Tag: yankees

Johnny Taylor: Hartford’s First Professional Black Athlete

John “Johnny” “Jackson” “Schoolboy” Arthur Taylor

Born: 2/4/1916 – Hartford, Connecticut
Died: 6/15/1987 – Hartford, Connecticut

Johnny “Schoolboy” Taylor was a pitching phenom from Hartford, Connecticut. He began his career at Bulkeley High School where he set a national record for strikeouts in a high school game. Taylor was nearly signed by the New York Yankees about fifteen years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, but instead he went on to throw a dozen no-hitters as an all-star in the Negro National League, the Mexican League and the Cuban League. When the Hartford Chiefs signed him in 1949, Taylor became the city’s first professional black athlete.

Johnny Taylor, 1933.

Born on February 4, 1916, to John and Etta Taylor, Johnny grew up in the South End of Hartford on Douglas Street and then Roosevelt Street. He learned baseball in city parks and sandlots. Taylor and his sandlot teammates earned a small wage by chasing down foul balls and home runs at Bulkeley Stadium by the likes of Lou Gehrig and Leo Durocher of the Hartford Senators. Not until Taylor’s senior year at Bulkeley High School did the right-hander pitch competitively.

Bulkeley High School, 1933.

Johnny Taylor had been snubbed by the Bulkeley baseball team as an underclassman. Alternatively, he pole-vaulted and high-jumped in track and field. When he made the Maroons baseball club, Taylor joined a team comprised of an eventual major leaguer, Bob Repass and a future scout, Whitey Piurek. Bulkeley’s longtime head coach, Babe Allen, is credited with discovering the tall (6’0″) and slim (170 lbs.) Taylor who had a high leg-kick, a whip-arm, a lively fastball and a sharp “12-to-6” curveball.

1933 Bulkeley High School Baseball with Johnny Taylor (front row, second from left)

On April 28, 1933, Taylor won his first game versus Hartford Public High School. Three days later he punched out 17 batters to defeat West Hartford High School. Then he tossed 19 strikeouts by the Hartford Hilltoppers, surpassing a record set by another Hartford native, Pete “Lefty” Naktenis. Taylor was also a proficient hitter, batting nearly .500 in his senior season. When the Maroons walloped an undefeated Weaver High School, he homered over the left field fence (claimed to be the longest high school home run at Bulkeley Stadium).

Johnny Taylor, Pitcher, Bulkeley High School, 1933.

In Taylor’s final high school game, he shattered his own single-game strikeout record with 25 strikeouts against New Britain High school, which remains a State of Connecticut record to this day. He won 8 games, finished with a .428 batting average and was named to the Greater Hartford Scholastic Team. The New York Yankees were interested in Hartford’s “Schoolboy.” However, when Yankees scout Gene McCann learned that Taylor was black, McCann suggested that he claim Cuban heritage since white baseball barred black players. The light-skinned Taylor refused to falsify his family lineage.

Johnny Taylor sets a Connecticut scholastic record with 25 strikeouts against New Britain High School, June 3, 1933.

After the Yankees passed on him, Taylor competed with Home Circle of the Hartford Twilight League. He twirled on the many diamonds of Colt Park on Wethersfield Avenue and at Bulkeley Stadium on Hanmer Street. At the stadium on September 10, 1933, about 5,000 fans witnessed a wild-throwing Taylor. He lost the game to his crosstown rival, Pete Naktenis. Later, Taylor joined forces with Naktenis, winning a New England amateur championship organized by the United States Amateur Baseball Association. 

Bulkeley Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, 1933.

The following year, Johnny Taylor continued to pitch on Connecticut’s semi-pro circuit. He hurled for Check Bread of the Hartford Twilight League, the Savitt Gems (Bill Savitt’s baseball club) and Yantic of the Norwich City League. On August 21, 1934, he fired his first no-hitter for the Northwest Athletic Club of Winsted. That winter, he turned down offers from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh of the Negro National League. Wanting to be closer to home, Taylor signed with the New York Cubans.

Johnny Taylor’s Negro League contracts, 1935.

Taylor and the Cubans played home games at Dyckman Oval on the northern edge of Manhattan. They were owned by Alex Pompez and business manager Frank Forbes, who signed Taylor for $175 per month and $2 per diem. New York’s player-manager was a versatile five-tool talent named Martín Dihigo, who directed several Cuban players including Alejandro Oms, Cocaina Garcia and Lazaro Salazar. Midway through the season, the Cubans scheduled an exhibition in Hartford with the Savitt Gems. Taylor shut out his hometown team while fanning fifteen.

Johnny Taylor (left) & business manager, Bernie Ellovich, Savitt Gems, Bulkeley Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, 1935.

According to existing records, Taylor had 55 strikeouts for the New York Cubans in 1935, a few behind his teammate Luis Tiant, Sr. New York went 28-24 on the year, finishing third place in the Negro National League. Yet they managed to win the second half of the season to qualify for the championship series. The Cubans faced a formidable opponent, the Pittsburgh Crawfords and Hall of Fame catcher, Josh Gibson. Taylor dropped the third game of the series, then New York blew Taylor’s lead in the sixth game, and they ultimately lost to Pittsburgh.

1935 New York Cubans (Johnny Taylor identified under “15”).

After the season, Johnny Taylor was elected to the Negro League All-Star team. On October 13, 1935, he faced Dizzy Dean‘s All-Stars at Yankee Stadium. An estimated crowd of 20,000 watched Taylor whiff seven batters in seven innings. This time, Josh Gibson was his battery mate. After Dizzy Dean pitched a 3-0 complete game shutout, he complimented Taylor for his breaking ball, saying it was one of the best “drop balls” he had ever seen.

Johnny Taylor, Pitcher, New York Cubans, 1935.

In 1936, Taylor received a $10 per month raise from the New York Cubans. He was their undisputed ace, with a 5-2 record and 58 strikeouts, second in the Negro National League to Satchel Paige of the Pittsburgh Crawfords. That June, the Cubans scheduled a rematch in Hartford to face the Savitt Gems. Taylor, the local star, struck out 18 to blank the Gems once again.

Johnny Taylor and the New York Cubans, 1935.

Encouraged by Dolf Luque, a pitcher for the New York Giants, Taylor tried his hand at winter ball in Cuba. He traveled from Hartford to Miami and boarded a steamship for Havana in November of 1936. Taylor joined Martín Dihigo’s Marianao club at Havana’s Tropical Stadium. He struggled that season due to a serious back injury caused by a street trolley accident. Nevertheless, Taylor was popular with fans and was nicknamed “El Rey de Hartford” (translated to King of Hartford).

Johnny Taylor in Havana, Cuba, 1936.

When the New York Cubans dropped out of the Negro National League in 1937, Taylor threw for the Savitt Gems. Hartford-based jeweler Bill Savitt paid him to pitch from April to October. Taylor and the Gems defeated Will Jackman and the Philadelphia Colored Giants on three separate occasions in Hartford. One game was a 20-inning marathon in which Taylor set down 22 batters via the strikeout.

Johnny Taylor, Pitcher, Savitt Gems, 1937.

Then on September 19, 1937, Taylor stunned the baseball world. As moundsman for the Negro National League All-Stars at the Polo Grounds, he tossed a no-hitter against Satchel Paige and the Trujillo All-Stars. After holding his opponents hitless through eight innings, Taylor retired George Scales, Spoony Palm and Cool Papa Bell in the bottom of the ninth. Taylor and his catcher Biz Mackey did not allow a runner to reach third base.

“Good ballplayer. Yes, I hit against him. Didn’t get much on it.”

Buck O’Neil on Johnny Taylor
Johnny Taylor (right) after tossing no-hitter for the Negro National League All-Stars against Satchel Paige’s Trujillo All-Stars, Polo Grounds, New York, September 19, 1937.

Taylor’s no-hitter made him a desirable free agent. He planned on returning to New York but wound up signing with Pittsburgh for $400 per month. Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee preferred Taylor instead of re-signing Satchel Paige. Taylor turned in an excellent season with 11 wins, while batting .368 as a utility man. He was one of league’s top players and participated in the 1938 East-West Negro League All-Star Game at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois.

Negro League All-Star Game at Comiskey Park, Chicago, Illinois, (Taylor, standing second from left) 1938.

During the winters of 1938 and 1939, Johnny Taylor appeared for the Santa Clara Leopards of the Cuban League. The Leopards nabbed the pennant with Taylor on the mound and Josh Gibson behind the plate. Around this time, the Mexican League lured Negro Leaguers like Taylor with higher salaries. For $600 a month he became the ace of the Cordoba Cafeteros. He tossed for an 11-1 record, a 1.19 earned run average and was a local folk hero in Cordoba.

“Man, did he have good stuff! Taylor would have been a major leaguer for sure if he hadn’t come along before they allowed colored boys to play in organized baseball.”

Roy Campanella on Johnny Taylor
L to R: Indian Torres, Cocaina Garcia, Lazaro Salazar, Johnny Taylor, and Ray Brown, pitchers of the Santa Clara Leopards, Cuban Winter League, 1938.

In the summer of 1939, an eight team semi-pro loop formed known as the Connecticut State Baseball League. Taylor pitched for the New Britain entry against New London on Memorial Day weekend. Because he was a man of color, the New London club protested the game. Subsequently, the league banned black players. Without comment on the matter, Taylor returned to the Negro Leagues and pitched sporadically for the New York Cubans in 1940. He also appeared for the Homestead Grays and the Newark Eagles with his regular catcher, Josh Gibson.

1939 Cordoba Cafeteros of Mexican League (Johnny Taylor identified as number “3”).

By winter, Taylor was back in Mexico. This time he joined the Veracruz Azules. The club owner, Jorge Pasquel, was a teetotaling liquor magnate who paid more Negro League teams. Pasquel bought Taylor a new suit each time he pitched a shutout. In 1941 with Veracruz, Taylor won 13 games while striking out 115. The club would be remembered as one of the finest Mexican League outfits of all-time.

“A tall good-looking right-hander with the damnedest overhand curveball you ever did see.”

Monte Irvin on Johnny Taylor
Johnny Taylor, 1940.

Taylor once told Bill Lee, sports editor of the Hartford Courant, of his difficulties in the high altitude of Mexico City. His fastball didn’t have the same zip and his curve seemed to forget to bend. In September of 1941, he made a visit to Hartford with a team of Mexican League All-Stars led by Josh Gibson, Sam Bankhead, Ray Dandridge and Willie Wells. They squared off against the Savitt Gems, who started Pete Naktenis. Taylor and his All-Stars won in ten innings, as Taylor rung up 15 batsmen.

Johnny Taylor, Veracruz Azules, Mexican League, 1946.

When America entered World War II, Taylor returned to Connecticut to work for United Aircraft in East Hartford. He continued to pitch for the New York Cubans on weekends. During the war years, he also tossed for the Savitt Gems, Fred Davey’s Waterbury team and Highland Lake Athletic Club of Winsted. Taylor went back to Mexico to suit up for Monterey after the war. This time he brought his wife, Estelle and son, John Jr. Estelle Singleton Taylor was a respected maternity nurse and the first black nurse at New Britain General Hospital.

1946 Veracruz Azules – Johnny Taylor (4th from right) and Josh Gibson (4th from left).

Taylor hurled for Veracruz of the Mexican League until 1946, when he suffered an arm injury. At the time, the Mexican League sought to compete with Major League Badeball. White players like Danny Gardella, Sal Maglie and Mickey Owen signed with teams south of the border. Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler blacklisted them for five years. The Negro National League handed five-year bans to eight players, including Johnny Taylor and Ray Dandridge. The suspensions were later shortened, though Taylor’s professional career was coming to a close.

Johnny Taylor, Hartford Chiefs, 1949

That was until 1949, when Taylor signed with the Hartford Chiefs of the Eastern League. In doing so he became Hartford’s first black player in organized baseball. He went 6-7 with the Chiefs, mainly in relief. The minor league club released Taylor in November. He later made his final pitching appearances in Hartford Twilight League old-timer games, alongside Pete Naktenis and Walter “Monk” Dubiel.

“Schoolboy” Johnny Taylor (left) and Satchel Paige, 1950.

After baseball, Taylor raised four children with his wife and worked for his father’s construction business. Taylor also became a trailblazer in the game of golf. He had learned to play golf as a teenager at Hartford’s Goodwin Park. Taylor frequented Edgewood in Cromwell (no known as TPC Cromwell), and he studied Ben Hogan’s book The Fundamentals of Modern Golf. Taylor was one of the first black men in Connecticut to hold a handicap card. He was made an Edgewood member in 1959, a year after Jackie Robinson had been denied membership at High Ridge Country Club in Stamford, Connecticut.

L to R: Johnny Taylor, Walter Elliot and Pete Naktenis, 1958.
L to R: Monk Dubiel, George Balf, Frank Strong and Johnny Taylor, 1969.

In 1975, the Boston Red Sox were World Series bound, and Taylor planned a trip to meet an old teammate, Luis Tiant Sr. The dictatorship of Cuba allowed Tiant to travel to watch his son, Luis Tiant Jr. pitch at Fenway Park. Taylor and Tiant Sr. had a tearful reunion. A dozen years later, Johnny Taylor passed away after a battle with cancer. His memory lives on as a character in Mark Winegardner’s novel, The Veracruz Blues and as the namesake of Johnny Taylor Field in Hartford’s Colt Park (dedicated 2020).

John “Johnny” “Jackson” “Schoolboy” Arthur Taylor (1916-1987)

Sources

SABR article by Jon Daly, February of 2011.

Hartford Courant

Hartford Times

Alexander, Charles C. Breaking the Slump: Baseball in the Depression Era. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002.

Hogan, Lawrence D. Shades of Glory: The Negro Leagues and the Story of African-American Baseball. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2006.

Holway, John. The Complete Book of Baseball’s Negro Leagues—The Other Half of Baseball History. Fern Park, Florida: Hastings House Publishers, 2001.

Lanctot, Neil. Negro League Baseball: The Rise and Ruin of a Black Institution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004.

Ribowsky, Mark. A Complete History of the Negro Leagues, 1884 to 1955. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1995.

Bonus Photo Gallery

A Real Connecticut Yankee’s Baseball Career Cut Short

This article was published on ConnetcticutHistory.org on April 20, 2020.

Danny Hoffman’s story reminds sports fans of the fragile nature of a professional athlete’s career. An up-and-coming baseball star discovered playing on the lots of Collinsville, Connecticut, Hoffman played in the majors under legendary manager Connie Mack before joining the New York Yankees (before they were even known as the “Yankees”); but one pitch dramatically changed his career trajectory.

Hoffman was a native of Canton, Connecticut, attended local schools, and frequently played ball in the Collinsville section of town. There, a scout from the Connecticut League’s Springfield, Massachusetts, franchise discovered Hoffman and offered him a contract. Once in Springfield, it did not take long for major league teams to take an interest in him and Hoffman eventually signed with the Philadelphia Athletics to play for Hall-of-Fame manager Connie Mack in 1903.

Daniel J. Hoffman in a Philadelphia Athletics baseball uniform, 1906 – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Hoffman an Early Hit with Philadelphia Athletics

As the Athletics headed up to Boston to play the Red Sox in the summer of 1904, baseball experts considered Hoffman one of the more promising young players in the majors. When Hoffman (hitting a career-high .299 with three home runs) stepped to the plate against Red Sox left-hander Jesse Tannehill, however, an errant pitch struck Hoffman in the right eye, ending his season.

Back with the A’s in 1905, Hoffman’s statistics dropped off precipitously. He utilized his great speed to steal 46 bases that year, but he struggled against left-handed pitching—causing Mack to regularly pull Hoffman out of the lineup against lefties.

Hoffman lasted one more year with the A’s before joining the New York Highlanders (who later changed their name to the New York Yankees). He spent two relatively unproductive years in New York before joining the St. Louis Browns in 1908 and then ending his major league career 3 years later. Hoffman tried to make it back to the majors by playing for St. Paul of the American Association and then Wilkes-Barre of the New York State League, but his comeback ultimately proved unsuccessful.

Daniel J. Hoffman, St. Louis Browns, American Tobacco Company baseball card portrait, 1911 – Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Once-Promising Talent Sidelined by Injury

Life after baseball saw Hoffman become a resident of Bridgeport. Having invested his baseball earnings wisely, Hoffman resided in a beautiful home on Stratford Avenue in the city’s east end. He became a very popular figure in Bridgeport and at one point local residents and civic leaders encouraged him to purchase the city’s struggling Eastern-League baseball team, but Hoffman slowly began retreating from public life.

In 1921, he left Bridgeport to move in with his parents in Manchester. Local residents reported rarely seeing Hoffman in public after that. Seven months after the move, in March of 1922, the Hartford Courant reported that Hoffman had passed away at his parents’ home due to “a general breaking down in health.” He was just 42 years old.

Lou Gehrig Used Fake Name as a Rookie on the Hartford Senators

This article was written by Norton Chellgren and published in the 1975 Baseball Research Journal

On April 5, 1921, the Hartford Senators of the Eastern League in their first exhibition game of the season beat Columbia University 4-3. The big story was a Columbia player, Lefty Gehrig, who hit Hartford pitcher Alton Durgin for two long home runs in his only two trips to the plate. A. B. McGinley of the Hartford Times described the second home run like this: “When he came up again in the 3rd inning, Durgin the lofty Maine boy who was pitching for Hartford was all set for revenge. He got a strike on Gehrig but the next one he threw Gehrig leaned on and it went sailing out of the enclosure past a big sundial and almost into the School of Mines. It was a mighty clout and worthy of Babe Ruth’s best handiwork.”

Lou Gehrig, First Baseman, Columbia University, 1922.

The young player greatly impressed Hartford Manager, Arthur Irwin, a former major league player and manager. The two home runs would have cleared the center field fence at Clarkin Stadium, Hartford’s home park, and Irwin saw a promising future for the young baseball player.

Clarkin Stadium, Hartford, Connecticut, 1921.

The big first baseman, it was later reported, had promised Irwin that he would play under him if he decided to enter professional baseball. Several big league teams had been trying to sign him but all indications were he would stay at Columbia University. Subsequently, on June 2, announcement was made by Manager Irwin in the local newspapers that the hard hitting semi-pro from Brooklyn, Lefty Gehrig, had been signed to play first base for the Senators. It was assumed by some that he had decided to quit school.

Arthur Irwin, Manager, Hartford Senators, 1921.

The next day the newspapers were apparently requested or advised not to call further attention to the Columbia athlete’s real name and from that day on they referred only to that young player from New York, “Lewis” or “Lou Lewis.” On June 3 (1921) the Hartford Senators beat the Pittsfield Hillies 2-1. Lou Lewis played the full game at first base. In his O. B. debut, he was 0 for 3 with one sacrifice hit against Pittsfield hurler Al Pierotti, who later went up to the Braves.

Lou Gehrig batting for Columbia University, 1921.

After that initial game the Hartford Courant wrote “Lou Lewis, Arthur Irwin’s latest discovery was planted on the initial sack. The youngster who is only 18 years old (actually he was still 17) appeared to be a bit nervous. After he gets used to surroundings he may develop. They seldom fail to make the grade with Irwin teaching the ways of baseball.”

Lewis’ first hit and first run scored came in his second game as Hartford beat the Waterbury Brasscos 5-3 at Hartford before 5,000 fans on June 4. In the second inning the youthful first sacker hit the first ball pitched by Fred Rawley to right field for three bases. He scored shortly after when the next batter Phil Neher singled to center. On the following day, June 5, Lewis went two for five as Hartford beat Albany 10-2 at Albany; the first baseman was beginning to impress and was being touted as a “Babe Ruth.”

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1922
Lou Gehrig, Punter, Columbia University, 1922.

Hartford beat Pittsfield 10-6 on June 8, and the Times wrote: “Lewis caught hold of a fast one in the third inning and sent it against the “B” in the Buick sign on the right field fence for a double. Lewis probably won’t get a Buick for his clout but he may get a ride in one before the season runs its course.” Lou went two for five that day. One of the times he made an out he slammed a terrific drive that traveled at the proverbial mile-a-minute clip into right fielder Bill McCorry’s gloved hand. It was described as the hardest hit of the game.

Hartford Courant excerpt, June 8, 1921.

While Lewis at the young age of 17 was demonstrating his ability to knock the cover off the ball there were some indications that he lacked experience. On June 10 the Senators were trailing the Bridgeport “Brown Derbies” in the last of the ninth when with one out Heinie Scheer singled. Lewis then hit one to the box carrying a lot of smoke and it bounded off pitcher Ed Lepard’s glove for a single. Lewis a moment later was trapped off first by catcher Joe Smith on a pitchout. The rally was effectively stopped and the game was lost by Hartford, 4 to 2.

The Times wrote on June 11, “Lewis the youngster just breaking into organized ball with the local club is doing as well as one can expect and his present work gives fans here hopes that he will add to the Hartford hitting average which at present is the weakest link in the pennant-winning chain. The young first sacker is a slugger.” Lefty Lewis unexplainedly did not play in the Bridgeport game on June 13 but the next day against the Springfield Ponies he hit the second triple of his early professional experience.

In his last Eastern League game that year, on June 15, 1921, against Springfield, he showed his power even though his only hit was an infield one. In the first inning he crashed one against third baseman Jack Flynn’s shins and the ball caromed off with such force that it bounced across the diamond and the runner on third base, Harry Hesse, scored without any trouble.

Lou Gehrig “Lewis” plays his last game of 1921.
Harry Hesse, Hartford Senators, 1922.

No game was played on June 16 and at that point the young first baseman’s name, without explanation, ceased to appear in the Hartford papers for the remainder of the season. During his stay Hartford, winning 8 games and losing 5, had climbed into first place with a 28-17 record. Before the season was to end the Hartford Senators would drop to fifth place and its Manager, Art Irwin who had been successful in luring the young first baseman into professional baseball, if only for a short 12 games, would meet an untimely death. On July 16, 1921, he fell or jumped from the steamer Calvin Austin during a voyage from New York to Boston.

Lou Gehrig, Hartford Senators, 1923.

Even with a mediocre batting average of .261, Lewis had given Hartford fans an indication of things to come. The name “Lou Lewis” would not again appear in a Hartford or other professional baseball game box score! “Lou,” however, would return to the Eastern League in 1923 (as of August 2) and hit home runs at a pace which still has not been surpassed in the Eastern League, 24 home runs in only 59 games.

1923 Hartford Senators

What the Hartford newspapers did not report was that Columbia athletic officials had learned that Gehrig was playing pro ball under an assumed name. After being advised of the possible implications of playing for money, an unhappy Lou Gehrig returned promptly to New York City. As a result of this escapade Lou had to wait an extra year, until the fall of 1922, before he could participate in Columbia inter-collegiate sports. The experience might have hurt the New York Giants as well because had it never taken place, who knows, McGraw might have been able to sign up Lou Gehrig in 1923 instead.

Lou Gehrig and Mayor Norman Stevens of Hartford, 1924.

Source: Chellgren, Norton. “The Short Career of Lou Lewis.” Society for American Baseball Research, 1975 Baseball Research Journal, 1975, sabr.org/journal/article/the-short-career-of-lou-lewis.

Leo Durocher Got His Start in Hartford

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

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

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

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

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

Leo Durocher is sold to the Yankees, 1925.

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

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

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

Leo Durocher, Manager, Brooklyn Dodgers, 1941.

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

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

Leo Durocher, 1941.

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

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

Durocher with his wife, Laraine, Day, 1950.

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

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

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

Leo Durocher

Sources

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

Babe Ruth’s Connecticut Car Crash

At 24 years old George Herman “Babe” Ruth escaped disaster in Connecticut before becoming one of baseball’s all-time greats. After setting a new major league home run record in his first year with the Yankees, Babe Ruth bought a brand new Packard Roadster for $12,000. On September 30, 1920, Ruth was driving from New York City to Springfield, Massachusetts, to play in an exhibition game. Halfway through his trip, Ruth crashed into a heavy Mack Truck while speeding through a tunnel, the Yalesville Culvert in Wallingford, Connecticut near the Meriden city line.

The Meriden Daily Journal, October 1, 1920.
The Meriden Daily Journal, October 1, 1920.

Ruth was thrown from the car but luckily walked away from the accident with only a few scratches. His Roadster was totaled, but the Great Bambino refused to miss his appearance and hitchhiked his way to Springfield. The very next day Ruth appeared in another exhibition game for a team called the Hartford Poli’s at Muzzy Field in Bristol, Connecticut. He played every position except pitcher and went 4 for 4 at the plate.

Yalesville culvert where Ruth crashed, Wallingford, Connecticut, 2020.

When Babe Ruth Barnstormed Greater Hartford

A young George Herman “Babe” Ruth visited the Greater Hartford area of Connecticut, to play baseball on multiple occasions. Like many big leaguers of his time, Ruth barnstormed the nation to earn additional pay. When he first visited the Constitution State in the fall of 1918, Ruth was a 23 year old starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox. He had won more games than any left-handed pitcher in the previous four seasons. During that stretch, he compiled a 2.28 earned run average and a .650 winning percentage. His phenomenal achievements and large physical traits gave him instant appeal.

Ruth warming up at the 1918 World Series.

Ruth’s first appearance in Connecticut came after the 1918 World Series wherein the Red Sox defeated the Chicago Cubs. A victorious Ruth pitched 29 ⅔ scoreless innings (a mark not broken until Whitey Ford recorded 33 ⅔ innings in 1961). Attending the World Series was James H. Clarkin, sole proprietor of the Hartford Senators of the Eastern League. Clarkin tried to recruit both teams to play an exhibition game in Hartford benefiting American soldiers fighting in World War I. When his offer was declined Clarkin managed to land Babe Ruth instead.

Ruth and Boston Red Sox win 1918 World Series.

When Connecticut baseball fans received reports of Ruth’s arrival, they were clamoring to see him in action. Days after winning his second World Series, he appeared in several exhibition games throughout the state. His initial stop was in New Haven at Lighthouse Point Baseball Park. Ruth played first base for the semi-pro New Haven Colonials. He slugged a home run in a 5 to 1 loss against the Cuban Stars made up of players from the Negro Leagues.

Hartford Courant, September, 15, 1918.

The next evening, on Saturday, September 14, 1918, Ruth departed from New Haven and arrived in Hartford. He attracted large crowds of people hoping to meet the budding superstar. He was driven into the city by Manager Curtis Gillette of the semi-pro Hartford Poli’s baseball club to lavish accommodations at Hotel Bond on Asylum Street. The Hartford Poli’s were known as one of the “fastest” clubs in New England. The next day, Ruth joined the Poli’s on the Hartford’s top-notch diamond at Wethersfield Avenue Grounds.

Hotel Bond, Hartford, Connecticut.

On Sunday, September 15, 1918, Babe Ruth and the Hartford Poli’s opposed the Fisk Red Tops of Chicopee, Massachusetts. While pitching and batting third, he recorded two hits including a double off the “Bull Durham” tobacco sign on the center field wall. Ruth also threw a complete game shutout, allowed 4 hits and led the Poli’s to a 1-0 victory. He beat his Red Sox counterpart, Dutch Leonard who guest starred on the mound for the Fisk Red Tops. Another Red Sox teammate, Sam Agnew played catcher for the Poli’s and drove in the game’s only run. Ruth and the gang entertained a Hartford crowd of more than 5,000, earning $350 for his appearance.

Babe Ruth, Boston Red Sox, 1918.

A week later, Ruth once again played at the Wethersfield Avenue Grounds for the Hartford Poli’s in a doubleheader. In the opening game, the Poli’s went head to head with the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft company nine. Five Major Leaguers including Ruth appeared that day. Ruth again was starting pitcher and hit third in the lineup. Even though he pitched well, Ruth was out-dueled by his Red Sox teammate and Pratt & Whitney guest star, “Bullet” Joe Bush who won the game by a score of 1 to 0.

Babe Ruth and “Bullet” Joe Bush, Boston Red Sox, 1918.

In the second game of the doubleheader, Ruth and the Poli’s faced an army base nine from Fort Slocum near New Rochelle, New York. Ray Fisher, former Hartford Senator turned New York Yankees ace mowed down Poli batters. The Fort Slocum nine beat the Poli’s by a score of 4 to 1. Ruth played first base, hit a single and scored the Poli’s lone run. A crowd of about 3,000 people were in attendance for this rare occasion; a doubleheader featuring Babe Ruth in Hartford.

Ray Fisher, New York Yankees, 1916.

The Babe must have enjoyed stopping over in Connecticut, because in autumn of the following year, he came back. This time he brought his Boston Red Sox teammates to Muzzy Field in Bristol, Connecticut, where Ruth would set a new record. On September 21, 1919, he played first base and hit fourth for the Red Sox versus Bristol’s semi-pro juggernaut, the New Departure Endees. The team was sponsored by New Departure, a division of General Motors, and a manufacturer of ball bearings for automobiles, planes, ships and military equipment.

Babe Ruth & Eddie Goodridge of New Departure, Muzzy Field, 1919.

Also on the field for the Red Sox was Hall of Fame outfielder, Harry Hooper who had two hits and a run on the day. Though it was Babe Ruth who stole the show. “All eyes were pointed at the famous baseball mauler,” according to the Hartford Courant when he blasted the first ever home run at Muzzy Field. Hooper was on first base when the Babe connected with a pitch thrown by New Departure’s Freddie Rieger, a star pitcher for the Pittsfield team in the Eastern League. Ruth’s homer sailed over the right field fence as 5,000 onlookers cheered in adulation. The Red Sox won by a score of 6 to 2 over New Departure. The game would be remembered as Connecticut’s most thrilling sporting event of the year.

Babe Ruth and Lester Sigourney, New Departure Manager, Muzzy Field, 1919.
L to R: DeWitt Page, Babe Ruth and Judge William J. Malone, Muzzy Field, 1919.
New Departure Baseball Club, 1919.
Babe Ruth marker at Muzzy Field, 2014.

While the rest of the Red Sox went home, Ruth stay in Connecticut. He played first base in another game with the Hartford Poli’s on September 28, 1919 at Poli Field in East Hartford. The Poli’s were met by the New Britain Pioneers, the Hardware City’s top ball club. 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 3 to 0 before a crowd of more than 6,000 fans.

Babe Ruth and Mayor Richard J. Kinsella, Hartford, Connecticut, 1919.
Spectators at Poli Field, East Hartford, Connecticut, 1919.

A few months later, on January 5, 1920, Babe Ruth was purchased by the New York Yankees from the Red Sox for $125,000 cash and $300,000 in loans. His services were sold after Ruth refused to return to the Red Sox at a salary of $10,000 per year. The Yankees struck the deal of the century. Ruth went on to smash his own home run record with an astounding 54 dingers in the 1920 season, while batting at .376 clip. New York only made Ruth bigger, better and in higher demand to fans across the country. Fortunately for cranks in Connecticut, the Babe kept coming back to play for the Poli’s.

Hartford Courant, January 6, 1920.

By the end of 1920, the New York Yankees were runner-ups in the American League behind the Cleveland Indians. As the season came to a close, Manager Gillette of Hartford persuaded Ruth to join the Poli’s once more. Again they faced the New Departure squad at Muzzy Field. On October 2, 1920, The Babe hit clean up for the Poli’s, played every position except pitcher and went 4 for 4 with 3 singles and a double. Nonetheless, New Departure shutout the Poli’s 7 to 0 thanks to crafty pitching from Gus Helfrich, a minor league spitball hurler from the New York State League. Extra trains and trolleys were scheduled to Bristol that Saturday afternoon, allowing 10,000 fans a chance to see Babe Ruth one last time at Muzzy Field.

Babe Ruth coming to Muzzy Field, Bristol, Connecticut, 1920.
Babe Ruth at Muzzy Field, Bristol, Connecticut, 1920.
Babe Ruth at Muzzy Field, Bristol, Connecticut, 1920.
Babe Ruth at Muzzy Field, Bristol, Connecticut, 1920.
Babe Ruth at Muzzy Field, Bristol, Connecticut, 1920.

Connecticut’s amateur and semi-pro baseball clubs regularly hosted Babe Ruth and in return, he left a long-lasting impression. In Greater Hartford and beyond, Ruth earned baseball thousands of new fans. He barnstormed throughout the East Coast in grand fashion, ushering in the home run era and baseball’s Golden Age (1920 to 1960). He retired in 1935 after leading the New York Yankees to their first 4 World Series wins. Ten years later, Babe Ruth took the final at bat of his career when he appeared in an exhibition game for the Savitt Gems at Hartford’s Bulkeley Stadium.

Babe Ruth on the Savitt Gems, Hartford, Connecticut, 1945.

Sources

  1. Hartford Courant Database on Newspapers.com

Related

  1. The “Babe Comes to Hartford by Ronald Bolin
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