Tag: river

The Baseball Origins of Dillon Stadium

Recently, the naming rights of Hartford’s oldest outdoor sports facility were sold to corporate interests. The time-tested Dillon Stadium has taken a bow to make way for Trinity Health Stadium. Though some people will refuse to call it anything other than Dillon Stadium, perhaps a review of its backstory will enlighten fans and provide some understanding in a time of change. Long before Hartford Athletic played soccer at Dillon, the venue first began as a baseball diamond called Municipal Stadium.

Dillon Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, 2020.

Erected on Huyshope Avenue in the spring of 1935, Municipal Stadium was the result of public outcry for an enclosed baseball field for amatuer players. After more than a decade of petitions, the city finally built a diamond at the eastern edge of Colt Park. Funding for the project came from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Great New Deal. The Depression-era stadium had 8-feet tall fences, a chain link backstop and oversized bleachers hugging foul territory.

Bob Cameron of the Hartford Twilight League scores the first run at Municipal Stadium, Hartford, June 29, 1935.

Hartford’s amateurs were pleased with the ballpark, because they no longer needed to rent Bulkeley Stadium for big games. There nearly a dozen baseball field at Colt Park, including the new “Munie” Stadium. The field’s first headliner contests were played by Hartford Twilight League teams. In June of 1935, the facility opened with a parade featuring a marching band. Mayor of Hartford, Joseph W. Beach, dedicated the field by hoisting an American flag up a flagpole alongside the stadium’s overseer and Recreation Supervisor, James H. Dillon.

James H. Dillon, c. 1936.

Less than a year later, a massive flood hit Hartford. Heavy rain overflowed the Connecticut River and Park River, engulfing the city and destroying Municipal Stadium. The Flood of 1936 forced amateurs out of Colt Park. Many defected to the East Hartford Twilight League. Hartford’s Municipal Stadium was out of commission for most of the summer. However, Supervisor Dillon spearheaded an effort to rebuild the venue and “Munie” Stadium was quickly revived.

Hartford Flood, March 21, 1936.
View of Colt Park, Hartford Flood, March 21, 1936.

After cleanup and repairs, the field was rededicated on September 19, 1936. City officials marched down to Colt Park to celebrate the recovery with another flag raising. The ceremony was followed by an interstate doubleheader played by Hartford’s Senior All-Stars and Junior All-Stars. Hometown pitching ace and GHTBL Hall of Fame inductee, Yosh Kinel won the afternoon for the Seniors; whipping a traveling club from Springfield, Massachusetts.

Rededication Ceremony at Municipal Stadium, 1936.
Rededication of Municipal Stadium after the flood, 1936.

Municipal Stadium had become a hotbed for regional baseball talent. In the summer of 1937, a professional tryout came to town. Hartford’s best showcased their ability before scouts of the Rochester Red Wings. It was the first of many minor league tryouts held at the facility. Between the 1930’s and the 1960’s, dozens of Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League players would sign professional contracts on the main diamond at Colt Park.

Rochester Red Wings host professional tryout at Municipal Stadium, 1937.

During the autumn seasons, Municipal Stadium doubled as a football field. As a result, a fieldhouse was constructed on the premises in 1939. The facility was reported to accommodate 10,000 spectators at that time. It was a fan favorite for its affordability and walkability. Aside from the occasional flood, South Hartford’s riverbank provided the perfect setting for local sporting events.

Municipal Stadium in Colt Park, Hartford, 1939.

Onlookers witnessed high school baseball at Municipal Stadium including Weaver, Bulkeley and Hartford Public. There were also several amateur loops using the stadium during the 1940’s: the Industrial League, Public Service League, Catholic League, and the Central Connecticut Twilight League. Semi-professional clubs like the Savitt Gems hosted benefit games at “Munie” Stadium to fundraise for local causes and wartime initiatives.

George Register of Weaver High School, Municipal Stadium, 1940.
Norman “Red” Branch (left) and Aaron Robinson of Coast Guard at Municipal Stadium, 1942.

Hartford Twilight League action returned to Municipal Stadium after World War II. The loop was re-established in the summer of 1946. That season, many players picked up a bat for the first time since carrying a rifle across Europe or Asia. Dozens of young war veterans were fixtures at “Munie” Stadium. Men such as U.S. Army veteran John Buikus starred for his company-sponsored team, Royal Typewriter.

Ernie Hutt, Walt Fonfara, John Buikus and Nonny Zazzaro of Royal Typewriter, Municipal Stadium, 1947.
Jon Cordier and Ed Roche of Royal Typewriter, Municipal Stadium, 1947.

By 1955, Municipal Stadium was worn down. Sports Editor of the Hartford Courant, Bill Lee wrote a subpar review of the ballpark in his “With Malice Toward None” column. He called it, “…a poorly maintained baseball diamond of sorts.” The following year, Hartford Mayor James H. Kinsella passed a resolution to rehabilitate and rename Municipal Stadium. From then on, the facility took on the name of Hartford’s favorite supervisor, James H. Dillon, whose accomplishments had won the city national acclaim in parks and recreation.

Jack Hines, catcher for Hartford Public High School hits an infield single, Municipal Stadium, 1955.
Hartford Courant excerpt, April 25, 1956.

The newly christened Dillon Stadium took over as Hartford’s sole baseball field in the late 1950’s. Nearby on Hamner Street, Bulkeley Stadium was abandoned and the land was eventually conveyed to the highest bidder. Hartford had neither a minor league stadium nor a minor league team. Consequently, the Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League (GHTBL) became the only game in town at Dillon Stadium. On August 12, 1959, a team of GHTBL All-Stars trounced a club of rookie professionals picked by the New York Yankees.

GHTBL All-Stars defeat New York Yankees Rookies at Dillon Stadium, August 12, 1959.

Due in part to public exposure at Dillon Stadium, the Twilight League enjoyed a golden era during the 1960’s. Season openers, playoff tournaments and old-timer games were well-attended for a nominal fee and widely-heralded in newspapers. The Hartford Courant and the Hartford Times were awash with recaps at Dillon. Despite the stadium’s deep connection to America’s National Pastime, the era expired in 1971. An aging Dillon Stadium was in need of a revisions and the city permanently reconfigured the site into a football, soccer and rock concert arena.

Bob Martin (left) of Valco Machine hits game-winning home run, Dillon Stadium, 1965.
Hartford Twilight League Old Timers Game at Dillon Stadium, 1967.
Hartford Twilight League Old Timers’ Day at Dillon Stadium, 1967.
GHTBL Opens at Dillon Stadium, 1970.
Hartford Twilight League Old-Timers at Dillon Stadium, 1970.

Many years later, a glimmer of hope appeared for baseball at Dillon Stadium. City officials organized the Dillon Stadium Task Force Committee in 1987 to bring professional baseball back to Hartford for the first time since the Hartford Chiefs left in 1956. The group was conducted by a firefighter, Michael P. Peters, the namesake of Mike Peters Little League. Peters and the task force sought to renovate Dillon Stadium into a minor league ballpark. Designs were drawn and models were presented for a $20 million revamp.

Dillon Stadium Task Force Committee reporting by Joel Lang and Owen Canfield, Hartford Courant, June, 1987.
Hartford baseball ad, July 16, 1987.

However, the project lacked enough public support. Skeptics included City Council members, real estate developers and business leaders. In addition, the Dillon Stadium Task Force was unable to attract a minor league club to the negotiating table. Most potential investors considered the Hartford market to be overlapped by the New Britain Red Sox of the Eastern League. By 1991, the deal withered away and the campaign helped Mike Peters become Mayor of Hartford (1993 to 2001).

Mayor Mike Peters at Dillon Stadium, 1989.
Promotional hat made for Dillon Stadium Task Force Committee, 1989.

“It was a very fine baseball stadium in terms of the field and ground. It was what I call a Class-A stadium. In the 1940’s it might have been the best baseball diamond in the Connecticut area.”

Victor Jarm, former Recreation Supervisor of Hartford, gushes over Municipal Stadium, 1989.
Dillon Stadium article by Roberto Gonzalez, Hartford Courant, August 31, 1989.

These days, baseball is a long gone memory at the former Dillon Stadium. In 2019, Hartford Athletic owners, Hartford Sports Group, partnered with Connecticut’s Capital Region Development Authority and Hartford Foundation for Public Giving to refurbish the city-owned facility for $14 million. As part of the quasi-public deal, Hartford Sports Group reserved the right to sell the name of Hartford’s oldest sports venue. Trinity Health Stadium is now home to Hartford Athletic soccer of the United Soccer League.

Dillon Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, 2014.
Trinity Health Stadium, formerly Dillon Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, 2022.

Sources

  1. Hartford Courant: “Jon Lender: $14M Dillon Stadium renovation was marred by ‘charade of an RFP’ that ‘undermines public confidence,’ says watchdogs’ draft report”.
  2. Hartford Courant: Football, The Rolling Stones, elephants and soccer: A look at Dillon Stadium through the years.”
  3. Hartford Courant database at Newspapers.com
  4. Hartford Athletic: Hartfordathletic.com/dillon-stadium
  5. USL Soccer News: USLsoccer.com/news_article/show/1216699

The 1870 Connecticut Base Ball Convention

150 years ago in baseball history – On Wednesday, November 2, 1870, Hartford hosted the third ever Connecticut Base Ball Convention. Hartford’s own Gershom B. Hubbell presided over the meeting. Delegates attended from the most prominent teams in the state. Many of them arrived in Hartford via steamship on the Connecticut River. Ball clubs represented were Yale College, Middletown Mansfields, Stratford, New Britain, Essex, Meriden and others from Hartford including Trinity College.

Hartford Courant excerpt, November, 1870.
Gershom B. Hubbell, President of Connecticut Base Ball Association, 1870.
Hartford Courant excerpt, November 3, 1870.
Painting by John Stobart, City of Hartford Steamship on the Connecticut River, Hartford, 1870.