Hartford’s Minor League Club, Part I: The Hartfords (1878-1901)

Hartford in Minor Leagues:

  • International League (1878)
  • Connecticut State League (1884-1885)
  • Southern New England League (1885)
  • Eastern League (1886-1887)
  • Atlantic Association (1889-1890)
  • Connecticut State League (1891, 1895)
  • Atlantic League (1896-1898)
  • Eastern League (1899-1901)

Notable Players:

Hartford, Connecticut, has been represented by 71 affiliated and unaffiliated minor league baseball clubs. The franchise began when the Hartford Dark Blues of the National League moved to Brooklyn in 1877 and the city was without a professional team. During an era when teams traveled by train or steamboat, Hartford was an ideal location for organized baseball. Ben Douglas Jr., a prime mover in forming the Dark Blues, raised $4,000 from shareholders to create Hartford’s first minor league team in 1878. Initially, Douglas located the club in Providence, Rhode Island, then shifted operations to New Haven, but ultimately selected Hartford.

Hartford Base Ball Grounds, 1877.

The Hartford Courant referred to the club as The Hartfords. Home games were held at the Base Ball Grounds on Wyllys Avenue. The club joined the International Association after being denied entry into the National League due to the city’s small population (then about 40,000). Though major League caliber players appeared for Hartford in 1878, such as Candy Cummings, Everett Mills, Jack Lynch and Joe Battin, the team was a short-lived entity. The Hartfords were expelled from the league in mid-July after refusing to pay a mandatory guarantee to Buffalo.

Everett Mills, First Baseman, Hartford, 1878.
Joe Battin, Third Baseman, Hartford, 1878.
Jack Lynch, Pitcher, Hartford, 1878.
Jack Lynch, Pitcher, Hartford, 1878.
Candy Cummings, Pitcher, Hartford, 1878.

Hartford’s first foray into minor league baseball ended on an embarrassing note. Consequently, the city was without a professional franchise for the next five years. Finally in February of 1884, a joint stock corporation called Hartford Base Ball Park Association founded a new team as part of the Connecticut State League. The Hartfords of 1884 played at a new park on Ward Street. Baseball enthusiast and cigar magnate, Charles A. Soby was team manager as well as President of the Connecticut State League. He directed affairs from the Hartford Base Ball Headquarters on Main Street, a leftover base of operations from the days of the Hartford Dark Blues.

Charles Soby, Manager, Hartford, 1884.
Hartford Base Ball Headquarters, 258 Main Street, Hartford, Connecticut, 1884.

In 1885, the Hartfords competed in the Southern New England League of which Soby was again appointed President. Former Dark Blues outfielder, Jack Remsen took over as player-manager. Before becoming a Hall of Fame manager Connie Mack was Hartford’s wiry catcher at 22 years of age. Backup catcher, Tony Murphy was one of the first players to wear a chest protector. Henry Gruber, from Hamden, Connecticut, and Frank Gilmore from Webster, Massachusetts, did most of the pitching. Hartford natives Bill Tobin and Jack Farrell rounded out an underachieving roster who fell short of a championship title.

Jack Farrell, Second Baseman, Hartford, 1885.
Henry Gruber, Pitcher, Hartford, 1885.
Jack Remsen, Player-Manager, Hartford, 1885.
Connie Mack, Catcher, Hartford, 1885.

The Hartford Base Ball Club of 1886 contended in the first iteration of the Eastern League. They ended up trading Connie Mack to the Washington Nationals midseason. Another Hall of Fame inductee, Hugh Duffy, spent his first professional year in Hartford. After an lackluster season, a new joint stock company assumed ownership of the club. Among investors of the Hartford Amusement Association were the Mayor of Hartford, Morgan G. Bulkeley and famed author, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). The association hired Charles E. Daniels, a professional umpire from Colchester, Connecticut, as manager for the following season.

Investors Bulkeley and Twain backed base ball in Hartford, 1887.
Investors like Bulkeley and Twain back the Hartford club, 1887.

Under Charlie Daniels the 1887 Hartfords fielded their best lineup yet. Steve Brady, former captain of the New York Metropolitans and hometown hero of Hartford, batted .350. Ed Beecher led the league in doubles and Henry Gruber was one of the league’s top aces. “General” James Stafford began his career with Hartford that year. At season’s end, they placed third. The Eastern League disbanded and Hartford was forced to forgo organized baseball throughout 1888.

Steve Brady, First Baseman, Hartford, 1887.
General Stafford, Second Baseman, Hartford, 1887.
Ed Beecher, Outfielder, Hartford, 1887.

The Hartfords re-appeared on the minor league scene in 1889 as part of the Atlantic Association. A local man and first time player-manager, John M. Henry recruited Phenomenal Smith and Joe Gerhardt to join Hartford. However the team finished in third place behind Worcester and Newark. Then Hartford failed to retain top tier players in 1890 and sunk to last place. Third baseman Ezra Sutton and catcher George Stallings were the team’s lone bright spots. A game of particular note came on July 23, 1890, when Hartford’s first game illuminated by “electric light” occured at Ward Street Grounds.

Phenomenal Smith, Pitcher, Hartford, 1889.
Joe Gerhardt, Second Baseman, Hartford, 1889.
George Stallings, Catcher, Hartford, 1890.
Baltimore vs. Hartford, 1890.

After another mediocre season in the 1891 Connecticut State League, the Hartfords lost favor with fans and investors. The club disbanded and the Panic of 1893 prolonged their absence. Eventually, a new team surfaced in the summer of 1894. John Henry, Charlie Daniels, Steve Brady and his brother Jackson Brady formed the Hartford Elks. They were a semi-professional outfit backed by the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks (Lodge #19). Though they featured minor league players, the club operated independently from the Connecticut State League.

John M. Henry, Player-Manager, Hartford, 1894.
John M. Henry, Player-Manager, Hartford, 1894.

In 1895, Hartford reentered the Connecticut State League and operated under the auspices of the Hartford Base Ball and Amusement Association. John Henry returned as player-manager one last time. Ed Beecher, an outfielder from Guilford, Connecticut, suited up for his fourth and final season. Both men later became police officers for the City of Hartford. Another local man, John Gunshanan was one of the club’s best hitters. Future major leaguers Jack Cronin and Bill Gannon had brief stints with the Hartfords of 1895. Despite big league prospects, a pennant continued to elude the city.

John Gunshanan, Outfielder, Hartford, 1895.
Jack Cronin, Pitcher, Hartford, 1895.

The Hartfords came close to an Atlantic League championship in its inaugural season. In 1896, Former Hartford player and famed manager, Billy Barnie purchased the club along with a group of investors. He served as Hartford’s manager and garnered enough support to build a new ballpark on the west side of Wethersfield Avenue (later becoming Clarkin Stadium and then Bulkeley Stadium). Also nicknamed the Hartford Bluebirds, the club was captained by Bob Pettit, a utility man from Williamstown, Massachusetts. Everyday players like John Thornton and Reddy Mack lifted Hartford atop the standings and in a tight race with Newark.

Reddy Mack, Second Baseman, Hartford, 1896.
Hartford Ball Park Ad, 1896.

When Newark finished in first, Hartford protested the decision. Manager Barnie argued that Newark’s record was unfairly inflated due to a dozen extra games played. Newark also used a suspended pitcher named Joseph Frye who had left Hartford midway through the season. As a result, the second place Hartfords challenged Newark to a 7-game series dubbed the Soby Cup sponsored by Charles Soby. Newark declined the invitation though third place Paterson accepted and Paterson won the Soby Cup. By November of 1896, the matter was put to rest by Sam Crane, President of the Atlantic League who declared Newark as champions.

The Soby Cup, 1896.
Soby Cup Series, 1896.
Charles Soby of Hartford
Sam Crane, Atlantic League President, 1896.

When the club returned to the Atlantic League in 1897, Billy Barnie had left to manage the Brooklyn Bridegrooms. Brooklyn’s most well known batsman, Thomas “Oyster” Burns became player-manager. Tom Vickery, Cy Bowen and Hank Gastright were moundsmen for Hartford. Veteran big leaguers Lefty Marr and Paul Radford manned center field and shortstop. They won 78 games but finished third place yet again. On the final day of the season, the players presented a commemorative diamond ring to their beloved manager, Oyster Burns.

The Hartfords of 1897.
Cy Bowen, Pitcher, Hartford, 1897.
Oyster Burns, Outfielder, Hartford, 1897.

In 1898 executives of the Hartford baseball club hired veteran major leaguer Bill Traffley as manager, but Traffley was unpopular with players. He was accused of pocketing gate receipts and he relinquished his role halfway through the season to their catcher, Mike Roach. The Hartfords adopted a cooperative system to evenly disperse gate earnings among players. Therefore the team became known as the Hartford Cooperatives. Arlie Latham, an 1886 World Series champion and baseball’s first showman comedian, guarded third base for the Cooperatives – who descended to sixth place in the Atlantic League.

Hartford Courant excerpt, 1898.
Arlie Latham, Third Baseman, Hartford, 1898.
Bill Traffley, Manager, Hartford, 1898.

Towards the end of the 1898 season Billy Barnie purchased ownership of the Hartfords once more. Even though Barnie was manager of the Springfields at the time, Hartford fans were delighted to have him back. Barnie’s Hartfords enrolled in the Eastern League of 1899. He signed several players from the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, including William Shindle who led the team in hitting. Tuck Turner was their star right fielder. For a 24-game stretch, the lineup featured Louis Sockalexis, the first Native American to play professionally. The club compiled 50 wins and 56 losses, finishing seventh place in the Eastern League.

Biff Sheehan, Outfielder, Hartford, 1899.
Louis Sockalexis, Outfielder, Hartford, 1899.
William Shindle, Player-Manager, Hartford, 1899.

At the turn of the century, Charles Soby reprised his role as Hartford’s preeminent baseball magnate. On May 21, 1900, Soby led a group of 44 shareholders who raised $3,250 to establish the Hartford Baseball Corporation. The club partnered with New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad Company to create special rates and train schedules on game days. The team secured two pitchers destined for stardom, “Wild” Bill Donovan and George Hemming. Tragically, Manager Billy Barnie died of pneumonia on July 15, 1900. He was revered in Hartford as baseball’s most tenured manager and as catcher for Hartford in 1874 and 1878.

Billy Barnie, Manager, Hartford, 1900.
Billy Barnie, Manager, Hartford, 1900.
Hartford Baseball Club, 1900.
George Hemming, Pitcher, Hartford, 1900.
“Wild” Bill Donovan, Pitcher, Hartford, 1900.

In place of Barnie, William Shindle assumed managerial duties for the remainder of the 1900 season. The team’s performance was respectable. “Wild” Bill Donovan achieved league highs in wins and strikeouts. Though it would not be enough for a pennant, and the Hartfords settled for third place in the Eastern League. The next season Shindle stayed on as manager. Most of the 1901 club was made up of players on the last leg of their careers. George Shoch, a veteran pitcher ended his 20-year career with Hartford. The club fell to sixth out of eight teams in the final standings.

Hartford vs. Brockton, 1901.
George Shoch, Pitcher, Hartford, 1901.

After more than 20 years in the minors without a championship, Hartford’s proud baseball community refused to be discouraged. A minor league team would represent Hartford off and on for the next 5 decades. On August 17, 1925, Hartford players of yore were celebrated at Bulkeley Stadium. Connie Mack, Frank Gilmore, John Henry and Ed Beecher attended an exhibition game between Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics and a Hartford All-Star team featuring local pitching ace, Lem Owen. In a ceremony before the game, Gilmore gifted Mack a new set of golf clubs and the Hartfords of old received their last ovation from a crowd of 6,000 fans.

Connie Mack, Frank Gilmore, John Henry and Ed Beecher at Wethersfield Avenue Grounds, Hartford, August 17, 1925.

Sources

  1. Hartford Courant database on Newspapers.com
  2. StatsCrew.com

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