Early on in his career, before he was a baseball icon, George Herman “Babe” Ruth visited Connecticut. Ruth often traveled the nation to show off his skills and earn a paycheck after his professional season and to raise funds for American troops fighting in World War I. A 23-year-old Ruth was primarily a starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox when he first visited the Nutmeg State. The young pitcher won more games than any left-handed pitcher in the Majors from 1915 to 1918. During this stretch, Ruth compiled a 2.28 earned run average, a winning percentage of 65%. In 1916, he hurled 9 shutout games, a record that would stand until tied by Ron Guidry in 1978. In the 1918 World Series versus the Chicago Cubs, a victorious Ruth pitched 29 ⅔ scoreless innings, a mark that would not be broken until Whitey Ford recorded 33 ⅔ innings in 1961.
Attending the 1918 World Series was the owner of the Hartford Senators, James Clarkin, who was well-acquainted with owners of Major League clubs. Clarkin attempted to recruit the Red Sox and the Cubs to play an exhibition game in Hartford to benefit American soldiers fighting in World War I. Clarkin’s offer was turned down by both teams, however he managed to land Babe Ruth, who agreed to play in Hartford. Days after winning his second World Series with the Red Sox, Ruth appeared in a series of semi-pro games throughout Connecticut. His success on the diamond and larger than life characteristics gave the Babe instant popular appeal. Baseball fans across the nation were clamoring to see Ruth in action for the first time.
Ruth’s first stop on his Connecticut tour was New Haven, where he guest-starred for the New Haven Colonials, the Elm City’s semi-pro club. Ruth played first base for the Colonials. He slugged a home run in a 5 to 1 loss versus a Cuban Stars team made up of players from the Negro League. As a batter, Ruth’s raw power was known yet not fully developed. After the 1918 season, the Babe had tallied only 20 of his 714 career home runs over 3 seasons with the Red Sox.
The next day, on Sunday, September 15, 1918, Ruth arrived in Hartford, attracting crowds of people hoping to see the Babe. He was driven into the city by Manager Curtis Gillette of the Hartford Poli’s baseball club to lavish accommodations at Hotel Bond on Asylum Street. Ruth would join the Hartford Poli’s ball club at the Hartford Base Ball Grounds located at the corner of Wyllys Street and Hendricxsen Avenue. The Poli’s were the “fastest” club in Hartford, sponsored by Sylvester Poli, the theatre magnate, entertainment proprietor and resident of Milford, Connecticut.
The Babe and the 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 and 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.
The Babe must have enjoyed stopping over in Connecticut, because in the Fall of the following year Ruth came back. This time he brought his 1919 Boston Red Sox teammates to Muzzy Field in Bristol, Connecticut, where Ruth would set a new record. He played first base and hit fourth in the batting order 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 precision ball bearings for cars, planes, ships, and military equipment.
On September 21, 1919, Ruth took the field with a fellow Red Sox Hall of Fame outfielder, Harry Hooper who had two hits and a run on the day. Though it was the Babe who stole the how that day. As the Hartford Courant put it, “All eyes were pointed at the famous baseball mauler,” as Ruth blasted the first ever home run at Muzzy Field. Hooper was on first base when the Babe connected with a pitch thrown by Freddie Rieger, guest star pitcher for New Departure from the Pittsfield team in the Eastern League. The ball sailed over the right field fence as 5,000 onlookers cheered with adulation. The Red Sox won by a score of 6 to 2 over New Departure. The game was remembered as the most thrilling sporting event of the year in Connecticut.
While the rest of the Red Sox went home, Ruth continued his stay in Connecticut and appeared in another game with the 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 balls 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 seen in batting practice lifting a ball over 500 feet passed the centerfield fence. Ruth played first base that day 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.
A few months later, on January 5,1920, Ruth was purchased by the New York Yankees from the Red Sox for $125,000 in cash and about $300,000 in loans after he refused to return to play for the Red Sox at a salary of $10,000 per year. The Yankees struck a deal of the century as Ruth went on to smash his own home run record by hitting an astounding 54 four-baggers in the 1920 season, while batting at .376 clip. Going to New York only made Ruth bigger, better and in higher demand by fans across the country.
Fortunately for Hartford, the Babe kept coming back to play for the Poli’s. The 1920 New York 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 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 trollies were scheduled to Bristol that Saturday afternoon allowing about 10,000 fans a chance to see the Babe, at Muzzy Field.
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 the game of baseball thousands of new fans. He barnstormed throughout the eastern seaboard in grand fashion and ushered in the home run era and the Golden Age of baseball (1920 to 1960). Though it wouldn’t be the last timed Ruth visited Hartford to play our national ball game.