Play Ball: new exhibit at Fairfield Museum chronicles CT baseball
The idea for the Fairfield Museum's latest exhibit came from an old moth-bitten baseball jersey from the late 1920s that was donated for display several years ago. The gray jersey, made from wool, with red and blue stitching, represents not just a team -- McKesson & Robbins -- but Connecticut's rich history with baseball.
"I think every major city and some of the smaller towns had professional teams, going back to the 19th century," said Don Harrison, the Fairfield author of Connecticut Baseball: The Best of the Nutmeg State.
McKesson & Robbins wasn't a professional team, but was one of possibly dozens of industrial teams in the state. The pharmaceutical company, based in Fairfield, fielded its own team to play in the state industrial league, as was common in the time. It wasn't rare for companies to have baseball teams and some even had two. The teams were competitive -- so much so that some companies went so far as to hire people based on their talent on the baseball field rather than their skill at work.
Company teams were just a small part of Connecticut's history with baseball. A charter team in the National League was located in Hartford, but the Dark Blues only lasted from 1876 to 1877. Minor league and semi-pro teams have been (and some still are) based all throughout the state, including Fairfield. Due to segregation, black teams also existed in the state. A number of professional players, and even some Hall of Famers, came from or played in Connecticut. (See related op-ed on page A14.)
"There was a lot going on here," said Adrienne Saint-Pierre, curator of the museum. "Fairfield is a part of that story, but Bridgeport certainly has the limelight."
That vintage jersey will be joining a baseball from the 1850s, classic bats, informational displays and more at the "It's a Hit! A Hometown View of our National Pastime" exhibit opening at noon on Sunday at the museum at 370 Beach Road. It will be running until Jan. 2, 2011. The early days of baseball up until the 1950s will be chronicled, with a special emphasis on Bridgeport and Fairfield.
While the game forms the crux of the exhibit, there are farther-reaching goals.
"We're doing this also to tell some of the larger stories of history and humanity," Saint-Pierre said.
In the 19th century, she said, European immigrants unfamiliar with urban environments would come to Bridgeport. While their lives were difficult, baseball became a unifying activity.
"So many who were new to this country embraced baseball, whether they were playing it or watching it," she said.
Another social issue in baseball was how black people were excluded from playing in the white leagues, so they formed their own teams and leagues. One of the players who took this route was Rufus Baker, a 1938 graduate from Roger Ludlowe High School who went on to have success in the Negro Leagues. He played for the Bridgeport Colored Stars. The New York Black Yankees saw him play and signed him as their shortstop.
While his story has the making of a Cinderella tale, the racism of the time gives it a tinge of sadness.
"[Baker] said when the team traveled, they would be threatened with guns," Saint-Pierre said. "There were a lot of threats to African-American players."
For the display, the Fairfield Museum tapped area experts on baseball, such as Harrison. He helped put the museum in touch with a number of Connecticut players who went to the big leagues.
One Hall of Famer mentioned in the display played in the state for a short while, Harrison noted: The Hartford Senators, now defunct, had a young player named Lou Lewis on the team in the early 1920s. The young man from Columbia University was a powerful hitter, but he didn't play long for the Hartford team. He soon made his way to the New York Yankees.
His real name was Lou Gehrig.
The Lewis alias came from the need to hide identity in order to remain eligible to still play at his university, Harrison said.