Tag: minor league

Leo Durocher Got His Start in Hartford

Leo Ernest Durocher was born in 1905 in West Springfield, Massachusetts, as the youngest of four sons. His parents with French Canadian parents were George and Clarinda (Provost) Durocher and often spoke French at home. George Durocher worked on the railroad, for the Boston & Albany Railroad. At 5-feet-10, he grew to be the tallest of his brothers. His French-Canadian parents. Durocher dropped out of Springfield Technical High School after being suspended and never went back. Instead, he became a prominent semi-professional athlete and several employers competed to have him play for their company teams.

According to baseball historian Paul Dickson, Durocher was convinced to try for a professional club, the Hartford Senators:

“There’s a guy named David Redd, who’s a black man, who pushes and pushes and pushes Durocher to go try out for the Hartford team, which in those days was a semi-Yankee farm club,” Dickson says. “And Durocher does. Tries, fails once.”

Paul Dickson – WBUR, Robinson And Durocher’s Complicated — And Changing — Relationship

Having failed, Durocher was again encouraged to try out for the 1925 season again by his friend, David Redd. This time, he made the team and batted for an average of .220 in 536 at bats that season. As an infielder for Hartford, Durocher learned and grew his game under Manager Paddy O’Connor, a baseball lifer and former catcher of the 1909 World Series winning Pittsburgh Pirates. Durocher showed promise in Hartford under the lights at Clarkin Field and was called up to the New York Yankees lineup for 2 game appearances.

Leo Durocher is sold to the Yankees, 1925.

It would take two seasons in the Yankees farm system – Atlanta, Georgia and St. Paul, Minnesota – before his permanent call-up to the big leagues in 1928. He won his first World Series that same year as a teammate of Babe Ruth and another Hartford Senators alumnus, Lou Gehrig. Durocher would become known as one of baseball’s fiercest players and would achieve team and individual success.

As a captain of the St. Louis Cardinals “Gashouse Gang” in 1934, Durocher started shortstop and won another World Series. He also collected three National League All-Star game appearances. After the 1938 season with the Cardinals, Durocher became the Dodgers’ player-manager. In 1939, Durocher was named player-manager for the Dodgers and quickly became known for his dirt-kicking tirades against umpires. He also clashed with Brooklyn’s front office and claimed that he was fired and rehired by general manager Larry McPhail dozens of times.

In 24 years as a skipper for the Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Giants, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, Durocher won 2,009 games, three pennants and a World Series. However, Durocher also became famous for his arguments with umpires, executives and players earned him a reputation as “The Lip.” His nickname was thought to have stemmed from his relationship with another diminutive Hall of Famer: Rabbit Maranville. While not an imposing hitter, Durocher’s scrappy play and maximum effort led Babe Ruth to call him “The All-American out.”

Leo Durocher, Manager, Brooklyn Dodgers, 1941.

Despite his antics, there was no doubt about Durocher’s record. In 1941, Durocher led the Dodgers, who were affectionately named “the Bums” by their own fans, to the franchise’s first pennant in 21 years.

“As long as I’ve got a chance to beat you, I’m going to take it.”

Leo Durocher, 1941.

In 1947, Commissioner Happy Chandler suspended Durocher for a year due to his “accumulation of unpleasant incidents” which included his accused association with gamblers. Led by Jackie Robinson, who Durocher staunchly supported when he broke the color barrier, the Dodgers captured the ’47 National League pennant.

In 1948, Durocher shocked the baseball world when he became manager of the Dodgers’ crosstown rival New York Giants – who he had famously referred to when he remarked that “nice guys finish last.” It was at the Polo Grounds where Durocher found his greatest success. In 1951, his Giants capped off an incredible 13½ game comeback on the Dodgers with Bobby Thomson’s famous “Shot Heard ’Round the World” homer to win the pennant. Three years later, Durocher and the Giants swept the heavily favored Cleveland Indians in the 1954 World Series.

Durocher with his wife, Laraine, Day, 1950.

Durocher left New York after the 1955 season and became a color commentator for NBC’s baseball broadcasts. He returned to the manager’s office with the Cubs in 1966 and served his final nine seasons in Chicago and Houston. Durocher retired in 1973 as the fifth-winningest manager in history, and second only to Hall of Famer John McGraw in the National League.

Casey Stengel, Manager, New York Yankees and Leo Durocher, Manager, New York Giants, 1951 World Series.

Upon his retirement, he ranked fifth all-time among managers with 2,009 career victories, second only to John McGraw in National League history. In 1965, Durocher co-authored an autobiography entitled, Nice Guys Finish Last. He lived a long life but passed away on October 7, 1991. Leo Durocher was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1994.

Leo Durocher

Sources

  1. WBUR, Robinson And Durocher’s Complicated — And Changing — Relationship.
  2. Hartford Courant Database, Newspapers.com.
  3. Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Reference.com.
  4. Durocher, Leo, Baseball Hall of Fame, Baseballhall.org/Hall-of-Famers/Durocher-Leo.

Willy Yahn’s Baseball Blog

Yahn, a professional infielder in the Baltimore Orioles organization has written a great blog on recent baseball experiences in amateur and professional leagues. Here’s what he wrote about his time on People’s United Bank:

“Back on June 25th, the day of our first game at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, a man approached me after the contest and asked if I wanted to play for his team in the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League (GHTBL). The GHTBL was established in 1929 and is one of the oldest baseball leagues in the U.S. That man turned out to be Tom Abbruzzese, the manager of the People’s United Bank team out of Wethersfield. Tom and I stayed in contact and I was also in touch with Justin Morhardt, former Atlanta Braves minor leaguer and two-way player for People’s United Bank. I hashed out dates that I could work around Gator games and sent them to Tom. On July 21, Lindsey made the trek over with me to Riverfront Park in Glastonbury as I made my Banker debut.”

“I did not make a glowing first impression with the bat, as I went 0 for 4. But Justin started that game on the mound and I remember converting on about a dozen plays at shortstop en route to a close victory over Rainbow Graphics out of Manchester. I quickly began to enjoy playing for People’s Bank for a few reasons. For starters, I always find it fun getting to know a new group of teammates and showing proving that no matter who I played for I wanted to win badly and that I had my eye on two league rings that summer. 

Between the People’s United Bank team and his Great Falls Gators, Yahn was just shy of playing 30 games last summer.

Second, I was a touch more anonymous in the GHTBL, or at least I felt like that was the case (correct me if I’m wrong people). But with the Gators everyone generally knew ‘that’s Willy’s team that he made’, I would do the coaches meetings a lot of games, I stuck out like a sore thumb. But with People’s Bank I could sneak into our dugout with a plain t-shirt and the team hat that resembled that of the Philadelphia Phillies, and I could surprise the opponent at least for my first at-bat from the leadoff spot. I say that because after my first game as a Banker, many of my first at-bats I received fastballs that caught a lot of plate early in the count, as pitchers were trying to establish their fastball early in the game to the leadoff hitter. AB number one would go: knock, swipe second base, then third, another Banker drives me in for an early lead. It was at this point I felt like teams thought “oooooh it’s that long hair schmuck from UConn who belly flops everywhere” and they remember for the next at-bat. 

It was about to be playoff time for the GHTBL as well, as I needed to get into one more regular season game to qualify myself for the playoffs with People United Bank. We were playing the East Hartford Jets at Wethersfield High School after I had finally received my custom Dove Tail Bat in the mail earlier in the day. It had a natural finish with the DTB and Willy Yahn in Gator green. She was beautiful. I wanted to use her that day because she was fresh out of the box in which it was shipped. I was the lead off hitter and the first pitch of the bottom of the first with the new weapon, I smashed a line drive into center for a single. A good sign for the new bat headed into the playoffs. Then a new pitcher came in for the Jets in the 3rd innings, throwing pretty hard from a funky angle. I learned after the game that it was Lief Bigelow, former UConn sidearmer who transferred to University of Maine. I faced off against him my second at bat, first pitch was a hard runner fastball on the corner inside. I took a hack at it and the barrel of my brand new bat explodes off the handle. I watched the beautiful green label saucer away in disgust. My running so fast in anger and the infielders being distracted by a flying wooden knife allowed me to reach on an infield single. But at what cost, folks? I jokingly called out to Lief (at this point was still trying to remember who he was) saying he owed me a new Dove Tail.”

“I finished the game with three knocks and three swiped bags, the Bankers came out on top 4-2. We were able to win all five regular season games for which I made the trip, as we had a pretty solid team. About the same average age as the Gators, with a lot of solid hitters throughout the line up and a few college pitchers who knew what they were doing. Justin Morhardt contributed highly on both sides of the ball. On top of hitting some bombs out of the clean-up spot, he is a competitive pitcher who induces a lot of ground balls, which as a shortstop makes him a guy that is fun to play behind. People’s United Bank finished 6-6 as we would face off against the GHTBL powerhouse the Vernon Orioles.”

Stay tuned to Willy Yahn’s baseball blog – Chapter 6: The Gator was also a Banker

Yahn is expected to play for the Bowie Baysox of the Eastern League in 2021.

Hartford Base Ball Park of 1896

Long before the Yard Goats roamed Dunkin’ Donuts Park, there was a place named Hartford Base Ball Park. Also called Wethersfield Avenue Grounds, the park was constructed in 1896. Hartford’s minor league team Manager William “Bald Billy” Barnie led the effort to build the minor league venue. That season, grandstand tickets were 15 cents and Newark finished in first place in the Atlantic League. However, Hartford protested their victory.

City planning map showing Hartford Base Ball Park, 1896.

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 mid year. As a result, the 2nd place Hartfords challenged Newark to a 7-game series. Newark declined the invitation but the 3rd place Paterson club accepted and prevailed over Hartford.

Hartford Base Ball Park, (c.) 1900.

By November of 1896, the matter was put to rest by Sam Crane, President of the Atlantic League who declared Newark as champions. Manager Barnie passed away in Hartford in 1900 beloved by local fans. He was buried alongside many other baseball greats in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York. Hartford finally won a minor league pennant in 1909 at Hartford Base Ball Park.

Bill Barnie, Manager, Hartford, 1900.
Hartford vs. Brockton at Wethersfield Avenue Grounds (Hartford Base Ball Park), 1901.

Greater Hartford’s Own Jose Birriel

Jose A. Birriel was born on November 14, 1964 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. As a young man Birriel showed great athletic ability, especially as a left handed batter and first baseman. The Boston Red Sox signed him at 18 years old. In his first year as a professional Birriel banged 10 home runs, 56 RBI and a .351 average for Elmira of the New York Penn League. The following season he led the Florida State League in fielding percentage, assists, putouts and double plays while hitting 16 homers for the Winter Haven Red Sox.

Hartford Courant excerpt, July 2, 1988.

By 1986, Jose Birriel was called up to the Double-A New Britain Red Sox. He quickly earned a reputation as a top defensive first basemen in the Eastern League. In 1987, Birriel had a breakout season with 10 home runs, 57 RBI, a .292 batting average, and a .991 fielding percentage in 117 games played. Birriel spent 7 years in the Boston Red Sox organization. During this time, he was selected to 4 minor league all-star games, set the all-time club record for most runs batted in, and on occasion, the lefty also showed a knack for pitching.

Jose Birriel, First Baseman, Society for Savings, 1990.
Hartford Courant excerpt, June 29, 1990.
Hartford Courant excerpt, June 29, 1990.

Birriel was eventually promoted to Triple-A with the Pawtucket Red Sox in 1988. However he was only given 21 at bats and had 2 hits. He was released from the Red Sox that same year. The following summer Birriel was living in Hartford and joined the Society for Savings ball club in the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League. As a member of Tom Abbruzzese’s team, Birriel hit 6 home runs in 62 at bats and was named an all-star. Birriel played a final season in the Mexican League in 1991 before ending his baseball career.

New Britain Red Sox hat.
Jose Birriel career stats, Baseball-Reference.com.

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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 Field 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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A Baseball Pioneer from Connecticut, Benjamin Douglas Jr.

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.

Douglas Pump Company with Ben Douglas Sr. and Ben Douglas Jr. (5th from right), 1868.
Ben Douglas Sr. Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut and father of Ben Douglas Jr.
Benjamin Douglas Jr., 1868.

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.

Col. Joseph K. F, Mansfield, 1870.

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.

Boston Base Ball Club vs. Mansfield Base Ball Club, 1872.

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.”

Mansfields of Middletown taking part in a parade, 1872.

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.

Mansfields of Middletown schedule and results, 1872.

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.

1875 Hartford Dark Blues

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.

Hartford Courant Courant excerpt, 1877.

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.

Hartford Courant excerpt, March 5, 1878.

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.

Harry Wright, Player-Manager, Boston Red Stockings.

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 [18]66 to [18]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.

Hartford Courant excerpt, June 5, 1878.

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.”

1879 Providence Grays captured the National League title after Ben Douglas Jr. departed the club.


Sources

Major League Baseball in Gilded Age Connecticut, by David Arcidiacono (McFarland, 2010)

Harry Wright Correspondence

Hartford Courant

Hartford Post

Hartford Times

Middletown Constitution

Middletown Penny Press

Middletown Tribune