Tag: semi-pro

Bill Savitt, King of Diamonds

It was once written of Hartford’s most prolific baseball promoter that there were, “at least five Bill Savitt’s.”

1. The jeweler, who owned and operated a store on Asylum Street in Hartford.

2. The advertising genius who coined the phrase “Peace of Mind Guaranteed” often abbreviated to “P.O.M.G.”

3. The sportsman who created the Savitt Gems, Hartford’s preeminent semi-professional baseball club who played with and against some of the world’s best players.

4. The philanthropist who would speak in public if his fees went to charity.

5. The world traveler who met with the Pope in Rome and was made an honorary Roman citizen.

Bill Savitt, 1958.
Bill Savitt in front of Savitt Jewelers, 35 Asylum Street, Hartford, 1986.

William Myron “Bill” Savitt was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, on March 9, 1901, to Harold and Hattie (Fein) Savitt. At an early age, Bill Savitt worked as a newspaper boy, a theater usher and a field hand on a tobacco farm. He quit school in the 10th grade to start working full-time. Although he never enrolled in higher education, he would receive an honorary doctorate from Springfield College in 1980. His first steady job was at a Springfield jewelry store as an errand boy and clerk. Savitt soon relocated to Hartford, Connecticut, in 1917 and established his own store in 1919 called Savitt Jewelers, at a tiny shop on Park Street.

Savitt Jewelers, 1923.
Bill Savitt, 1925.
Savitt grand opening advertisement, 1925.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1928.
Savitt Jewelers, 1928.
Bill Savitt presents watch to boxing champion Bat Battalino, 1929.

Bill Savitt worked twelve hour days and through his lunch to be available for customers. Two years later, Savitt moved to a larger store at 42 Asylum Street. In 1935, he moved Savitt Jewelers for the final time to 35 Asylum Street, where the store became the largest retail jewelry business in Connecticut. He transformed the business from a one-man operation into an enterprise employing 75 people, including 15 jewelers. He gained a long list of regular clients by publishing catchy slogans like “Savitt Jewelers, 35 Asylum Street, 35 seconds from Main Street” and “Peace of Mind Guaranteed.”

Bill Savitt, 1935.
Bill Savitt, 1935.
Savitt Jewelers advertisement, 1932.
Savitt Jewelers exterior, 1936.
Savitt Jewelers advertisement, 1941.
Savitt Jewelers advertisement, 1941.

Throughout his life, Bill Savitt was a devoted baseball fan, especially of Hartford-based teams but also of the Boston Red Sox. During the 1930’s and 1940’s Savitt sponsored and organized a baseball club known as the Savitt Gems. Amidst the Great Depression and World War II, thousands paid admission to witness the Gems oppose professional clubs, semi-pro teams, barnstorming outfits, local amateurs and famous stars of the national game. Thanks to Savitt, Hall of Fame legends played in Hartford during the Golden Age of Baseball. Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Jimmie Foxx, Satchel Paige and many others played at Hartford’s Bulkeley Stadium.

Bulkeley Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, 1936.
Ruth, Williams, Foxx and Paige each visited Hartford to play against the Savitt Gems.

Savitt’s team sustained his passion for baseball, promotion and philanthropy, all of which further popularized his jewelry business. However, Savitt’s primary motive for promoting the Gems was to benefit the Greater Hartford community. He led efforts to organize charity games for Camp Courant, the Red Cross, the United Service Organizations (USO) and many others. Savitt was often spotted in the sports section of the Hartford Courant or the Hartford Times newspapers gifting watches, medals and trophies to athletes and youngsters.

The Savitt Trophy, 1930.
Bill Savitt awards Camp Courant All-Stars, 1934.
Bill Savitt awards Camp Courant champions, 1935.

His support of Hartford sports was genuine, and it served as a clever marketing tactic for his thriving business. While running the jewelry store, Bill Savitt embarked on his lifelong baseball journey in the spring of 1929. Savitt decided to sponsor a team in the Hartford Twilight League (also known as the City Independent Twilight League). He rebranded Hartford’s Cardinal Athletic Club to the “Savitt’s Cardinals” who competed for the league title against top amateurs in the Greater Hartford area.

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1929

The team was made up of Hartford residents. GHTBL Hall of Fame inductees, Frank “Bat” Orefice, a catcher, and Ray Kelly, an outfielder, were members of Savitt’s first ball club. When the regular season ended in a tie for first place, a playoff game was played between Savitt’s Cardinals and Economy Grocers. On September 28, 1929, at Colt Park in Hartford, the Cardinals met the Grocers in the first championship game of Hartford Twilight League. Savitt’s team was shutout, 7 to 0 by the Grocers nine.

Frank “Bat” Orefice, Savitt’s Cardinals, 1929.
Ray Kelly, Savitt Gems, 1929.

Bill Savitt recommitted to the twilight loop in 1930. He created a new team called the Savitt Gems. The club starred a former pitcher for the Hartford Senators, Al Huband and a pair brothers from Hartford: George Dixon at third base and John Dixon at first base. The Gems wore white uniforms with navy piping and navy striped socks. They contended for a twilight championship against the Holy Name baseball club in a 3-game playoff series.

1930 Savitt Gems, Hartford Twilight League Champions

Leading the Holy Names were a pair of brothers; James Jigger Farrell at first base and Tommy Farrell in left field. At shortstop for the Names was a future professional, Bert Meisner, while local ace “Click“ McGrath, handled mound duties. On Tuesday, August 19, 1930, a crowd of more than 7,000 spectators gathered at Colt Park in Hartford. Nelson “Lefty” Buckland allowed just three hits, guiding the Savitt Gems to victory by a final score of 5 to 2. At an awards banquet later that year, Bill Savitt gifted each Gems player a gold watch and a lobster dinner.

James “Jigger” Farrell, Holy Name, 1930.
Nelson “Lefty” Buckland, Savitt Gems, 1930.

The Savitt Gems returned to the Hartford Twilight League for the 1931 season, continuing to dominate. Savitt recruited new pitchers: Walter Berg from the Springfield Ponies of the Eastern League, Art Boisseau of Dartmouth College, and Russ Fisher, an amateur hurler from Scotland, Connecticut. First baseman and player-manager, Tommy Sipples was the team’s best hitter. Savitt’s team won a second straight championship, beating Holy Name yet again in the final game. George Dixon recorded two runs, a stolen base and an RBI single for the Gems, winning by a final tally of 11 to 5.

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1931.

In the summer of 1932, Bill Savitt’s Gems were drawing large crowds to Colt Park. Meanwhile, the Hartford Senators of the Eastern League experienced a sharp decrease in attendance. Midway through the season, the entire Eastern League collapsed, “under the pressure of economic conditions” of the Great Depression. Hartford baseball fans were without a professional team to root for at Bulkeley Stadium. The baseball void would not last long.

Hartford Senators disband after winning the Eastern League pennant, Bulkeley Stadium, 1932.

Despite widespread economic strife, Savitt swooped in to cure Hartford of its baseball woes. He leased Bulkeley Stadium and put the Savitt Gems on display as an independent, semi-professional ballclub. With a stadium and a championship team, Savitt operated the Gems as the Hartford’s primary baseball franchise. More often than not, the Gems played games at home due to Bulkeley Stadium’s excellent playing surface and central location. Savitt frequently scheduled his team to play doubleheaders on Sunday afternoons.

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1932.
Bulkeley Stadium score card, 1932.
Savitt Gems vs. West Hartford, 1932.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1932.

Bill’s younger brother, Max Savitt, an attorney and later a Circuit Court judge also supported the Gems as a sponsor. The Savitt brothers signed several professional players, adding to a roster of Hartford Twilight League players. This semi-professional formula would captivate baseball audiences in Hartford for the next two decades. In addition to featuring his Gems at Bulkeley Stadium, Savitt used the ballpark to support civic life. He hosted numerous benefit games to fundraise for local causes.

1932 Savitt Gems, Hartford Twilight League champions at Bulkeley Stadium, Hartford. Bill Savitt (far left) and Max Savitt (far right).

For example, in the summer of 1932, the Savitt Gems faced off against a local pitching phenom Pete “Lefty” Naktenis. The Hartford Public High School hurler played for the Frederick Raff company team, a refrigerator retailer in Hartford. The Gems seized the game by a score of 4 to 2. Bill Savitt and Frederick Raff donated $5,979.99 in ticket sales to Camp Courant after the game. Later that summer, the Savitt Gems won their third straight and final Hartford Twilight League championship.

Pete “Lefty” Naktenis, 1932.
1932 Savitt Gems at Bulkeley Stadium
Harry Deegan, Savitt Gems, 1932.

After leasing Bulkeley Stadium, Bill Savitt attempted to recruit New York Yankees slugger, Lou Gehrig who had just swept the Chicago Cubs in the 1932 World Series. The “Iron Horse” was well-known in Hartford because Gehrig had made his professional debut at the age of 18 with the Hartford Senators in 1921. Gehrig returned to Columbia University the following year to play fullback for the football team. Then he signed with the Senators again in 1923, propelling them to an Eastern League pennant.

Lou Gehrig, First Baseman, Hartford Senators, 1924.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1932.

By the time Bill Savitt inquired about hiring Gehrig in 1932, he was a 3-time World Series champion and American League MVP. The price to land Gehrig for a single game appearance was $500 and half of the gate receipts. Savitt determined Gehrig’s price to be too steep and pleasantly declined via telegram. Savitt’s plan to lure Gehrig was covered in the Hartford Courant and baseball fans in Connecticut were disappointed in the outcome. However, as Savitt had proved in the past, he would not be discouraged by the occasional defeat.

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1932.
Lou Gehrig, First Baseman, New York Yankees, 1932

Savitt welcomed all sorts of baseball clubs to Bulkeley Stadium. The first independent club to take on the Gems was McKesson-Robbins of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Manufacturing company teams like the Meriden Insilcos were common foes. Other opponents included the Bridgeport Bears, New Haven Chevies and clubs from Branford, Norwich, Torrington, Waterbury and Windsor.

1933 Savitt Gems.

On October 2, 1932, the Gems met the New Britain Falcons at Bulkeley Stadium. Savitt signed Rabbit Maranville of the Boston Braves as a guest star to bat leadoff. Jigger Farrell played left field and hit second in the Gems lineup. Former Boston Braves outfielder, John “Bunny” Roser hit third and former New York Yankees catcher Hank Karlon batted clean-up. Tommy Sipples hit fifth and blasted a home run in the game. Eastern League shortstop, Don Curry batted sixth and compiled three hits on the day. Former Hartford Senators pitcher, Johnny Miller hurled an excellent game, allowing one run on five hits. With their best lineup yet, the Gems beat the Falcons by a score of 4 to 1.

Johnny Miller, Pitcher, Savitt Gems, 1932.
Rabbit Maranville, Second Baseman, Savitt Gems, 1932.
Don Curry, Shortstop, Savitt Gems, 1932.

In March of 1933, Bill and Max Savitt attempted to revive professional baseball in Hartford. They attended an Eastern League meeting to discuss plans with regional owners. Yet plans for an Eastern League broke down. The Savitt brothers leased Bulkeley Stadium for another season while the Hartford Senators remained out of contention.

Bill Savitt and Max Savitt (standing, center) at an Eastern League meeting in 1933.

Growing ever-busy with his many pursuits, Savitt delegated baseball operations by hiring a business manager named Walter Hapgood. As a former front office executive of the Boston Braves and President of the Montreal Royals, Hapgood was well-connected among professional teams and players. He was sometimes called the ”P.T. Barnum of Baseball.” Savitt and Hapgood ran the Gems like a professional club, while wooing Major League and traveling teams to Hartford.

Walter Hapgood, Business Manager, Savitt Gems, 1933.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1933.

The Savitt Gems of 1933 were coached by former Hartford Senators Manager, Bill Gleason. Big leaguers such as Bruce Caldwell, Pat Loftus, and RobertRed Munn joined as full-time players. Out-of-work Eastern Leaguers George Underhill, Cy Waterman, and Henry “Pop” LaFleur glowed for the Gems. They entertained large gatherings of fans at Bulkeley Stadium against teams like the Detroit Clowns, Pennsylvania Red Caps, House of David and the Georgia Chain Gang.

Bill Gleason, Second Baseman, Savitt Gems, 1933.
Moose Swaney, House of David, 1933.
Savitt Gems vs. Pennsylvania Red Caps, 1933.
Savitt Gems vs. House of David, 1933.
Bruce Caldwell, Outfielder, Savitt Gems, 1933.
Savitt Gems vs. Georgia Chain Gang, 1933.

Bill Savitt’s baseball club caused quite the stir when Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics visited Hartford. During harsh economic times, Savitt made a risky payment of a $500 to guarantee the game. On Thursday, June 15, 1933, the Athletics traveled to Hartford on a train that accidentally derailed. The A’s and their power-hitting first baseman, Jimmie Foxx safely arrived an hour late to the ballpark. Connie Mack took another train that was delayed in Philadelphia, and he ultimately was unable to make the trip.

Hartford Courant excerpt, May 25, 1933.

Ready or not, the A’s handled the Savitt Gems easily, winning by a score of 6 to 1. Gems batters were no match for the pitching of “Big Jim Peterson who earned a complete game win. Foxx, the Major League leader in home runs at the time, was held to a base hit. A few days later, Connie Mack telephoned Bill Savitt to thank him for hosting his Athletics, asking, “Is there anything I can do for you?” To which Savitt replied, “Just tell the other teams what kind of guy I am.” From that day forward, professional teams called on Savitt for exhibition games.

Jimmie Foxx, Philadelphia Athletics, 1933.

On August 2, 1933, Savitt and his Gems met the Boston Red Sox in another Bulkeley Stadium blockbuster. On a hot and humid day, the Gems sparkled brightly behind their newest big league signing, starting pitcher Bill Morrell. The Red Sox collected 8 hits and scored a lone earned run off of Morrell. With the Gems up 2 to 1 in the top of the seventh inning Red Sox pitcher, Dusty Cooke smashed a 2-run triple. The Savitt Gems lost a close one to the Red Sox by a final of 3 to 2.

Savitt Gems vs. Red Sox, 1933.
Bill Morrell, Pitcher, Savitt Gems, 1933.
Boston Red Sox vs. Savitt Gems, 1933.
Marty McManus, Player-Manager, Boston Red Sox, 1933.

On August 28, 1933, the Pittsburgh Pirates and their 59-year-old player-manager Honus Wagner came to Hartford. Wagner was accompanied by Hall of Famers, Pie Traynor, Freddie Lindstrom, Lloyd Waner and his brother, Paul Waner. Each of them collected a hit besides Wagner, who served as base coach until the top of the ninth inning. Wagner pinch hit and grounded out. The Gems featured Chicago White Sox outfielder, Bill Barrett as a guest star. Gems first basemen, Jigger Farrell had three hits while centerfielder, Jimmy Coyle had a pair of singles. The Pirates scratched the Gems 9-4 before more than 4,000 fans at Bulkeley Stadium.

Savitt Gems vs. Pittsburgh Pirates, 1933.
Honus Wagner, Manager, Pittsburgh Pirates, 1933.
Pat Loftus, Pitcher, Savitt Gems, 1933.

As Bill Savitt revolutionized Hartford sporting events, he also created a more inclusive baseball community. He quietly became a trailblazer of Baseball Integration more than a decade before Major League Baseball permitted people of color. Savitt was one of the first baseball owners in the nation to open the game to minority players. During a segregated time, the Savitt hosted all persons of color at Bulkeley Stadium. He signed black and latino pitchers as well as several baseball legends of color. As a progressive thinker and a humanitarian, Bill Savitt refused to discriminate based on race or skin color.

1935 New York Black Yankees.

Savitt organized integrated games between Negro League teams and his Gems on Hartford’s grandest stage. The Brooklyn Royal Giants, New York Cubans, New York Black Yankees, Boston Hoboes and the Schenectady Black Sox were billed as perennial foes of the Gems. Others included the Boston Royal Giants, Philadelphia Colored Giants, Newark Eagles and the Jersey City Colored Athletics faced the Gems throughout the 1930’s. There were also barnstorming outfits like the Hawaiian All-Stars led by player-manager, Bucky Lai as well as Mexico’s Carta Blanca baseball club, featuring pitching ace, Luis Longoria. Even a popular female player, Jackie Mitchell, was a guest of honor in the summer of 1933.

Philadelphia Colored Giants vs. Savitt Gems, 1933.
Jackie Mitchell, Pitcher, 1933.
Savitt Gems vs. Brooklyn Royal Giants, 1935.
Al Nalua, Pitcher, Hawaiian All-Stars, 1935.
Luis Longoria, Pitcher, Carta Blanca, 1937.

In August of that year, Savitt’s club did battle with Harjo’s Oklahoma Indians captained by Jim Thorpe, the world famous athlete and Olympic gold medalist. The Gems and Indians appeared in a controversial 5-game series, highlighted by Thorpe’s outrage over umpiring. In the bottom of the fourth inning of “Game 1,” Gems shortstop, Jackie Cronin hit a long fly ball to right field. Thorpe missed the catch while running across the foul line. The home plate umpire John “Boggy” Muldoon ruled the ball fair and Cronin had himself an RBI triple.

1933 Harjo’s Oklahoma Indians – Jim Thorpe (sitting, center).

Jim Thorpe defiantly disputed Muldoon’s judgement of the play. After a lengthy argument, Thorpe called his team off the field. The Hartford crowd began to grow restless, forcing Bill Savitt to dismiss the umpiring crew and overturned the call. Gems bench players served as replacement umpires. Savitt later made peace with the Hartford Umpires and they were hired back for the next four games against Thorpe’s club. The Gems won the series over Harjo’s Indians, who performed war dances and used racial stereotypes to attract paying crowds.

John “Boggy” Muldoon, Umpire, 1933.
Johnny Roser, First Baseman, Savitt Gems, 1933.
Jim Thorpe, Harjo’s Oklahoma Indians, 1933.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1933.

Bill Savitt bucked the trend of prejudice in baseball. He recruited a black Bulkeley High School graduate named Johnny ”Schoolboy” Taylor. The young ace pitcher appeared in an exhibition game against the Gems on September 24, 1933. It was then that Savitt first encountered Taylor’s speedy fastball and sharp curve. Batters scratched only 3 hits off Taylor, who had 9 strikeouts. However, he walked 8 and yielded a 3-0 loss to the Gems.

Savitt Gems vs. Mayflower Sales,1933.
Johnny Taylor, Pitcher, Savitt Gems, 1933.

Savitt would pursue Johnny Taylor, even though black athletes were barred from organized baseball. Taylor (often referred to as “Jackson” Taylor in the Hartford Courant) made his debut for the Gems against the New Britain Falcons at Bulkeley Stadium on October, 8, 1933. The 18 year old was marvelous but lost in a pitcher’s duel, 1-0. His next performance came on the last game of the season in another matchup against New Britain. Taylor was effectively wild. He struck out 17 and walked 10 in a complete game, 4-2 win for the Gems.

Savitt Gems vs. New Britain Falcons, 1933.
Johnny Taylor, Pitcher, New York Cubans, 1935.

In 1934, the Hartford Senators reclaimed their stake in Bulkeley Stadium and reassembled their minor league club in the short-lived Northeastern League. Bill Savitt’s team was out of contention until September. Jigger Farrell, the heart and soul of the team, was appointed player-manager. The “lanky speedball pitcher” Johnny Taylor signed with the Gems once again. In the season’s first game, Farrell, Taylor and the Gems conquered Hartford’s Catholic League All-Stars by a final of 4-3. Taylor not only tossed a complete game, but he also batted in the game-winning run.

Jigger Farrell appointed player-manager of the Savitt Gems, 1934.
Jigger Farrell, Player-Manager, Savitt Gems, 1936.

Johnny Taylor cemented his reputation as Bill Savitt’s ultimate ace-for-hire on October 10, 1934. At Bulkeley Stadium, Taylor threw a “no-hitter” against the Philadelphia Colored Giants. Then, Taylor signed with the Negro National League’s New York Cubans at the age of 19. Knowing that his homecoming would draw large crowds, Savitt hosted Taylor and the Cubans twice during the summer of 1935. Taylor whirled a shutout in the first game but lost the second match up to a strong Gems lineup.

Johnny Taylor, Pitcher, Savitt Gems, 1935.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1935.
Sam Hyman and Johnny Roser, Savitt Gems, 1935.

In the fall of 1935, Bill Savitt challenged the Philadelphia Athletics to a long-awaited rematch. He enlisted Bridgeport native and former Boston Red Sox pitcher, Johnny Micheals, to hurl against the Athletics. Michaels grabbed headlines for his unexpected complete game victory, three base hits and game-winning run. Jigger Farrell and Tommy Farrell also shined for the Gems, each collecting a pair of hits. While Connie Mack tended to a family engagement, Jimmie Foxx served as manager. “The Beast” was held hitless and made a rare pitching appearance to end the game. The Gems conquered the A’s (6-4), asserting themselves as one of the best semi-pro clubs in the nation.

Jimmie Foxx, First Baseman, Philadelphia Athletics, 1935.
John Michaels, Pitcher, Savitt Gems, 1935.
Walter Dunham, Catcher, Savitt Gems, 1935.
Jackie Cronin, Infielder, Savitt Gems, 1935.

Bill Savitt’s club fielded a multitude of professional caliber players in 1936. Every day names included a pair of brothers, George “Bushy” Kapura and Pete Kapura, minor league catcher, Wally Dunham and Hal Beagle, an outfielder from New Britain. Sam Hyman, Frank Coleman, and Jackie Kelly were among the Gems pitching staff. There were also amateurs donning Savitt’s uniform such as Hop Dandurand, a strong-armed shortstop, Johnny Campion, a right-handed slugger from Hartford and Audie Farrell, Jigger’s younger brother.

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1936.
Jake Banks, Catcher, Savitt Gems, 1936.
George “Bushy” Kapura, Savitt Gems, 1936.
George “Bushy” Kapura, Infielder, Savitt Gems, 1936.
Outfielders of the Savitt Gems, 1936.
Outfielders of the Savitt Gems, 1936.
Lefty LaFleur and Walter Berg, 1936.
Pitchers, Lefty LaFleur and Walter Berg, Savitt Gems, 1936.
Pete Kapura, Savitt Gems, 1936.
Pete Kapura, Infielder, Savitt Gems, 1936.
Jackie Kelly, Pitcher, Savitt Gems, 1936.
1936 Savitt Gems at Bulkeley Stadium.
1936 Savitt Gems at Bulkeley Stadium.

On Tuesday evening, July 28, 1936, the Savitt Gems played host to the St. Louis Cardinals at Bulkeley Stadium. About 6,300 excited fans attended the game. Nicknamed the Gashouse Gang, the Cardinals boasted some of the most colorful characters in baseball. Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick, Johnny Mize and a Hartford fan favorite, Leo Durocher, were among Savitt’s honored guests. The Cardinals were greeted by jubilant applause as they ran onto the field.

Dizzy Dean, Pitcher, St. Louis Cardinals, 1936.
St. Louis Cardinals stars visit Hartford to play the Savitt Gems, 1936.
Savitt Gems host St. Louis Cardinals, 1936.

Dizzy Dean was in attendance but didn’t play in the exhibition game against the Gems. Instead, he gave a speech near the Cardinals’ dugout after being presented with gold watch by Bill Savitt. “Diz” delighted fans with remarks in which he teased his teammates. In the game, Gems starting pitcher, Louis Kurhan gave up 5 runs on 8 hits in 4 innings of work. Pop LaFleur, Bushy Kapura and Hank Karlon each had 3 hits. As expected, the St. Louis Cardinals trounced the Savitt Gems by a score of 11-5.

Bill Savitt gives Dizzy Dean a watch, 1936.
Bill Savitt and players of the St. Louis Cardinals, 1936.
Infielders of the Savitt Gems, 1936.

That same year, Bill Savitt welcomed back Johnny Taylor of the New York Cubans along with their player-manager, Martín Dihigo. Taylor fanned 18 batters and shut out the Gems, 11-0. The next season, Taylor thrilled spectators when he switched sides and tossed a 22-strikeout, 20-inning performance for the Gems. He edged the Philadelphia Colored Giants, 6-5. 3,400 fans witnessed the game which lasted 4 hours and 15 minutes. Taylor went on to become an all-star in the Negro National League, Mexican League and Cuban League, yet he made time in the offseason to pitch for his friend, Bill Savitt.

Martin Dihigo, Player-Manager, New York Cubans, 1936.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1937.
1937 Savitt Gems.

In August of 1937, Savitt “staged a surprise party,” for Bob Feller and the Cleveland Indians at Bulkeley Stadium. Before the game, Savitt presented wristwatches to Feller and Indians manager, Steve O’Neill at home plate. Feller, a youthful 18-years-old did not pitch because the first game of the doubleheader was rained out. The teams waited out the rain and played the second game. Cleveland inched out the Savitt Gems by an outcome of 8-7. The Gems had their opportunities, but were overpowered by the bat of Julius “Moose” Solters who clouted to two home runs in the game.

Bob Feller, Pitcher, Cleveland Indians, 1937.
Hartford Courant, 1937.
Savitt presents gifts to Bob Feller & Steve O’Neil of the Cleveland Indians, 1937.
Savitt Gems vs. Cleveland Indians, 1937.
Hank Karlon, Catcher, Savitt Gems, 1937.
Johnny Campion, Infielder, Savitt Gems, 1937.

In 1938, Bill Savitt acquired a hometown hero named Pete “Lefty” Naktenis. He was a Hartford native, a Duke University graduate and a former member of Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics. Naktenis threw a complete game over the Philadelphia Colored Giants in his first Gems appearance. While property of the Cincinnati Reds in 1939, Naktenis tossed for the Gems and out-pitched Mickey Harris of the Scranton Red Sox.

Savitt Gems vs. Philadelphia Colored Giants, 1938.
Pete “Lefty” Naktenis, Savitt Gems, 1938
Pete Naktenis, Cincinnati Reds, 1939.
Reading Times, 1939.
New York Black Yankees vs. Savitt Gems, 1939.
Savitt Gems baseball uniform, 1940.

With sensational pitching from the likes of Pete Naktenis and Johnny Taylor, the Gems were beating professional-grade clubs on a regular basis. So in 1940, Bill Savitt organized a game between his Gems and the city’s professional squad, the Hartford Senators of the Eastern League. A 40-piece marching band and 4,000 spectators were on hand to see Jim Hickey pitch the Senators to a narrow 6-5 victory. However, Gems outfielder Jake Banks had three base knocks, Savitt’s club outhit the Senators and the exhibition game raised $2,000 for the Red Cross during the early stages of World War II.

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1940.
Bulkeley Stadium, Hartford, 1940.
Bill Savitt, King of Diamonds, 1940.
Jim Hickey, Hartford Senators, 1940

In the early 1940’s, Bill Savitt hired former Major League pitchers Edward “Big Ed” Walsh, Jack Salveson and Bob Brady to pitch in a Gems uniform. His everyday position players included Al Jarlett, Gus Gardella, Jimmy Francoline, Frank Messenger, Ed Kukulka, Stan Todd, Mickey Katkaveck and Joe David. Standout amateurs, most of whom were contributing to the war effort in nearby factories, were men like Ray Curry, Vic Pagani and Yosh Kinel. Bill Savitt more than a decade of experience at organizing grand baseball events, and yet the best moments were yet to come.

Savitt Gems outfielders – (L to R): John Dione, Ed Holly, Jake Banks and Ray Curry, 1940.
John “Bunny” Roser, Savitt Gems,1940.
Gus Gardella, Savitt Gems, 1940.
Ed Walsh, Savitt Gems, 1940.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1940.
1941 Savitt Gems at Dexter Park, Queens, New York.
Hartford Courant, 1941.
Savitt Gems vs. Detroit Clowns, 1941.
Hank Karlon, Savitt Gems, 1941.
Bob Brady and George Woodend, Savitt Gems, 1942.

Savitt landed one of the greatest hitters of all-time in 1942. A day after the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the final game of the Major League season, 23-year-old Ted Williams drove to Hartford. Savitt convinced Williams to play centerfield at Bulkeley Stadium against the New Britain Cremos. Meanwhile the Cremos featured battery mates of the Brooklyn Dodgers and 1941 World Series winners, Hugh Casey and Mickey Owen. Before the game, Williams wowed more than 2,500 fans during batting practice with his natural hitting ability.

Savitt Gems vs. New Britain Cremos, 1942.
When Savitt hosted Ted Williams, 1942.
Bill and Max Savitt welcome Ted Williams to Hartford, 1942.
Brooklyn stars face the Gems, 1942.

Two other big leaguers, Bob “Spike” Repass and Johnny Barrett also appeared for the Gems, but it was Ted Williams who won the night. In the seventh inning, “The Kid” cracked a game-winning home run beyond the centerfield wall and the Gems edged New Britain (2-1). Hartford-born ace, Monk Dubiel had kept the Cremos at bay for 5 scoreless innings. The following year, Dubiel signed with the New York Yankees, though like his predecessors, he often returned in the offseason to pitch for Bill Savitt and the Savitt Gems.

Bob “Spike” Repass, Infielder, Savitt Gems, 1942.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1943.
Hank Karlon, Catcher, Savitt Gems, 1942.
Joe Tripp, Shortstop, Savitt Gems, 1943.

On a late summer evening in 1943, Kansas City Monarchs star Leroy “Satchel” Paige collided with the Gems at Bulkeley Stadium. Paige showed off his burning fastball and jug-handle curve, but the Gems weren’t fooled. They raked 8 base hits off of Paige in the first 3 innings. One-time big leaguer, Bob Daughters appeared for the Gems, but went 0 for 5 at the plate. Andy Fisher and Ed Holly both knocked 3 base hits while Joe Tripp and Charley Holly collected a pair. Lou Ucich and George Woodend did the pitching for the Gems. Savitt’s game against Satchel Paige ended in a 7-7 tie due to “dimout regulations” during World War II.

Satchel Paige, Pitcher, Kansas City Monarchs, 1943.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1943.

A few days later, Savitt hosted a U.S. Coast Guard team called the Dolphins to take on his Gems. Coast Guard brought Norman “Babe” Young, a home run hitter from the New York Giants and Hank Majeski, an infielder of the Boston Braves. As for the Gems, standouts included third baseman John Piurek and outfielder John Augustine. Pitchers on both sides were ineffective during the doubleheader, allowing a total of 61 hits. The Dolphins won the first game by a score of 15-9. Bushy Kapura went deep for the Gems in game two, who won 12-11.

Babe Young, Outfielder, New York Giants, 1943.
Savitt Gems vs. U.S. Coast Guard, 1943.
Mickey Katkaveck, Catcher, Savitt Gems, 1944.

On September 7, 1945, Josh Gibson and Sammy Bankhead of the Homestead Grays challenged the Savitt Gems at Bulkeley Stadium. Gibson hit a lined single, scoring a run in the first inning. With a runner aboard in the 7th frame, Gibson poled a home run over the center field fence to the put the Grays up 8 to 0. Hank Karlon, Ray Curry, and Joe Tripp each had a multi-hit day for the Gems. However, Homestead Grays pitcher, Ernest Carter held the Gems scoreless for 7 straight innings. In the bottom of the eighth inning, a Gems rally would not be enough, as Josh Gibson and the Grays handled the Gems by a final score of 8-3.

Josh Gibson, Catcher, Homestead Grays, 1945.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1945.
Savitt Gems vs. Homestead Grays, 1945.

Later that month, on September 25, 1945, Monk Dubiel and the New York Yankees squared off against the Savitt Gems. The Gems hosted the Yankees at Muzzy Field in Bristol, Connecticut. The Yankees demonstrated their superior firepower before 3,000 spectators. Yankees right fielder, Arthur “Bud” Metheny led all batters with 2 home runs on the day. Dubiel posted a quality start, permitting only 3 earned runs. He and the Yankees pocketed a 9-4 win over the Gems.

Jigger Farrell, Savitt Gems, 1945.
Savitt Gems vs. New York Yankees, 1945.
Bud Metheny, New York Yankees, 1945.
Monk Dubiel, Savitt Gems, 1945.
New York Yankees vs. Savitt Gems, 1945.
New York Yankees vs. Savitt Gems, 1945.
New York Yankees vs. Savitt Gems, 1945.

On September 30, 1945, Bill Savitt welcomed the world’s most famous athlete to Hartford’s Bulkeley Stadium. George Herman “Babe” Ruth agreed to visit for a doubleheader benefit series between the Savitt Gems and the New Britain Codys. At 51 years of age, the famous “Great Bambino” put on a powerful home run hitting display in batting practice. Ruth wore a brand new Savitt Gems’ uniform with a red cap and red stockings. Babe Ruth coached first base for the Gems during the first two innings of the nightcap.

The Savitt Gems and Babe Ruth, 1945.

Then in third inning, he pinch-hit for Cliff Keeney. Ruth stepped in the batter’s box, swung and missed at the first pitch he saw. Then, he fouled a ball straight back for strike two. On the third pitch, Ruth tapped a come-backer to the pitcher and was forced out at first base. Babe Ruth’s cameo with the Gems About 2,500 paid admission to catch a glimpse of Ruth, who signed autographs and posed for photographs after the game. Babe Ruth’s visit to Hartford marked Ruth’s final at bat and appearance in a baseball game. Ruth passed away less than 3 years later on August 16, 1948. 

Bill Savitt and Babe Ruth, 1945.
James “Jigger” Farrell and Babe Ruth, 1945.
Babe Ruth at batting practice, 1945.
Ruth signing autographs at Bulkeley Stadium, Hartford, 1945.

In a post-WWII world, Bill Savitt more focused on new business ventures and community-minded endeavors. In 1946, Savitt Jewelers showcased the Jonker Diamond, one of the largest diamonds in the world. Bill Savitt became increasingly involved in radio that same year. He and his brother Max opened a radio station,WCCC Hartford, and promised civic enterprises every opportunity to publicize their activities. In 1949, “Old Blue Eyes” Frank Sinatra appeared on the radio with Bill Savitt at Hotel Bond in Hartford. Savitt continued to support Hartford’s local youth by contributing to organizations like Camp Courant and Times Farm.

Savitt Jewelers, Jonkers Diamond advertisement, 1945.
Bill Savitt donating to Camp Courant, 1949.
Bill Savitt gifts baseballs at Camp Courant, Hartford, 1949.
WCCC Hartford, Savitt with Sinatra, 1949.

The Savitt Gems eventually disbanded in at the end of their 1949 season. Bill Savitt continued to support baseball by donating to the Hartford Twilight League and Little League. Many of the men who played for the Gems became prominent businessmen throughout Greater Hartford; a tribute to the part baseball played in developing leadership skills. Savitt and his former Gems players became a family of sorts. He hosted reunions for members of the Gems and facilitated “Old-timers” games at Dillon Stadium in Hartford. Many of the Gems from a bygone era like Johnny Taylor and Pete Naktenis, as well as sportswriters, umpires and city officials attended the events.

Savitt Jewelers advertisement in the Hartford Courant, 1950.

For many years, Savitt threw an annual holiday party at Savitt Jewelers on Christmas Eve. Gems alumni and the beloved Jigger Farrell attended each year. As a tongue-in-cheek promotion, Savitt placed an advertisement in the Hartford Courant signaling the Gems intentions to sign Farrell to another year as manager. Even though the Gems were no longer a ballclub, Savitt kept the tradition going every year from 1950 until 1984. The last headline read, “Jigger Farrell Signs for the Umpteenth Time.” The beloved friend of Bill Savitt, Jigger Farrell, passed away on May 6, 1985. Savitt recalled his friend saying:

“You never met a greater guy in your life. He was a great athlete and a great Christian.”

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1950.
Bill Savitt accepts marketing award, 1951.

In 1952, Savitt became chairman of the Hartford Chapter of the Red Cross. His ideas for economic recovery after Connecticut’s 1955 flood disaster brought about change in Red Cross policy. Then Savitt was appointed Chairman of the Commerce Committee within University of Hartford Founders Fund. The funds eventually developed and erected buildings on the school’s Bloomfield Avenue campus. Hartford’s Nathan Hale Chapter and New Britain’s Elpis Chapter of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association chose Mr. Savitt as Hartford County’s Outstanding Citizen in 1960.

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1951.
Savitt supports the Red Cross, 1952.

As time passed, Bill Savitt would earn accolades from numerous nonprofit and civic organizations. He was praised by the Jewish War Veterans for exemplifying the unifying principles of American interfaith relationships and awarded the JWV Citizenship Award. The Greater Hartford Junior Chamber of Commerce named him for its “Outstanding Boss” honor, citing his progressive and humane employee relations. Savitt received a certificate from the Veterans of Foreign Wars for meritorious service to veterans both during World War II and helping returning veterans find their place in the community.

Bill Savitt, 1952.
Savitt’s honor Little League champions, 1953.
Savitt’s host Little League dinner, 1953.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1953.

Almost every year in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Savitt bought a block of concert tickets for students at the to the Connecticut Institute of the Blind, enabling students to hear the Hartford Symphony Orchestra at the Bushnell Memorial Auditorium. He sponsored thousands of young athletes and donated hundreds of trophies for organizations for athletic achievements in the Greater Hartford area. Savitt also funded local basketball, football, and bowling teams. In 1962, Savitt was awarded the 25-year Distinguished Service Medal by the Jonathan Lodge of Odd Fellows.

Savitt sponsors show for Camp Courant at the Bushnell, 1955.
Max Savitt, 1958.
(L to R): Johnny Taylor, Walter Elliot (Hartford Courant Sportswriter, and Pete Naktenis, 1958.
Bill Savitt, Savitt Jewelers, 1959.
Bill Savitt at Camp Courant, 1959.
Hartford Courant features Savitt, 1960.
Hartford Courant features Bill Savitt, 1960.
Bill Savitt and employees at Savitt Jewelers, 1960.
Hartford Courant features Savitt, 1960.
Hartford Courant features Bill Savitt and his cat Benrus, 1960.
Bill Savitt with employees, 1960.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1960.
The Savitt Jewelers showroom, 1960.
Savitt Jewelers advertisement, 1960.
Bill Savitt receives Jonathan Lodge of Odd Fellows Award, 1962.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1964.
Savitt Jewelers billboard on Asylum Street in Hartford, 1965.
Savitt Jewelers, 1965.
Bill Savitt, Savitt Jewelers, 1965.
GHTBL Old-Timers’ with Bill Savitt (second from right), Dillon Stadium, 1968.
Savitt Super Bowl advertisement, 1970.
Bill Savitt honored by Savings Bond Division of the U.S. Treasury, 1970.
Bill Savitt honored by Savings Bond Division of the U.S. Treasury, 1970.

During the latter half of his life, Bill Savitt collected various awards for his philanthropy and public service. In 1971, Bill Savitt was awarded by the United States Small Business Administration with the Connecticut Small Businessman of the Year Award. He also accepted honors from the Ted Williams Jimmy Fund, Hartford Public Schools, Times Farm, Camp Courant, Ned Coll’s Revitalization and the American Legion.

Savitt Jewelers also made trophies, 1970.
Savitt Jewelers, Hartford, 1971.
Connecticut Small Businessman of the Year Award, 1971.
Savitt honored by Masons, Hartford, 1973.
Savitt Gems Reunion, 1974.
Savitt Jewelers advertisement, 1974.
Savitt Jewelers advertisement, 1974.
Back of Savitt Jewelers, 1974.

Bill Savitt was honored by countless organizations including the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He was a member of Emanuel Synagogue of West Hartford, and served on the synagogue’s Board of Directors. In 1987, the City of Hartford bestowed a high honor upon Savitt by naming a street in Hartford after him, “Savitt Way”. The street was commemorated on April 30, 1987, and William A. O’Neill, 84th Governor of Connecticut, proclaimed the day as “Bill Savitt Day“. 

Bob Steele and Bill Savitt, 1976.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1979.
Savitt Jewelers advertisement, 1977.

Savitt gave hope and provided financial support to the people of Hartford during trying times. Because of his generosity, Savitt made many friends along the way. An anecdote involving Savitt and Ted Williams revealed their long-lasting friendship. Back in 1960, Savitt wasn’t pleased when Williams refused to tip his hat to Boston fans following his career-ending homer at Fenway Park. He later wrote to Williams:

“Be a gentleman. These are your customers. These are people who make you who you are. You need to tip your hat.”

At Fenway Park on Ted Williams Day in 1991, a 72-year-old Williams finally tipped his cap to a Fenway Park crowd and said:

“Today, I tip my hat to all the fans of New England. The greatest sports fans on earth.”

Savitt was gratified to watch these events play out on television.

Bill Savitt in the office at Savitt Jewelers, 1986.
Ted Williams tips his cap at Fenway Park, 1991.

Bill Savitt, who was said to have kept business and baseball alive in Hartford passed away on March 14, 1995. He left behind an immense legacy of charity and goodwill to all. When organized baseball went missing from the local scene, Savitt and his Gems swooped in to save the day. After 17 years as a semi-pro baseball club, the Gems became part of baseball lore by hosting the biggest stars the game has ever known. In Connecticut’s history, few men made a bigger impact as a baseball promoter than Bill Savitt, the King of Diamonds.

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1995.
A commemorative Savitt coin, 2018.
A Savitt Jewelers 10% off discount coin, 2019.
Bill Savitt sponsor of the Hartford Twilight League.
1930 Savitt Gems Hartford Champions ring (photo taken in 2019).

Sources:

1. Hartford Courant database accessed via www.Newspapers.com.

2. Reading Times accessed via www.Newspapers.com.