The Hartford Poli's were a semi-professional baseball club formed in 1905 by management and employees of Poli’s Theatre. The team’s ballplayers ranged in ages from 18 to 30. They were said to be the “fastest” club in Hartford. The Poli’s competition consisted of amateur clubs and manufacturing company teams in the regional area. The main foe of the Hartford Poli’s was the Pratt & Whitney Aircraft Company nine. The owner of Poli’s was Sylvester Z. Poli who operated theaters in Hartford, New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury and in several other cities throughout the Northeast.
The Poli’s manager and part-time second baseman, Curtis Gillette was also the door manager at the Poli Theatre of Hartford. Manager Gillette was raised in New Haven but came to Hartford in 1911 pursuing career and baseball opportunities. Gillette led the Hartford Poli’s to unprecedented success against local opponents and captured multiple amateur state titles. Most notably, Gillette and the Poli’s would also play host to a young Babe Ruth on multiple occasions in the late summers of 1918, 1919 and 1920.
In mid-September of 1918, the Hartford Poli’s landed a recent World Series champion to make a historic appearance for their club. The one and only, George Herman “Babe” Ruth of the Boston Red Sox guest starred for the Poli’s in a doubleheader match up. The event benefited American troops from Hartford who were fighting overseas in World War I. Ruth arrived in Hartford to cheering fans in the streets. Manager Curtis Gillette of the Hartford Poli’s drove the Babe to his accommodations at Hotel Bond on Asylum Street where he was swarmed by reporters. The next day, Ruth joined the Poli’s at the Hartford Base Ball Grounds located at the corner of Wyllys Street and Hendricxsen Avenue.
The Babe and the Hartford Poli’s faced opponents from Chicopee, Massachussets, named the Fisk Red Tops. Ruth pitched the Poli’s to a 1-0 victory, beating one of his 1918 World Series Champion teammates, Dutch Leonard who guest starred as starting pitcher for the Red Tops. Ruth pitched a complete game shutout allowing only 4 hits. Another Red Sox teammate, Sam Agnew played catcher and drove in the game’s only run. Ruth hit in the third sport of the batting order for the Poli’s. He recorded a single and then a double that caromed off the top of the “Bull Durham” tobacco advertisement painted on the centerfield wall. Ruth entertained a crowd estimated to be about 5,000 spectators and earn a reported $350 for his appearance.
A week later, Ruth once again played on a Sunday at the Hartford Base Ball Grounds for the Poli’s in a doubleheader. In the first game, the Hartford Poli’s went head to head with Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. Five Major Leaguers including Ruth appeared in the games that day. Ruth pitched and hit third in the Poli’s lineup. Even though he pitched well, Ruth was out-dueled by his Red Sox teammate, “Bullet” Joe Bush and Pratt & Whitney won the game by a score of 1 to 0.
In the second game of the day, Ruth and the Poli’s faced a former Hartford Senator turned New York Yankee, Ray Fisher. Fisher was the headliner for the traveling Fort Slocum team who beat the Poli’s by a score of 4 to 1. Ruth played first base, had a base hit and scored the Poli’s lone run. A crowd of more than 3,000 people were in attendance for this rare occasion; a doubleheader featuring Babe Ruth in Hartford.
In 1919, Ruth barnstormed with the Boston Red Sox after a sub-par Regular Season. Hartford once again welcomed the Babe who blasted the first ever home run at Muzzy Field in an exhibition game between the Red Sox and the New Departure company team. While the rest of the Red Sox went home, Ruth continued his stay in the Greater Hartford area. He appeared in another game with the Hartford Poli’s on September 28, 1919. At Poli Field in East Hartford, Connecticut, Ruth and the Poli’s were met by the Pioneers ball club of New Britain.
Ruth hit two big flies over the right-field fence but was allowed only one base for each long ball due to the a short porch rule. Earlier that day, the Babe was witnessed in batting practice lifting 500 foot blast over the centerfield fence. Ruth played first base that Sunday for the Poli’s who managed to shutout the Pioneers 3 to 0. Mayor of Hartford, Richard J. Kinsella threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch and posed with Ruth for a photograph. More than 6,000 fans were in attendance to see the Great Bambino, who had now become the most famous ballplayer in the nation.
Babe Ruth must have enjoyed his time in Connecticut because he came back once again to play for the Hartford Poli’s. Ruth had just finished his 1920 season, his first with the New York Yankees. The Yankees were runner-ups in the American League pennant race behind the Cleveland Indians. As the season came to a close, Manager Gillette of the Hartford Poli’s persuaded Ruth to join the Poli’s to play against New Departure at Muzzy Field in Bristol, Connecticut on October 2, 1920.
The Babe hit “clean up” for the Hartford Poli’s, played every position except pitcher and went 4 for 4 with 3 singles and a double. Nonetheless, New Departure were able to shutout the Poli’s by a score of 7 to 0 as a result of 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 about 10,000 fans a chance to see Babe Ruth at Muzzy Field.
The Man Behind the Poli’s
The Hartford Poli’s were sponsored by Sylvester Zefferino Poli, a theater mogul, vaudeville pioneer and entertainment proprietor. 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 Hartford, Poli’s Theatre was located on Main Street and was arguably Hartford’s most elegant entertainment venue.
In July of 1928, Poli sold his company to Fox New England Theaters, retaining 3/4 interest and creating Fox-Poli's. In May of 1934, Loew's Theatres purchased Poli’s remaining theaters, which became known as Loew's-Poli Theatres. Sylvester Poli spent his final years at his summer home, the Villa Rosa in Woodmont, Connecticut. He died on May 31, 1937 at the age of 79 due to pneumonia. Loew's-Poli Theatre stayed open in Hartford until 1957.