Black Baseball in Hartford

"Probably in no other business in America is the color line so finely drawn as in baseball  An African who attempts to put on a uniform and go among a lot of white players is taking his life in his hands."
--Sporting Life, April 11, 1891

African American and Hispanic players have always been an integral part of baseball in the U.S.  Until recently, their contributions had been dismissed and their stories largely ignored.  For more than one hundred years, Black and Latino ball players organized local teams and came to town to compete against white ball clubs in Hartford.  What follows is just a glimpse of some of their history:

Hartford vs. the Middletown Heroes, 1868
An all-white Hartford club traveled to Middletown in July to face the Heroes, a popular African American team that played in that town's Douglas Park.  The Hartford nine beat the Heroes, bringing back the game ball and a silver pitcher as a trophy.  While it was usually professional teams that drew paying crowds, fans put out 25 cents each to watch the Heroes play Hartford.

Cuban Giants vs. Hartford, 1886
Maybe the earliest record of Black baseball players in Hartford is the Cuban Giants' rout of the hometown team (and just about every other team of the Eastern League) in 1886.  The New York Age reported the Giants' thirty-five game winning streak against the Hartford and Bridgeport teams of the Eastern League and victories against National League teams as well.

None of the Giants were actually from Cuba. African Americans formed the team and others like it in the Negro Leagues when the color barrier closed off the possibility of playing in the major leagues. Black players found the Cuban Giants the only refuge around this period.  "There was a time when quite a number of colored players made their living playing ball," reported Sporting Life.  "Now, outside of the Cuban Giants there is not a single one employed in the profession, either in a major or minor league."

Moses Fleetwood Walker and Frank Grant, 1885-86
In 1885 and 1886, two Negro League greats played for Connecticut teams that were both part of the Eastern League. Frank Grant played second base for Meriden in 1886.  Moses Fleetwood Walker played as a catcher for Waterbury both years.

From May to July 1886, Meriden played seven games against Hartford before the team folded with a dismal record of 12-34.  Hartford won most of those contests.  Frank Grant's team visited the capitol city five times.  Just before disbanding on July 14th, the Meriden club's owner fired the whole team and hired the amateurs who played two final games, losing their last outing to Hartford 18 - 2 in what one newspaper called "a farce."

Frank Grant was called "the greatest base ball player of his age" by Sol White, who recorded much of the early history of Black baseball and was himself a player and manager.  As one legend goes, teen-aged Grant climbed eight feet up a telegraph pole to catch a fly ball.  After leaving Meriden, he joined the Buffalo Bisons, came back to Connecticut in 1891 with the Cuban Giants in Ansonia, and finished his career with Black "barnstorming" clubs until 1903.  Grant was one of the first players to wear shin guards, not simply as protection from occasional rough contact, but as protection from racist opponents who would target him with their cleats while sliding into second base.

Moses Walker may have visited Hartford as many as twelve times during the course of the 1886 season.  Waterbury fielded a strong team, finishing in second place behind Newark by the end of September.  When the two local clubs met, however, it was a different story.  Of the twenty-four games they played, Waterbury beat Hartford twelve times, Hartford took eleven games, and the clubs tied once.

Twice the teams played double headers, traveling to each other's city within the same day.  The first time was on May 31st, when they played in Hartford in the morning and then Waterbury in the afternoon.  Waterbury took both contests, 7-4 and 8-4.  On July 5th, the playing schedule was reversed.  They tied 11-11 in Waterbury in the morning and Hartford lost to their visitors at home 6-5 later that day.

The Eastern League started the season with eight teams, but finished with only five, losing Providence and Long Island as well as Meriden.  Hartford was forced to sell its top five players in September to pay off the team's debts and allow them to finish the season.  Fleetwood Walker and Frank Grant moved on.

Cuban Giants (Ansonia Big Gorhams) vs. Hartford, 1891
The short-lived Connecticut State League featured baseball clubs in ten cities around the state, including Hartford. The League also included the Cuban Giants (playing as the Big Gorhams), the team that never seemed to have one city as its permanent home.

In April of 1891, The New England League was courting the Giants in order for them to play in Portland, Maine. At the same time, Connecticut League Secretary Thomas of Norwalk was insisting the Giants would play there. Portland team Manager F.J. Leonard was advertising for recruits to come north (especially John "Bud" Fowler who was at the time "somewhere in the West").  But by April, opposition had grown so strong to the employment of the "colored chaps" in the New England League that Leonard signed nine white players instead.  "It became very evident that the place for a club of colored players was a league composed of all colored men, and not in a circuit where all the players were white men," wrote Sporting Life.

The new Connecticut State League adopted a constitution in April.  Maine's loss, it seemed, was to be Connecticut's gain when it was reported that the Cuban Giants were again considered for inclusion in the league. At first, Winsted was set to host the Giants, but the team landed in Ansonia.  A rival version of the Giants were also playing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at the same time.

The League's season started late but a schedule was finally developed by May.  The Hartford team was slated to play the Cuban Giants-- now the Ansonia Big Gorhams--on June 10 and again on June 23rd  in the capital city. 

No sooner had they joined the League, the Gorhams were reported to be close to expulsion, "making themselves unpopular by misbehavior," according to Sporting Life. One criticism of the team was their tendency to skip games.  In May, they traveled to Princeton, New Jersey for an exhibition game, blowing off their scheduled visit to Meriden.  This was especially disappointing to local fans, since the Gorhams featured  Frank Grant, who had played for Meriden five years earlier.  The Gorhams were "secured as a drawing card and have already begun to draw the wrong way," wrote the Waterbury American.  Soon after, Gorhams' Sol White left Ansonia for the Harrisburg team and was promptly disciplined. The Connecticut League folded by the end of June.

The Real Cubans Make Their Mark, 1911
The Hartford Senators faced eight teams in the reincarnated Connecticut League, including the New Britain Aviators, who played their home games at Electric Field.  The Aviators recruited a number of real Cuban players, including a short stop named Alfredo ("Pájaro") Cabrera.  Left fielder Armando Marsans and third baseman Rafael Almeida played in New Britain for four seasons, from 1908 to 1911.

The Aviator's manager Dan O'Neil was sent to the island to recruit Marsans and Almeida.  New Britain fans were excited at the prospect of having the two Cubans on their roster and knocking Hartford out of first place (New Britain had never placed higher than third). Eventually, both Almeida and Marsans ended up with the Cincinatti Reds, becoming the first Cubans in this century to make the major leagues.  Marsans, who could play all nine positions, was called "the Cuban answer to Ty Cobb" and led the National League in hitting that season.

New Britain tried again by signing Luis ("Mulo") Padrón, a remarkable Cuban player who had fielded for Mansfield until he was released by the team because of a "personality conflict."  Padrón was playing in New York and had pitched a no-hit game when the Aviators found him. A fast runner with a strong arm who could play any position, Padrón was credited with having hit the longest homer ever at Electric Field.  He lasted only twelve days before being released.

By 1915, Marsans, Almeida and Padrón were all back home playing in the National Cuban League.  Alfredo Cabrera, who had begun his career in 1902 and played with other local teams incuding Waterbury and Springfield,  took the Cuban Almendares team to a pennant victory as player-manager in 1915.  By the 1950's he was still with the game as head groundskeeper at El Gran Stadium in Havana.

Joe Rodriguez Slips Away, 1925
The Hartford Senators competed in the Eastern League during the 1920s.  They coveted Joe Rodriguez, a star Cuban infielder for the Bridgeport Bears.  Paddy O'Connor, the senators' skipper, hoped to put Rodriguez at first base.  The Senators made overtures to Bridgeport, but Rodriguez signed again for the Bears and never made it to the Hartford team.

The Hartford Giants, 1925
Travelling around New England in the early 1920s were the Corinthians, a semi-pro ball club.  In 1925, they reorganized as the Hartford Giants. On April 26, 1925, they opened their season against the Manchester Shamrocks.  The Giants advertised for other teams that might play them.  The team was managed by Solon E. Taylor of 15 Center Street.

The Colored Giants vs. Hartford Senators, 1925
Hartford's Eastern League team hosted the Brooklyn Royal Colored Giants on April 13, 1925.  They played on the Franklin Avenue grounds in front of an afternoon crowd of 200 spectators. The Giants' Spearmon slammed the first home run of the season over the right field fence in a manner that one reporter wrote was "reminiscent of Lou Gehrig's prodigious swats of 1923 and 1924" (Gehrig had played for the Senators before joining the Yankees). The Giants beat the Hartford 6 to 1, when the game was called in the 6th inning due to rain. Major credit for the win went to Giants' southpaw pitcher Flournoy.

It's hard to tell from press reports how the Colored Giants were received, but two incidents that day may provide a few clues.  The Giants made their first run when one of their players was caught between third and home.  One of the Senators hit the "dusky visitor" while being run down between the bases. It was also reported that the game was delayed because the Giants were not provided a dressing room at the park.  They had to travel back into the city to change into their uniforms.

The Hartford Colored Stars, 1925
At the same time the Giants were organizing, the Colored Stars from Hartford traveled to New London to play the Standard Oil Company nine.  The Stars went through three pitchers and lost their first game 10 to 2.

New England Colored Giants vs. Hartford Judeans, 1934
"Big Jim" Roberts led the Colored Giants as pitcher when they faced the Hartford Judeans on September 3, 1934.  It was a local umpire's decision that cost the Giants the game.  They faced off at Keney Park and exchanged the lead throughout the game until Cy Greenbaum drove in an eighth inning run to pull ahead 5 to 4. 

Then Big Jim came to bat, slamming the ball into the center field crowd.  According to Umpire Beebe, the hit should have resulted in a ground rule double, but Roberts made it to third base. Beebe waved Big Jim back to second, but Roberts' teammates swarmed onto the field in protest.  During the ensuing argument, Umpire Beebe pulled out his watch, "timed his move," and forfeited the game to the Judeans.

The Black Yankees in Hartford, 1945
Bulkeley Stadium was the home field for the Hartford Gems, led by manager "Jigger" Farrell.  Local jeweler and Hartford booster Bill Savitt was the team's owner. Their "perennial foes" were the New York Black Yankees.  The Black Yanks were part of the  Negro National League.

In their 1945 contests against Hartford, they featured Larry Washington, a 6' 4" first baseman known as "Trick Shot"; Tommy Holmes at second, Marvin Barber at third, and outfielder Walt Hardy. The New York team had a number of strong pitchers, including Percy Forest, Junior McFarland, Ace Adams, George Mack and spitball hurler Lefty John Stanley. The BlackYanks took a night game against the Gems with a score of 7 to 1 on June 18th.

Echevarria, Roberto Gonzalez. The Pride of Havana. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Arcidiacono, David. Middletown's Season in the Sun.
Soos, Troy.  Before the Curse. Hyannis, MA: Parnassus Imprints,1997
White, Sol. Sol White's History of Colored Baseball. Philadelphia: University of Nebraska Press, 1995 (c1907).
Sporting Life, April-June 1891
Hartford Courant, 1885, 1886, 1925
Hartford Times, 1934, 1945

Shoeleather History of Hartford