The Hartford Poli’s were a semi-professional baseball club formed in 1905 by management and employees of Poli’s Theatre. The vaudeville venue sponsored the team for men between the ages of 18 and 30. Said to be Hartford’s “fastest” club, the Poli’s welcomed major league legends and challengers across New England including their rival, Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company. The owner of Poli’s was Sylvester Z. Poli who operated theaters in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury and other cities throughout the Northeast.
In their early years, the Harford Poli’s played in an intercompany loop, the Poli Baseball League. Hartford’s theater team was first headed by Manager R.J. Kelly and their captain first baseman Fred Jendron. In 1908, the Hartford Poli’s won the league over the New Haven Poli’s in a title game by a score of 18 to 6. The club was presented a championship cup by owner Sylvester Poli himself. Eventually, the Hartford Poli’s would graduate from the Poli Baseball League to become of Connecticut’s top independent teams.
Poli’s utility infielder, Curtis Gillette was superintendent at the Poli Theatre of Hartford. Gillette was raised in New Haven but came to Hartford in 1911 to pursue career opportunities. By 1913, Gillette was appointed manager of the Poli’s and he named first baseman Ed DeVanney team captain. That year, the Poli’s won 26 of their 31 games against teams like the Royals and the Olympias of Hartford and the Pastimes of East Hartford. Gillette led the club to unprecedented success against local opponents and captured multiple amateur state titles.
As baseball’s popularity skyrocketed in Hartford, the Poli ballclub became a more serious operation. The club served up effective publicity for Poli Theatre on Main Street. The company scouted the best players in the city. Pitchers Ed “Smiler” Oppelt and Jack Vannie as well as shortstop Joe Griffin ushered the Poil’s to dozens of lopsided victories throughout Connecticut. Poli home games were held at Colt Park as well as Wethersfield Avenue Grounds in Hartford.
In 1915, the Poli Theatre Company constructed a new ballpark in East Hartford named Poli Field. The grounds covered 10 acres and boasted a grandstand stretching from first base to third base. Wire netting behind home plate prevented foul balls from reaching the stands. With a brand new facility and a talented team, the Poli’s were a local attraction. Large crowds, tough opponents and baseball’s biggest stars became guests of the Poli’s.
On Tuesday, October 24, 1916, Detroit Tigers Most Valuable Player, Ty Cobb came to Hartford to face the Poli’s. As a guest star for the New Haven Colonials, Cobb played center field, first base and served as relief pitcher. Cobb had two hits, showed off his speed in a run-down and pitched 3 innings of one-hit ball. He gave up a double to Poli’s catcher, John Muldoon, a future professional who had three hits on the day. Cobb and Colonials shut out the Hartford Poli’s and their guest star, Benny Kauff by a score of 7 to 0. The exhibition delighted a small crowd of 800 fans at Wethersfield Avenue Grounds.
In mid-September of 1918, the Poli’s welcomed a recent World Series champion to Hartford. The one and only, George Herman “Babe” Ruth of the Boston Red Sox guest starred for the Poli’s in a benefit game. The event raised funds for American troops from Hartford who were fighting overseas in World War I. Ruth arrived to the city amidst cheering fans in the streets. Manager Curtis Gillette of the Poli’s drove the Babe to Hotel Bond on Asylum Street where he was swarmed by reporters. The next day, Ruth joined the Poli’s at Wethersfield Avenue.
Then Ruth and the Poli’s opposed the Fisk Red Tops of Chicopee, Massachusetts. On Sunday, September 15, 1918, while Ruth pitched and battied third in Hartford. He recorded two hits, including a double off of the “Bull Durham” tobacco sign on the center field wall. Ruth threw a complete game shutout, allowed four hits and led the Poli’s to victory. Another Red Sox teammate, Sam Agnew played catcher for the Poli’s and drove in the game’s only run, beating another Red Sox counterpart, Dutch Leonard, who guest starred on the mound for the Red Tops. Ruth entertained a Hartford crowd of more than 5,000, and earned $350 for his appearance.
A week later, Ruth played for the Poli’s in a doubleheader. It was a Sunday at the Hartford Grounds (also known as Wethersfield Avenue Grounds and Hartford Baseball Park). They went head-to-head with Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. Five Major Leaguers including Ruth appeared that day. Ruth pitched had a quality start but was outdueled by Pratt & Whitney and his Red Sox teammate, “Bullet” Joe Bush by a score of 1 to 0.
In the second game of the day, Ruth and the Poli’s faced a former Hartford Senators pitcher turned New York Yankee, Ray Fisher. Fisher was the headliner for a Fort Slocum team who ended up defeating the Poli’s. Ruth played first base, had a base hit and scored the Poli’s lone run. A crowd of more than 3,000 were in attendance for the occasion; a doubleheader featuring Babe Ruth in Hartford.
The following year, Ruth played first base in a reprisal with the Hartford Poli’s. On September 28, 1919 at Poli Field in East Hartford they opposed the New Britain Pioneers. Mayor of Hartford, Richard J. Kinsella threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch and posed for a photograph with Ruth. The Babe hit two balls over the right field fence but was only allowed one base for each long ball due to a “short porch” ground rule. Earlier that day he had hit a batting practice homer said to be struck over 500 feet. The Poli’s shutout the Pioneers before a crowd of more than 6,000 fans.
The Hartford Poli’s persuaded Babe Ruth to make an encore appearance in 1920. After his first season with the New York Yankees, Ruth starred for the Poli’s against New Departure at Muzzy Field in Bristol, Connecticut. On October 2, 1920, he hit clean-up, played nearly every position and went 4 for 4 with three singles and a double. However, New Departure shutout the Poli’s thanks to crafty pitching from Gus Helfrich, a minor league spitballer from the New York State League. Extra trains and trolleys were scheduled to Bristol that Saturday afternoon, allowing 10,000 fans to see Ruth’s final game with the Hartford Poli’s.
For more than 15 years, the Hartford Poli’s were a top tier amateur club. By 1920, the club had developed some of the best players in Hartford. They included Rex Islieb, a standout third baseman, Bill Pike, a left-handed ace and Jim O’Leary, a hard-throwing pitcher. The Poli squad eventually disbanded and evolved into another team called the All-Hartfords in 1921 with a similar roster from previous years. Though a century has passed since the Poli’s won local prestige, their contributions culturally significant and a source of entertainment and civic pride.
The Man Behind the Poli’s
The Hartford Poli’s baseball club was sponsored by Sylvester Zefferino Poli, a theater mogul, vaudeville pioneer and entertainment proprietor. In 1881, Poli was an expert wax sculptor and a first generation Italian immigrant living New York City. His wax figurine business attained massive success which led him to become a major pioneer of vaudeville theaters in the northeastern United States. Poli’s Theatre on Main Street Hartford first opened in 1903. By 1916, he was heralded as the largest individual theater owner in the world. When Poli retired at the age of 70, he had amassed 28 theaters, 3 hotels (including the Savoy in Miami), 500 offices and two building sites.
In July of 1928, Poli merged his company with Fox New England Theaters. He still retained majority interest when Fox-Poli’s was created. However in May of 1934, Loew’s Theatres purchased Poli’s remaining theaters, which became known as Loew’s-Poli Theaters. Sylvester Poli spent his final years at his summer home, Villa Rosa in the Woodmont section of Milford, Connecticut. The palatial estate was named after his wife Rosa Leverone. Sylvester Z. Poli died on May 31, 1937 at the age of 79 due to pneumonia. Loew’s-Poli Theatre stayed open in Hartford until 1957.