Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League History
Officially Established in 1929
The Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League is one of America’s oldest baseball leagues. Previously known as the City Amateur League and the City Independent Twilight League in the 1910’s and 1920’s, the league reorganized in the summer of 1929. Local sporting goods store owner, Harry N. Anderson of Hartford was the league’s organizer and first President. The best amateur ballplayers in the Greater Hartford area converged on Colt Park during the summer. In addition to the Hartford Twilight League, the Times Twilight League, Industrial League, Insurance League, Public Service League and the Catholic League also competed at that time. It was the Golden Era of baseball when games served as entertainment for thousands of local fans.
The Savitt Gems
The most prolific franchise in the early years of the Hartford Twilight League was the Savitt Gems, sponsored and organized by Bill Savitt of Savitt Jewelers on Asylum Street. Savitt and his Gems fielded some of the top ballplayers in Connecticut for two decades. The Gems began as 3-time winners of the Hartford Twilight League from 1930 to 1932. Walter Berg was the club’s ace pitcher, Al Huband, their heavy hitter and George Dixon, their wiry third baseman. The Savitt Gems went on to become a formidable independent club known throughout New England as generous hosts to Major League and Negro League teams at Hartford’s Bulkeley Stadium.
Amateur Ballplayers Become Local Heroes
The Holy Name nine also became an outstanding franchise in their own right during the 1930’s. The “Names” were the first Hartford Twilight League team to advance players into professional baseball. A double-play duo, Bert Meisner and Pete Kapura signed with the Hartford Senators of the Eastern League in 1931. Holy Name’s first baseman, Jigger Farrell was an natural batsman who became a mainstay player-manager for the Savitt Gems throughout their semi-professional years. Other successful teams in the early years of the Twilight League were named Check Bread, Mahoney’s Service, Mayflower Sales and Home Circle.
The Twi-loop Develops Pitching Prospects
A left-handed hurler named Peter Naktenis of the Mayflower Sales club was the first Hartford Twilight League player to reach the Major Leagues. In 1936, the Hartford Public High School and Duke University graduate signed with Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Meanwhile, another pitcher, Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor played for the Home Circle team. Taylor, a Bulkeley High School alumnus was scouted by the New York Yankees but ultimately denied a contract due to racial discrimination. After two seasons in the Hartford Twilight League, Taylor signed with the New York Cubans of the Negro National League in 1935. A few years later in a Negro League All-Star game at the Polo Grounds, Taylor threw a no-hitter against legendary ace Satchel Paige. Johnny Taylor later signed to pitch for the Hartford Chiefs of the Boston Braves organization in 1949, making him Hartford’s first professional black athlete.
Savitt Gems Host Big League Stars
In 1937, the Hartford Twilight League split into two leagues; the East Hartford Twilight League and the Central Connecticut Twilight League. Meanwhile, during World War II, the Savitt Gems entertained Hartford fans with grand events and benefit games at Bulkeley Stadium. On September 29, 1942, Ted Williams played left field for the Gems versus the New Britain Cremos. “The Kid” batted clean-up, went 2 for 3 and hit a game-winning solo homer in a 2-1 contest. Then on September 30, 1945, the Gems welcomed Babe Ruth to Hartford for an exhibition against the New Britain Codys. At 50 years old, Ruth put on a home run hitting display in batting practice. During the game, he pinch hit and grounded out to the pitcher. Ruth’s cameo with the Gems marked his final appearance in a ball game.
The Twilight League Resumes
In 1946, the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League reorganized under the leadership of League President, John “Bud” Mahon who later became City Treasurer of Hartford. Teams such as Lenny’s Yellow Taxi, West Hartford Merchants and Columbia A.C. featured skillful ballplayers, many of whom had just returned home from war. A particularly talented team was the 1950 Nutmeg Dukes, the GHTBL’s first African-American entry. The Dukes dominated the competition and won the 1950 Regular Season and Playoff championships. The team’s shortstop, Harold “Hal” Lewis signed to play professional baseball in 1951 with the Boston Braves organization.
St. Cyril’s Leads the League
The 1950’s was a decade of growth for the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League. Moe Drabowsky of Windsor, Nick Koback of Hartford and Joey Jay of Middletown signed professional contracts and had long careers in the Major Leagues. Many more professional players would follow, yet the league retained its highly competitive status. During this time, perhaps no team was more successful than the St. Cyril’s baseball club. They won 5 championships from 1951 to 1960. St. Cyril’s was commanded by long-time Manager, Ed Kostek. The team was comprised of local star athletes like Al Phelon, a crafty pitcher, Bill George, a veteran catcher and a speedy outfielder named Ed Samolyk.
Company Teams Flourish
Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s manufacturing corporations sponsored twilight league franchises and hired personnel accordingly. Companies such as Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, Hamilton Standard, Valco Machine and Royal Typewriter controlled the twi-loop standings. From 1953 to 1957, Pratt & Whitney won a total of 6 Regular Season and Playoff Championships. They were led by their manager and former big leaguer, John “Bunny” Roser. Prominent players for Pratt & Whitney included Paul Chicon, a strong hitting outfielder, and Parker Swan, a commanding pitcher. Soon thereafter, Hamilton Standard outdid their Aircraft rivals by winning 8 league titles from 1955 to 1966 behind their catcher, Wally Widholm.
The Moriarty Brothers
In 1964, the Moriarty Brothers franchise began their domination of the Hartford Twilight League by winning their first Regular Season Title. The club was sponsored by a car dealership owner and GHTBL Hall of Famer, Matt Moriarty of Manchester, Connecticut. Nicknamed the Comets, Moriarty’s roster was stacked with former professional ballplayers. The Comets were steered by pitchers like Pete Sala, Lev Spencer, and John Serafini. Standout hitters included Bob Carlson, Jim Balesano, Leo Veleas, Rich Riordan and their MVP, player-manager Gene Johnson. The Moriarty Brothers dynasty holds an all-time Hartford Twilight League record of 28 total titles.
A Twilight League Legend
Gene Johnson would become a cornerstone of the GHTBL. His dedication to the league was unparalleled, compiling a record of 57 years as a player and manager. Johnson entered the league with St. Cyril’s in 1953 while attending Manchester High School at the age of 17. He chased his dream to play professional baseball, signing with the New York Giants in 1955 and embarked on a 7-year minor league career. In 1962, Johnson was playing in the Milwaukee Braves organization when he got demoted to their Class B affiliate despite a .315 batting average. Rather than report, Johnson returned to Connecticut to raise a family with his wife Helen.
Gene Johnson, Player of the Half Century
Johnson’s professional days ended, however his Hartford Twilight career resumed immediately. He rejoined Moriarty Brothers and assumed the role of player-manager in 1962. The franchise was the class of the league for 3 decades before being rebranded Newman Lincoln-Mercury. Overall, Gene Johnson won 34 GHTBL Championships, 5 batting titles and was named “Player of the Half Century” in 1982. His quick bat, glovework at third base and competitive attitude allowed him to play baseball well into his 50’s. Johnson even made an appearance in a game at 75 years old when his team needed an extra player. He passed away on November 10, 2014 at the age of 77.
The Bristol Cassins
During the 1970’s the Bristol Cassins challenged Moriarty Brothers as the league’s top team. The Cassins conquered the standings from 1974 to 1978 under the leadership of their sponsor, Don Cassin and their manager, Joseph Lowery. The club’s Most Valuable Player, Luke Lamboley guarded third base and their ace on the mound was Michael Beaudoin. Bristol’s lineup included Robert “Duke” Snyder, Dave Cichon, Jim Ziogas and Dave Raponey who intimidated opposing pitching. The Cassins won a total of 4 GHTBL Championships and were one of the league’s best hitting teams.
Frank McCoy & the Vernon Orioles
Back in 1966, Frank McCoy Sr. formed, sponsored and managed the Vernon Orioles. McCoy, a Hartford attorney and later a four-term Mayor of Vernon, managed the team until 1998. Known as “Mr. Vernon Oriole” McCoy served as GHTBL Vice President until his passing in 2010. Players like Alan Putz, Joe Calaci and Steve Krajewski were a few of the great Orioles through the years. Thanks to McCoy, the Vernon Orioles are the longest running franchise in league history. Nowadays, the Orioles are managed by one of McCoy’s former players, Jack Ceppetelli.
The Newington Capitols
The 1980’s brought about metal bats as well as another power-hitting dynasty. Also known as the “Caps”, the Newington Capitols entered the Twilight League in 1982 and found fast success. The Caps won 5 Playoff Championships in 6 years. The club gave up very few runs behind professional caliber pitchers, Jim Snediker, Mike Schweighoffer and Tim Zerio. Dave Sacco was the team’s player-manager as well as Most Valuable Player. A lineup of sluggers included Scott Cormier, Mike Magnifico, Gino Caro and Dave Rose. By the end of their GHTBL run in 2001, the Newington Capitols had captured 14 league titles.
Katz Sports Shop & Malloves Jewelers
Two other GHTBL franchises of the 1980’s were laden with talent. Meriden-based Katz Sports Shop fielded two notable big leaguers, Rob Dibble and Bernie WIlliams. The club achieved championships in 1981 and 1982 led by their manager Dave Gaffney and captain, Dave Katz. Meanwhile, Middletown-based Malloves Jewelers played host to Baseball Hall of Fame inductee, Jeff Bagwell before he was drafted. Behind their sponsor, Buzzy Levin and manager, Jay Hickey, the Jewelers had a championship year in 1986. The team featured top collegiate players such as Doug Elliot and Tom Banner.
Tom Abbruzzese’s Bankers Franchise
Since 1976, Tom Abbruzzese has managed the same GHTBL franchise. He initially managed Society for Savings Bank with his father, Mike Abbruzzese. They fielded strong teams rostered by the likes of Mark Riemer, David Gale and Kevin Gieras. Society for Savings eventually became Bank of Boston and then People’s Bank in the summer of 2000. The franchise has amassed 15 Regular Season and Playoff Championships. The “Bankers” have recruited and advanced numerous professional players to and from the GHTBL year after year. With Abbruzzese at the helm, People’s United Bank remains a perennial contender.
A New Era in the Twilight League
The summer of 2004 marked the 75th anniversary of the GHTBL. That same year, the Bristol Merchants began their run of success, winning a total of 9 Championships in 6 years. The league’s Meriden-based franchise, now the Record-Journal Expos, have earned 4 titles since 2006. From 2011 to 2013, the Ferguson Waterworks franchise, led by their captain Greg Annino, achieved 3 consecutive Playoff Championships. In 2015, Gene Johnson’s longtime franchise, then named Foss Insurance, won one last Playoff Championship in his honor. The same Foss Insurance franchise has since taken on a new sponsor in Rainbow Graphics of Manchester.
Old Franchises Renewed
In recent years, the Vernon Orioles have proved to be the league’s top club. Featuring players like Nick Roy, Dan Trubia and Tony Trubia, the Orioles have achieved 7 consecutive championship seasons. The South Windsor Phillies joined the league in 2018, managed by GHTBL alumni, Ron Pizzanello and Gary Burnham Jr. In 2019, the league welcomed back Marc Levin as General Manager of Malloves Jewelers after a 25 year hiatus. The East Hartford Jets have competed in the GHTBL since 1970, winning a total of 5 league titles including a Playoff Championship in 2020.
Giving Back to the Greater Hartford Community
On Sunday, July, 9, 2017 the GHTBL hosted a “Charity Series” at Dunkin’ Donuts Park. Four games were played and $5,641 in ticket proceeds were donated to Hartford’s Camp Courant. On June 21st and 22nd of 2018 the league hosted a pair of doubleheaders that raised $4,500 for Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. In 2019, the Twilight League held another day at Dunkin’ Donuts Park and raised $7,000 for a Multiple Sclerosis charity named MS4MS. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the league managed to play a shortened season in 2020, including a doubleheader at Dunkin’ Donuts Park that raised $2,000 for the new Johnny Taylor Field in Hartford’s Colt Park.
JACK REPASS RECORDS LEAGUE HISTORY
In 1979, the Twilight League celebrated its 50th Anniversary. Hartford native and League Secretary, Jack Repass (1924-2001) commemorated the milestone by publishing a 34-page booklet recording the league’s rich history. Jack was one of three Repass brothers to play baseball in the GHTBL. Jack’s older brother Bob “Spike” Repass was a highly touted prospect who went on to play second base for the St. Louis Cardinals, Washington Senators and Hartford Chiefs. Jack Repass played for the St. Cyril’s ball club in the Twilight League before serving in the United States Navy during the Korean War. He returned home and became manager of the Yellow Cab team in the Twilight League. Repass also worked as the Sports Information Director at the University of Hartford and later led the way to establish the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League Hall of Fame.