Tag: semi-pro

Bill Savitt, King of Diamonds and the Gems

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 Guarantee” 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’s 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 1930s and 1940s, Savitt would use each of his promotional talents to assemble baseball teams and host headliner games at Hartford’s Bulkeley Stadium. Amidst the Great Depression and World War II, Savitt sponsored and organized a baseball club known as the Savitt Gems.

Bulkeley Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, 1936.

For baseball fans in Connecticut, the Savitt Gems were a main attraction. 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 in benefit games for and against the Gems.

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. Savitt Jewelers never ceased to function and he made sure that baseball was a continuing source of entertainment in Hartford. In large part, Savitt’s motive for promoting the Gems was to benefit the Greater Hartford community. He often led efforts to organize benefit games at Bulkeley Stadium and donated the proceeds to charitable causes.

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

Camp Courant, the Red Cross and the United Service Organizations (USO) were among the many entities a who benefitted from Savitt and his Gems. He was often spotted in the sports section of the Hartford Courant or the Hartford Times newspapers giving back to the city. Savitt Jewelers often gifted the city’s athletic champions with watches, medals and trophies. His support of Hartford sports was a genuine display of care for his community, as well as a clever marketing tactic to promote his thriving jewelry business.

Bill Savitt awards Camp Courant champions, 1935.

While running his 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 the city’s Cardinal Athletic Club baseball team to the Savitt’s Cardinals. The squad competed for the league title against some of the best local amateurs in the Greater Hartford area.

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1929

GHTBL Hall of Fame inductees, Frank “Bat” Orefice (catcher and Ray Kelly, an outfielder and were members of Savitt’s first ballclub. The regular season ended in a tie for first place in the standings, necessitating a playoff game 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.

Savitt recommitted to the Hartford Twilight League in 1930 and created a new team called the Savitt Gems. The club was comprised of players like the former pitcher for the Hartford Senators, Albert “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 the league championship against the Holy Name baseball club in a 3-game playoff series.

1930 Savitt Gems, Hartford Twilight League Champions

Leading the Holy Name club were a pair of brothers; James Jigger Farrell at first base and Tommy Farrell in left field. Future professional, Bert Meisner played shortstop, while “Click“ McGrath handled mound duties for Holy Name. On Tuesday, August 19, 1930, a crowd of more than 7,000 spectators gathered at Colt Park in Hartford. Nelson “Lefty” Buckland allowed three hits and guided the Savitt Gems to victory by a final score of 5 to 2. At an awards banquet later that year, Bill Savitt rewarded each Gems player with 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 and continued to dominate the competition. Savitt recruited new pitchers such as 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 Sippleswas team’s leading hitting. Amateur players like Arthur “Lefty” St. John and Tommy Shortell were reliable regulars for the Gems. 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 1932, the Savitt Gems drew large crowds at Colt Park, whereas the city’s minor league club, the Hartford Senators of the Eastern Leauge experienced a sharp decrease in attendance. Midway through the season, the entire Eastern League collapsed, “under the pressure of economic conditions.” Baseball fans were without a professional team to root for at Bulkeley Stadium.

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

The baseball void wouldn’t last long. Despite widespread economic strife of the Great Depression, Bill 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.

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

More often than not, the Gems played games at home due to Bulkeley Stadium’s supreme playing surface and central location. Savitt frequently scheduled his team to play doubleheaders on Sunday afternoons. His 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; a winning formula that would captivate baseball audiences in Hartford for the next two decades.

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

In addition to featuring his Gems at Bulkeley Stadium, Savitt used the ballpark to support civic life in Hartford. He hosted numerous benefit games to fundraise for local causes. For example, in the summer of 1932, the Savitt Gems faced off against a local pitching phenom Pete “Lefty” Naktenis who drew large crowds. 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. Raff and Savitt donated $5,979.99 in ticket sales to Camp Courant after the game. Later that summer, the Savitt Gems won their third consecutive Hartford Twilight League championship in the last game that the Gems would compete as an amateur club.

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

Within weeks of 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. The next year, Gehrig returned to Columbia University to play football as the team’s fullback. Then he signed with the Senators again in 1923 and helped propel them to an Eastern League pennant. Gehrig played his final season with the Senators in 1924.

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 an American League MVP. The price to land Gehrig for a single game 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

After leasing Bulkeley Stadium, Bill Savitt was flooded with a bevy of challengers who wanted to beat the Gems. Independent clubs, teams sponsored by local manufacturing companies and public service organizations throughout Connecticut were guests of the Savitt Gems. McKesson-Robbins a manufacturer out of Bridgeport, Connecticut, was the first team to face the Gems as a semi-professional club. Other teams who challenged the Gems at Bulkeley Stadium included the New Britain Falcons, Meriden Insilcos, Bridgeport Bears, New Haven Campagnias, New Haven Chevies, New Haven Police as well as semi-pro clubs from Branford, Norwich, Torrington, Waterbury and Windsor.

1933 Savitt Gems.

On October 2, 1932, the Savitt Gems met the New Britain Falcons at Bulkeley Stadium. Savitt signed veteran Boston Braves second baseman, Rabbit Maranville as a guest star, who batted leadoff for the Gems. Jigger Farrell, a lanky Hartford Twilight League mainstay, played left field and hit second in the lineup. Former Boston Braves outfielder, John “Bunny” Roser hit third and former New York Yankees catcher Hank Karlon batted clean-up for the Gems. 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, while Bert Meisner manned third base and batted eighth. 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 1933, Bill Savitt and Max Savitt attempted to resurrect professional baseball at in Hartford. They attended an Eastern League meeting in March of 1933. However, plans for the Eastern League fell through due to economic pressures of the Great Depression. Instead, the semi-professional Savitt Gems would fill the vacant gap left by the Eastern League. Bill Savitt again leased the stadium grounds for the season while the Hartford Senators remained out of contention.

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

Savitt then decided to get some help with his independent team. He hired the Gems a business manager named Walter Hapgood. As former Boston Braves business manager 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.” Hapgood used his influence to help the Gems host Major League clubs and nationally known semi-professional teams at Bulkeley Stadium.

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

The Gems of 1933 began to take shape when Hapgood signed former Hartford Senators Manager, Bill Gleason as player-manager. He then recruited big leaguers such as Bruce Caldwell, Pat Loftus, and RobertRed Munn who joined the Gems as full-time players. Former Eastern League players signed with the Gems including George Underhill at second base, Cy Waterman on the mound, and Henry “Pop” LaFleur, a skilled hitter and relief pitcher. Nationally recognized barnstorming clubs came to Hartford in droves. Teams like the New England Clowns, Pennsylvania Red Caps, House of David, Detroit Clowns and Georgia Chain Gang entertained large crowds at Bulkeley Stadium.

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.

Savitt’s hiring of Hapgood especially paid off when he persuaded the Philadelphia Athletics to visit Hartford on a day off. During harsh economic times, Savitt had the cash to spend, and his payment of a $500 to Philadelphia Athletics owner-manager Connie Mack, guaranteed their game. On Thursday, June 15, 1933, the Philadelphia Athletics traveled to Hartford on a train that accidentally derailed. The A’s and their power-hitting first baseman, Jimmie Foxx arrived at the ballpark an hour late. Connie Mack took a separate train that was delayed in Philadelphia, and he ultimately was unable to make the trip.

Jimmie Foxx, Philadelphia Athletics, 1933.
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. The Gems batting order was no match for the pitching of “Big Jim Peterson who earned a complete game win. Foxx, the Major League home run leader at the time, was held to a base hit. Days later, Connie Mack telephoned Bill Savitt to thank him for hosting his Athletics and asked:

“Is there anything I can do for you?”

To which Savitt replied:

“Just tell the other teams what kind of guy I am.”

From then on, professional teams called upon Savitt for exhibition games in Hartford. 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 but scored a lone earned run off of Morrell. With the Gems up 2 to 1 in the top of the seventh inning, Jackie Cronin committed a throwing error allowing a runner to reach base. The next batter walked and Red Sox pitcher, Dusty Cooke smashed a 2-run triple. The Savitt Gems lost to the Red Sox by a final score 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 28th, the 1933 Pittsburgh Pirates and a 59-year-old player-manager Honus Wagner were the next big league team to face the Gems. Wagner was accompanied by Hall of Fame players Pie Traynor, Freddie Lindstrom, Lloyd Waner and his brother, Paul Waner. All of them collected a hit on the day besides Wagner, who served as base coach until the top of the ninth inning. Wagner pinch hit and grounded out to Gems second basemen, Bill Gleason. The Gems featured Bill Morrell and Chicago White Sox outfielder, Bill Barrett as guest stars. Gems first basemen, Jigger Farrell had three hits on the day while centerfielder and future professional, Jimmy Coyle had a pair of singles. By the end of the game, the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Savitt Gems, 9 to 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 sporting events in Hartford, he also created a more inclusive community around baseball. Savitt quietly became a trailblazer of Baseball Integration more than a decade before Major League Baseball began to permit people of color. Savitt was one of the first baseball owners in the nation to open the game to minority players. During a highly segregated time, the Savitt Gems 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 ballgames between Negro League teams and his Gems on Hartford’s grandest stage. The Brooklyn Royal Giants, New York Black Giants, New York Cubans, New York Black Yankees, Boston Hoboes and the Schenectady Black Sox were billed as perennial contenders of the Gems. Other teams like the Boston Royal Giants, Philadelphia Colored Giants, Newark Eagles and the Jersey City Colored Athletics also came to play against the Gems at Bulkeley Stadium throughout the 1930’s.Barnstorming teams opposed the Gems during their tour of America such as the Hawaiian All-Stars led by player-manager, Buck Lai and the Carta Blanca baseball club from Mexico featuring their pitching ace, Luis Longoria. A woman ballplayer named Jackie Mitchell was a guest of the Savitt’s in the summer of 1933 and her Boston-based team lost to the Gems, 7 to 4.

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.

Another traveling club came to Hartford named Harjo’s Oklahoma Indians, featuring Jim Thorpe, a world famous athlete and Olympic gold medalist. The Gems met Thorpe and the Indians in August of 1933 for a controversial 5-game series. The games were highlighted by Thorpe’s disagreements with the umpiring crew. In the bottom of the fourth inning of “Game 1,” Gems shortstop, Jackie Cronin hit a long fly ball to right field. Thorpe, who was in right field, missed the catch while running across the foul line. The home plate umpire John “Boggy” Muldoon ruled the ball fair and Cronin ended up with 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 of the field. The crowd began to grow restless, forcing Savitt to dismiss the umpiring crew and overturn the ruling. Gems bench players served as replacement umpires. Savitt later made peace with the Board of Approved Hartford Baseball Umpires and they were hired back for the next four games against Thorpe’s squad. The Gems prevailed in 3 out of 5 games over the Oklahoma Indians in a closely fought series.

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

Perhaps the best pitcher of all the Gems was Johnny ”Schoolboy” Taylor, a Bulkeley High School graduate. Bill Savitt would first encounter Taylor’s speedy fastball and sharp curve on September 24, 1933. In a game against the Mayflower Sales, champions of the Hartford Twilight League, Taylor guest starred as their man on the mound. Gems batters scratched only 3 hits off of Taylor who struck out 9 batters. However, he walked 8 batters and yielded a 3 to 0 loss to the Gems. Savitt would pursue Johnny Taylor for his Gems, even though black athletes were barred from organized baseball.

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

Bill Savitt bucked the trend of prejudice in baseball and signed Johnny Taylor to play for the Gems on multiple occasions. 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 Taylor was marvelousb lost the a pitching duo, 1 to 0. His next Gems performance came on the last game of the season in another matchup against the Falcons. Taylor was effectively wild. He walked 10 batters while striking out 17. Taylor pitched the entire game for the Gems who won by a final score of 4 to 2.

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

In 1934, the Hartford Senators reassembled their minor league club as part of the short-lived Northeastern League and reclaimed their stake in Bulkeley Stadium. As a result, the Gems didn’t get their season underway until Sunday, September 9, 1934. For their first game of the year, the Gems faced Hartford’s Catholic League All-Stars. 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 and netted a 4 to 3 conquest over the All-Stars. Taylor not only tossed a complete game, 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. Taylor achieved baseball excellence with the Gems. At Bulkeley Stadium, he threw a spectacular no-hit game against the Philadelphia Colored Giants. Months later, Taylor signed with the Negro National League’s New York Cubansat the age of 19. Knowing that his homecoming would draw large crowds, the Savitt and his Gems hosted Taylor and the Cubans twice during the summer of 1935. Taylor whirled a 7 to 0 shutout in the first game but was later defeated 6 to 2 by a similar Gems lineup in their second matchup.

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

In the fall of 1935, Savitt and his Gems challenged Jimmie Foxx and the Philadelphia Athletics to a long-awaited rematch. Bill Savitt managed to sign Johnny Micheals, a former Boston Red Sox pitcher to hurl against the A’s. Michaels grabbed headlines, allowing a serviceable 10 hits and 4 runs over 9 innings, batting for 3 base hits, and scoring the game-winning run. The Gems brotherly duo of Jigger Farrell and Tommy Farrell also shined against the Athletics, each collecting a pair of hits. While Connie Mack tended to a family engagement, Jimmie Foxx served as manager, played first base and was held hitless on the day. Foxx made a rare pitching appearance in the last 2 innings and struck out 3 Gems batters. The Gems conquered the Major League club by a final score of 6 to 4 and asserted 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.

At this time, the Gems fielded a multitude of professional caliber players. Minor league catcher, Wally Dunham, a pair of brothers, George “Bushy” Kapura and Pete Kapura, and Hal Beagle, an outfielder from New Britain were everyday players. Sam Hyman, Frank Coleman, and Jackie Kelly were among the Gems pitchers who took to the mound. Amateur position players who donned Gems uniforms included Hop Dandurand, a strong-armed shortstop, Johnny Campion, a right-handed hitting slugger from Hartford as well as 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. Approximately 6,300 fans attended the anticipated matchup. 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 did not play in the exhibition game against the Gems but instead, he furnished a speech to the crowd over a microphone near the Cardinals’ dugout. “Diz” delighted fans with his remarks in which he candidly teased his teammates. On the field, Gems starting pitcher, Louis Kurhan gave up 5 runs on 8 hits in 4 innings of work. At the plate, “PopLaFleur, Bushy Kapura and Hank Karlon each compiled 3 hits in 5 at bats. As expected, the game wasn’t much of a contest and St. Louis Cardinals trounced the Savitt Gems, 11 to 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 scheduled a rematch against Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor, the New York Cubans and their talented player-manager, Martín Dihigo. Taylor was on top of his game, striking out 18 batters and shutting out the Gems, 11 to 0. The next season, on May 9, 1937, Taylor thrilled Hartford fans when he switched sides and tossed a 22-strikeout, 20-inning performance on the mound for the Gems. Taylor defeated the Philadelphia Colored Giants by a score of 6 to 5. 3,400 fans witnessed the game with a duration of 4 hours and 15 minutes. Taylor would go on to become an all-star in the Negro League, Mexican League and the Cuban League but found time in the off-season to pitch for the Gems.

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

On Sunday, August 2, 1937, Bill Savitt was reported to have “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 to 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, Hartford native and former member of Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, Pete Naktenis signed with the Savitt Gems. Savitt tired to recruit the highly coveted southpaw in the previous five years. Savitt’s wait was over and Naktenis made his first appearance for the Savitt Gems on September 25, 1938. He turned in a complete game performance versus the Philadelphia Colored Giants. Naktenis allowed 3 hits and 1 unearned run over 9 innings and the Gems won by a tally of 9 to 1.

Savitt Gems vs. Philadelphia Colored Giants, 1938.
Pete “Lefty” Naktenis, Savitt Gems, 1938

Then, on September 24, 1939, while property of the Cincinnati Reds, Naktenis took the mound at Bulkeley Stadium for the Gems against the Scranton Red Sox (previously known as the Scranton Miners) of the Eastern League. He out-pitched Mickey Harris as the Gems trounced the Scranton team 11 to 3. The Gems did even worse damage in the second leg of the “double drubbing” by winning 17 to 1 over Scranton. Bill Savitt’s baseball club would not have garnered the prestigious reputation that it did, were it not for the pitching prowess of players like Pete Naktenis and Johnny Taylor, who pitched on and off for the Gems throughout their careers.

Pete Naktenis, Cincinnati Reds, 1939.
Reading Times, 1939.
New York Black Yankees vs. Savitt Gems, 1939.
Savitt Gems baseball uniform, 1940.

The following year, Bill Savitt led a committee to host a game benefitting the Red Cross between his Gems and the Hartford Senators. On July 1, 1920, a 40-piece marching band and a crowd of more than 4,000 spectators were in attendance to see the Gems take on the city’s professional squad. Jim Hickey pitched for the Senators who narrowly defeated the Gems by a score of 6 to 5. Gems outfielder, Jake Banks had 3 hits on the day.Even though the Gems outhit the Senators, it was the minor league team who prevailed. When all was said and done the fans saw a good game and more than $2,000 was raised and donated to the Red Cross.

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

The Gems roster of the early 1940’s featured former Major League pitchers such as Edward “Big Ed” Walsh, Jack Salveson and Bob Brady on occasion. Other everyday position players with the Savitt Gems during this period 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. By the end of the 1941 season, Bill Savitt and the Gems had 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.

On September 29, 1942, only a day after the Boston Red Sox beat the Yankees in the final game of the Major League season, Ted Williams drove to Hartford, Connecticut. Bill Savitt coaxed a 23-year-old Williams to guest star for the Savitt Gems. Williams put on a hitting display during batting practice for a crowd of about 2,500 fans under the lights at Bulkeley Stadium. On a cool fall night, the Gems placed Williams in were matched up against a formidable opponent in the New Britain Cremos. The Cremos were able to sign the battery of the Brooklyn Dodgers who won the 1941 World Series; pitcher, Hugh Casey and catcher, Mickey Owen.

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.

Savitt’s newest pitching signee and Hartford’s own native son, Monk Dubiel kept the Cremos bats at bay for 5 scoreless innings.  Two big leaguers, Bob “Spike” Repass and Johnny Barrett also made appearances for the Gems. In the seventh inning, Ted Williams cracked a home run off of Casey far beyond the centerfield wall. The Gems edged the Cremos by a final score of 2 to 1, much to the delight of Hartford fans. Dubiel, a Hartford Public High School graduate, was becoming one of the city’s top pitchers. In 1943, Dubiel signed with the New York Yankees at 23 years old. Like his predecessors, Dubiel often returned home during the off-season and made cameos with 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 Friday night, June 25, 1943, Leroy “Satchel” Paige threw against the Gems for the Kansas City Monarchs at Bulkeley Stadium in Hartford. Paige showed off his burning fastball and jug-handle curveball, but the Gems were not fooled for long. The Gems raked 8 base hits off of Paige in only 3 innings of work. One-time big leaguer, Bob Daughters appeared for the Gems, but went 0 for 5 at the plate. Andy Fisher and Ed Holly knocked around 3 base hits each while Joe Tripp and Charley Holly collected a pair against the Monarchs. Lou Ucich and George Woodend did the pitching for the Gems. Savitt’s matchup with Satchel Paige ended in a 7 to 7 tie due to Hartford’s, “dimout regulations.”

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

Two days later, a U.S. Coast Guard ballclub nicknamed the Dolphins came to oppose the Savitt Gems in a double-header at Bulkeley Stadium. Among the Coast Guard team was Norman “Babe” Young, a home run hitter for the New York Giants and Hank Majeski, an infielder for the Boston Braves. Standout players for the Gems included third baseman John Piurek, outfielder John Augustine. Pitchers on both sides were largely ineffective as a total of 61 hits were conceded on the day. The Dolphins won the first game by a score of 15 to 9. Bushy Kapura went deep for the Gems who won the second game of the double bill, 12 to 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 to 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. Witnessed by more than 3,000 fans, the Yankees demonstrated their superior offensive firepower. 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 to 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 named 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.

In 1971, Bill Savitt was awarded a prestigious national award, the Connecticut Small Businessman of the Year Award by the Small Business Administration. During his later years, He accepted awards from the Ted Williams Jimmy Fund, Hartford Public Schools, Times Farm, Camp Courant, Ned Coll’s Revitalization and the American Legion. Savitt was honored by countless organizations including the National Conference of Christians and Jews. He was a member of the Emanuel Synagogue of West Hartford, and a former member of the synagogue’s Board of Directors. In 1987, the City of Hartford bestowed a high honor upon Bill 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“. 

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.
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.
Back of Savitt Jewelers, 1974.
Savitt Jewelers advertisement, 1974.
Savitt Jewelers advertisement, 1974.
Bob Steele and Bill Savitt, 1976.
Hartford Courant excerpt, 1979.
Savitt Jewelers advertisement, 1977.

Savitt gave hope to Hartford during trying times and provided financial support to the local community. Because of his generosity, Savitt made many friends along the way. An anecdote involving Savitt and Ted Williams revealed their long-lasting friendship and Savitt’s honorable persona. 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. Savitt 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 tipped his cap to the Fenway Park fans and said:

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

Savitt was pleased 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, a man who was once said to have kept business and baseball alive in Hartford during the Great Depression, passed away on March 14, 1995. He left behind an immense philanthropic legacy and a message of charity and goodwill to all. In Connecticut’s history, perhaps no one has made more of an impact on the game of baseball than Bill Savitt, the King of Diamonds. When organized baseball was missing from the local scene, Savitt’s Gems rescued the game. During their 17-year reign as a semi-pro baseball club, the Gems became part of baseball lore by the biggest stars the game has ever known.

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 accessed on www.Newspapers.com.

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