From the production of interchangeable machine tools to jet engines, Pratt & Whitney Company is a global success story originating in Hartford, Connecticut. The business was founded in 1860 when Francis A. Pratt and Amos Whitney combined their mechanical expertise. They supplied machine tools, drills, mills and lathes for the production of firearms during the American Civil War. The company perfected the art of machining and its methods of measurement established the standard inch. In addition to its technological advancements, Pratt & Whitney also made significant, yet long forgotten contributions to the game of baseball.
Baseball became popular in the mid-19th century as agrarian communities transformed into industrial cities. Workplaces began to form baseball clubs as a means of publicity and to strengthen morale in the outdoor air. Pratt & Whitney formed a company team as early as the summer of 1866 – nearly a decade before professional baseball came to Hartford. The factory club challenged nines from Hartford and surrounding towns. Pratt & Whitney played their first out-of-state ballgame against Holyoke in 1883.
At the onset of the 20th century, Pratt & Whitney’s company team pioneered an indoor version of baseball. During the fall of 1899 and 1900, they took part in Hartford’s Indoor Baseball League hosted in the Y.M.C.A. gymnasium. In the summer months Pratt & Whitney played in Hartford’s Shop Baseball League, later called the Factory League. Opposing teams included Colt Armory, Billings & Spencer, Hartford Electric Vehicle, Hartford Rubber Works and Pope Manufacturing. Much to the delight of local fans, the Factory League convened at Colt Park and Wethersfield Avenue Grounds (later Clarkin Stadium and then Bulkeley Stadium).
By 1916, the Factory League had evolved into the Hartford Industrial League. Also nicknamed the Dusty League, it was Hartford’s best amateur loop. Pratt & Whitney seized the championship in its inaugural season. Standout players included: Dutch Leonard, a hard-throwing moundsman from Hartford, John Muldoon, a catcher who went on to sign with the Hartford Senators of the Eastern Association and Sam Hyman a southpaw hurler from Hartford High School who played professional for eleven years. However, most players were local men. An amatuer named Rex Islieb was a skillful outfielder named who led Pratt & Whitney to clinch the Hartford Industrial League pennant in 1918.
Then on September 22, 1918, Pratt & Whitney squared off against a 23-year-old Babe Ruth. Eleven days after Ruth and the Boston Red Sox won the World Series, he came to Hartford to appear in benefit games at Wethersfield Avenue Grounds. The event fundraised for the Bat and Ball Fund, which donated baseball equipment to American soldiers of World War I. Ruth hurled for the semi-pro Hartford Poli’s and batted third. His Red Sox teammate, “Bullet” Joe Bush started on the mound for Pratt & Whitney with Herman Bronkie, Shano Collins and Joe Dugan behind him. Even though Ruth pitched well, the Great Bambino was outdueled by Bush’s two-hit pitching performance and Pratt & Whitney won a 1-0 contest.
Pratt & Whitney’s company team were one of the state’s most prestigious clubs. When they weren’t busy on the diamond beating the likes of Babe Ruth, the players were in the factory supplying the war effort. The company team retained their good form the following season and captured the 1919 Industrial League championship. Thousands of spectators turned out at Hartford’s Colt Park to witness amateurs, like slugger Jack Vannie and the Pratt & Whitney nine. The club’s third consecutive season title made headlines in the Hartford Courant and a celebration was held at Hotel Bond on Asylum Street.
The “Roaring Twenties” prompted expansion at Pratt & Whitney. In addition to baseball, Pratt & Whitney employees also formed bowling, tennis, basketball and football clubs. The baseball club continued to do battle in Hartford’s Industrial League with less success than the previous decade. Employees and fans leaned on baseball while the proliferation of automobiles and advances in air travel altered the future of Pratt & Whitney. In 1925, aviation engineer Frederick Rentschler partnered with Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool to build new aircraft engines, thus beginning Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company.
Rentschler began to produce hundreds of Wasp aircraft engines but soon broke away from Pratt & Whitney. In 1929, the company merged with Boeing to form United Aircraft and Transport Corporation (predecessor of United Technologies Corporation). As part of the agreement, Hartford’s United Aircraft retained the name Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. While individuals and businesses were stricken by the ill effects of 1929’s Stock Market Crash and the ensuing Great Depression, the aviation industry managed to flourish. Aircraft manufacturers thrived on favorable federal contracts and subsidies. In 1930, the new Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company established another baseball club.
Meanwhile Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool pressed on as a separate company with a baseball club of their own. Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft would often go head-to-head on the diamond. But in 1934, federal antitrust laws broke up United Aircraft and Transport Corporation. A new company was formed called United Aircraft Corporation, consisting of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, Sikorsky, Chance Vought and Hamilton Standard. They were headquartered in Hartford with Frederick Rentschler as president. By 1935, Rentschler had completed a giant complex in East Hartford to manufactures airplanes.
Regardless of the many business changes, both Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft (United Aircraft) sponsored teams in Hartford’s Industrial League, the Public Service League and the East Hartford Twilight League. In 1937, United Aircraft had clubs in both the East Hartford Twilight League and the Industrial League. United Aircraft featured local greats and future GHTBL Hall of Fame inductees Joe Tripp and Bill Calusine. Former professional, Hal Justin served as manager and led United Aircraft to the 1939 Industrial League championship.
By 1941, America had declared war against the Axis powers of World War II. Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool (which relocated to West Hartford in 1939) and United Aircraft made major contributions to the war effort. United Aircraft’s workforce swelled to more than 40,000 employees, who helped the United States build more planes than any other warring nation. To relieve stress and to retain a sense of normalcy, many employees played baseball.
After winning the Industrial League in 1942, Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool joined the East Hartford Twilight League and won the pennant once again. Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool and United Aircraft were two of the best amateur teams in Connecticut during the wartime era. The company teams often clashed at Burnside Park in East Hartford. Both lineups featured professionals whose careers were interrupted by World War II. Former minor leaguer John Chomick and brother duo Pete Kapura and George Kapura were members of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, while Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool fielded a former Boston Braves pitcher, George Woodend as well as minor leaguers, Daniel Zazzaro, Jake Banks and Charlie Wrinn.
In 1952, Pratt & Whitney Aircraft won championships in the Hartford Industrial League and the Manchester Twilight League. The following summer, the company team tested their mettle in the Hartford Twilight League and outshined the competition. Led by their manager, Johnny Roser, Aircraft earned the 1953 Hartford Twilight League championship. Professional scouts continued to take notice. The New York Giants signed Pratt & Whitney Aircraft pitcher, Bob Kelley to a minor league contract. Aircraft cemented their dynasty in 1955 when they commandeered another dual championship in the Industrial League and the Hartford Twilight League.
In 1957, Pratt & Whitney Aircraft first baseman Dick Pomeroy won the Hartford Twilight League batting title. The club’s ace and freshman at the University of Connecticut, Pete Sala pitched his way to a minor league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Pratt & Whitney Aircraft entered the Hartford Twilight League for a final season in 1960. In the coming years, Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft began to favor softball teams instead of baseball. When the company opened a new division in North Haven, Connecticut later that year, a baseball field was erected on the premises for the enjoyment of employees and management.
Clubs adorned with the name Pratt & Whitney competed in Hartford’s amateur leagues for nearly a century. Employees and fans turned to the game for recreation and entertainment throughout two world wars. Amid decades of change, mergers and acquisitions, baseball was a constant for local manufacturers like Pratt & Whitney Machine Tool and Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. Although few people remember, Pratt & Whitney and its employees were major influencers on the development of baseball in the Greater Hartford area.