Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League works to officially rename new ball field after Johnny Taylor.
By REBECCA LURYE | HARTFORD COURANT | NOV 21, 2019 | 6:00 AM
Negro Leagues star Johnny ‘Schoolboy’ Taylor may be Hartford’s greatest baseball player; and with enough signatures, a city ballfield may be named for him.
The name Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor may soon grace a ballfield in Colt Park, where the Hartford native honed the high kick and fastball that made him a pitching legend in the Negro Leagues.
“He’s probably the most worthy figure in Hartford’s baseball history,” said Weston Ulbrich, secretary of the 91-year-old Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League, where Taylor got his start in the 1930s. Ulbrich is leading the effort to recognize Taylor. Also helping with the effort is Leslie Hammond, a longtime Hartford real estate agent and close friend of Taylor’s late niece, Pat Anderson.
Taylor, who died in 1987, is widely considered one of the greatest baseball players to come out of Connecticut, despite the racial discrimination that kept him out of the major leagues.
He was retired from the game when Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, though Taylor integrated professional baseball in Hartford two years later when he signed with the Hartford Chiefs for one final season in 1949.
Two-hundred-fifty signatures from Hartford residents are needed to move forward the process of permanently renaming the public Field #9 in Colt Park, where renovations are underway. They’re being gathered this month by Ulbrich, Hammond and others active in the city’s parks.
The measure was welcomed by the city council when Councilman Thomas “TJ” Clarke II introduced it in May, and it drew strong support at a public hearing the next month. However, the resolution stalled from July to November due to a miscommunication over the requirements to permanently rename public property—specifically, signatures were not gathered and the city’s Building Dedication Committee, which is led by the mayor, did not explain why it was not meeting to review the resolution.
The dedication committee has not met since December 2018, according to David Grant, an assistant in Mayor Luke Bronin’s office. This week, Clarke said the process is now on track.
“Lessons learned all the way around,” Clarke said. “Communication is key.”
Taylor’s daughter, Lynette Taylor Grande of Bloomfield, said the delay isn’t important and probably wouldn’t have bothered her father, who never sought recognition.
“I think he would have been a little overwhelmed by such honoraria during his lifetime,” said Grande, who was born the year before her father left baseball for good. “I think he kind of said, ‘No’ to some things people wanted to do back when he was alive.”
However, the family was pleasantly surprised when they learned about the Twilight League’s effort in the spring. Grande sees it as part of a deeper commitment by the city to recognize the historical figures who made a difference to their communities.
“It’s fun to think that someone still remembered his story and wanted it to be indelibly imprinted in the Hartford community,” she said.
Johnny Taylor was born in Hartford in 1916 and raised in the South End, where Colt Park drew youth to its fields for pickup games and organized sandlot ball. He was a track star for the Bulkeley High School Maroons, then joined the baseball team his senior year.
On June 2, 1933, Taylor, pitching in his final high school game, set the Connecticut record for strikeouts in a nine-inning game at Colt Park. A scout for the New York Yankees came to see the ace pitcher in Hartford that year, not realizing that the light-skinned Taylor was black, The Courant reported in 1976.
The scout tried to convince Taylor to pretend he was Cuban and take a Hispanic last name in order to join the major leagues, but he refused. Taylor kept a newspaper clipping with that story in his wallet for the rest of his life, his late widow once told The Courant.
“He just was a person of principal who would have done the right thing and stood up for the right thing,” Grande, a retired teacher, said. “He really cared about the underdog and saw the potential for the world to be a better place for everybody.”
Taylor played two seasons with the Hartford Twilight League, which was informally integrated, though Taylor was one of the few black players.
In 1935, Taylor joined the New York Cubans, a Negro League team, and later played for a number of teams, including the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Toledo Crawfords.
Over the years, he also pitched for and against the Savitt Gems, an independent, semipro team sponsored by jewelry store proprietor Bill Savitt, who also owned a South End ballpark called Bulkeley Stadium. The stadium was named for Morgan Bulkeley, a Hartford politician and businessman who was the first president of the National League. An opponent of racial discrimination, Savitt signed several black and Latino players and organized regular games with teams from the Negro Leagues.
Taylor once helped the Gems to an exhausting 7-6 victory over the Boston Royal Giants, pitching 22 innings at Bulkeley Stadium.
Later, playing for the New York Cubans in 1937, Taylor pitched a no-hitter to beat the Negro Leagues All-Stars team — and its ace pitcher Leroy “Satchel” Paige — 2-0 before a crowd of 22,500 at the Polo Grounds in New York.
“I gave up only eight hits that day,” Paige said at the time, “but it wasn’t nearly enough with what that kid [Taylor] did.”
Taylor later replaced Paige on the Pittsburgh Crawfords when Paige and 19 other team members left the Negro Leagues for the Dominican Republic, to play for dictator Gen. Rafael Trujillo. That year, it was Taylor who made the All-Star team.
But after one more season in the U.S., Taylor, too, left for a foreign team and a higher salary than the Negro Leagues could offer him. The millionaire Jorge Pasquel paid Taylor $600 a month to play for his Mexico City team, Azules de Veracruz, and later sweetened the deal with a new bespoke suit for every shutout he pitched.
Taylor collected 15 custom suits by the end of the 1941 season, when he returned to the U.S. for a break from baseball until he would return for two more seasons in New York.
His early retirement was hastened by a back injury he sustained nine years earlier in Cuba, where he was playing for a winter league and earning the nickname “El Rey de Hartford” — the king of Hartford.
Still, it was players like Taylor flocking to foreign leagues that helped pressure Major League Baseball and the American League to integrate in 1947.
Taylor had long thought the day would come. He told a Bridgeport Sunday Herald reporter in the 1930s, “It may not come in my career as a pitcher, but I’m sure it will come. Baseball shows signs of needing tonic, and it’s my frank opinion that the Negro will be just the tonic needed.”
Four years into his retirement, Taylor returned to become the first black athlete to sign with the Hartford Chiefs of the Eastern League.
Outside of baseball, Taylor worked at Pratt & Whitney and in construction with his father as he raised his four children with his wife, Estelle, who carried the distinction of the first black nurse at New Britain General Hospital. After Johnny Taylor helped build Hartford Hospital, Estelle Taylor became one of the first black nurses there, too.
It was a rich, uneventful life, Grande recalls. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Estelle Taylor would walk the kids downtown every weekend and Johnny Taylor would walk them to the library every Wednesday.
At the Wadsworth Atheneum and the department stores, to the Mr. Peanut store and a movie — and to Savitt Jewelers, where Johnny Taylor was prominently featured in the photos on the walls.
At the library, Taylor loved to read about space: “He was very much in tune with the futuristic, with what’s to come,” Grande says.
Just five years before he died at age 71, Taylor was inducted into the Twilight League Hall of Fame in 1982. He accepted it humbly, as with all recognition throughout his life, said his daughter, Maureen Taylor Hicks, who lives near Philadelphia.
“I, too, am humbled by the research into my father’s career revealing the deep respect for his talent shown by the Hartford community of classmates, teammates, sportswriters and sports fans during a time of racial segregation and discrimination,” she said.
“After so many years, it is indeed an honor for my father to be remembered.”
Rebecca Lurye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.