jackson Brady formed the Hartford Elks. They were a semi-professional team backed by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (Lodge #19). Though the team featured minor league players, the club operated independently from the Connecticut State League.

John M. Henry, Player-Manager, Hartford, 1894.
John M. Henry, Player-Manager, Hartford, 1894.
Hartford Courant excerpt, July 10, 1894.

In 1895, Hartford reentered the Connecticut State League and operated under the auspices of the Hartford Base Ball and Amusement Association. John Henry returned as player-manager one last time. Ed Beecher, a revolving outfielder from Guilford, Connecticut, suited up for his fourth and final season. Both men later became police officers in Hartford. Another local man, John Gunshanan was one of the club’s best hitters. Future major leaguers Jack Cronin and Bill Gannon had brief stints with the Hartfords of 1895. Despite big league prospects, a pennant continued to elude the city of Hartford.

John Gunshanan, Outfielder, Hartford, 1895.
Hartford Courant excerpt, February 7, 1895.
Jack Cronin, Pitcher, Hartford, 1895.

The Hartfords came close to a championship when they entered the Atlantic League in its inaugural season of 1896. Former Hartford player and famed baseball manager, Billy Barnie purchased the club with a group of investors. He served as Hartford’s manager and garnered enough support to build a new ballpark on the west side of Wethersfield Avenue (later becoming Clarkin Stadium and then Bulkeley Stadium). Also nicknamed the Hartford Bluebirds, the club was captained by Bob Pettit, a utility man from Williamstown, Massachusetts. Everyday players like John Thornton and Reddy Mack lifted Hartford atop the standings in a tight race with Newark.

Billy Barnie, Manager, Harford, 1896.
Reddy Mack, Second Baseman, Hartford, 1896.
Site plan of Hartford Base Ball Park, 1896.
Hartford Ball Park Ad, 1896.

When Newark finished in first place, Hartford protested their victory. Manager Barnie argued that Newark’s record was unfairly inflated due to a dozen extra games played. Newark also used a suspended pitcher named Joseph Frye who had left Hartford midway through the season. As a result, the second place Hartfords challenged Newark to a 7-game series; the Soby Cup sponsored by Hartford’s own Charles Soby. Newark declined the invitation but the third place Paterson club accepted and prevailed over Hartford for the Soby Cup. By November of 1896, the matter was put to rest by Sam Crane, President of the Atlantic League who declared Newark as champions.

The Soby Cup, 1896.
Soby Cup Series, 1896.
Sam Crane, President of the Atlantic League, 1896.

Hartford returned to the Atlantic League in 1897. Former Brooklyn Bridegrooms standout, Thomas “Oyster” Burns became player-manager when Billy Barnie left Hartford to manage Brooklyn. Tom Vickery, Cy Bowen and Hank Gastright were moundmen for Hartford. Veteran major leaguers Lefty Marr and Paul Radford manned center field and shortstop. The club won 78 games but finished third in the standings yet again. On the final day of the season, Hartford players presented a commemorative diamond ring to their beloved leader, Oyster Burns.

The Hartfords of 1897.
Cy Bowen, Pitcher, Hartford, 1897.
Oyster Burns, Outfielder, Hartford, 1897.

In 1898, executives of the Hartford baseball club hired veteran major leaguer Bill Traffley as manager. Traffley was unpopular with players, he was accused of pocketing gate receipts and he relinquished the manager role halfway through the season to the team’s catcher, Mike Roach. The Hartfords adopted a cooperative system to evenly disperse gate earnings amongst the players. Therefore the team became known as the Hartford Cooperatives. Arlie Latham, 1886 World Series champion and baseball’s first showman comedian, guarded third base for the Cooperatives who descended to sixth place in the Atlantic League.

Bill Traffley, Manager, Hartford, 1898.
Arlie Latham, Third Baseman, Hartford, 1898.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1898.

Towards the end of the 1898 season, Billy Barnie purchased ownership of the Hartfords once again. Even though Barnie was manager of the Springfields at the time, Hartford fans were delighted to have him back. With Barnie as manager, Hartford enrolled in the Eastern League of 1899. He signed several players from the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, including William Shindle who led the team in hitting. Tuck Turner was the team’s star right fielder. For a 24 game stretch, Hartford featured Louis Sockalexis, the first Native American to play professional baseball. The club compiled 50 wins and 56 losses thereby finishing seventh place in the Eastern League.

Biff Sheehan, Outfielder, Hartford, 1899.
William Shindle, Player-Manager, Hartford, 1899.
`Louis Sockalexis, Outfielder, Hartford, 1899.

At the turn of the century, Charles Soby reprised his role as Hartford’s preeminent baseball magnate. On May 21, 1900, Soby led a group of 44 shareholders who raised $3,250 to establish the Hartford Baseball Corporation. The club partnered with New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company to create special rates and train schedules on game days. The team secured two pitchers destined for stardom, “Wild” Bill Donovan and George Hemming. Tragically, Manager Billy Barnie died of pneumonia on July 15, 1900. Barnie was revered in Hartford as baseball’s most tenured manager, as catcher for the Hartford Dark Blues of 1874 and the Hartfords of 1878.

Billy Barnie, Manager, Hartford, 1900.
Billy Barnie, Manager, Hartford, 1900.
Hartford Baseball Club, 1900.
George Hemming, Pitcher, Hartford, 1900.
“Wild” Bill Donovan, Pitcher, Hartford, 1900.

In place of Barnie, William Shindle assumed managerial duties for the remainder of the 1900 season. The team’s performance was respectable. “Wild” Bill Donovan achieved league highs in wins and strikeouts. Though it would not be enough for a pennant, and the Hartfords settled for third in the Eastern League. The next season Shindle stayed on as manager. George Shoch, a veteran pitcher ended his 20-year career with Hartford. In fact, most of the 1901 club was made up of players on the last leg of their careers. The club fell to sixth out of eight teams in the final standings.

Hartford vs. Brockton, 1901.
George Shoch, Pitcher, Hartford, 1901.

After more than 20 years in the minor leagues without a championship, Hartford’s proud baseball community refused to be discouraged. A minor league team would represent Hartford off and on for the next 5 decades. On August 17, 1925, Hartford players of yore were celebrated at Bulkeley Stadium. Connie Mack, Frank Gilmore, John Henry and Ed Beecher attended an exhibition game between Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and a Hartford All-Star team featuring local pitching ace, Lem Owen. In a ceremony before the game, Gilmore gifted Mack a new set of golf clubs and the Hartfords of old received their last ovation from a crowd of 6,000 fans.

Connie Mack, Frank Gilmore, John Henry and Ed Beecher at Wethersfield Avenue Grounds, Hartford, August 17, 1925.

Sources

  1. Hartford Courant database on Newspapers.com
  2. StatsCrew.com

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