Opinion: It's a Hit! Celebrating baseball in Bridgeport and Fairfield
The first recorded hit in the National League came off the bat of a mustachioed Bridgeport native named James "Orator Jim" O'Rourke. The date was April 22, 1876.
The exploits of both local athletes and are among those celebrated in the Fairfield Museum and History Center's new exhibit, "It's a Hit! A Hometown View of Our National Pastime," which opens on Father's Day, June 20, and continues through Jan. 2, 2011.
O'Rourke, known for his grandiloquence and passion for learning -- he earned a law degree at Yale during his playing days -- was one of the game's early stars. In a career encompassing 18 seasons (1876--93) plus one game as a 54-year-old catcher with the 1904 New York Giants, he amassed 2,304 hits en route to a .310 lifetime batting average. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.
Nagy, a three-sport athlete at Roger Ludlowe High School and a two-time Big East Pitcher of the Year at the University of Connecticut, won 129 games against 105 losses during his fine major league career (1990--2003). From 1995 to '99, he produced won-lost records of 16-6, 17-5, 15-11, 15-10 and 17-11. In 1992, he was 17-10, and one of his victories was a one-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles. Nagy appeared in two World Series and two All-Star Games with the Indians.
The exhibit, curated by Adrienne Saint Pierre, highlights teams and individual players who helped to make the Bridgeport-Fairfield area a baseball hotbed from the game's formative years into the current era. In addition to Nagy, other recent Bridgeport natives who reached the heights are outfielder Angel Echevarria (Bassick High School), a .280 hitter across seven National League seasons with the Colorado Rockies, Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers; and pitchers Kurt Kepshire (Central High School) and Phil Nastu (Bassick, University of Bridgeport).
Kepshire contributed 10 victories to the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals' National League and World Series champions and won 16 games over-all in three seasons. Nastu, a left-hander, spent portions of three seasons with the San Francisco Giants, reaching his zenith with a five-hit, 8-1 victory over the Houston Astros and their ace, J.R. Richard, in 1979.
Another left-hander, Mike Porzio, who graduated from Fairfield Prep -- although he inexplicably didn't play for the Jesuits -- was talented enough to pitch in 387 professional games during 16 seasons, including 51 relief appearances with the Rockies and Chicago White Sox (1999, 2002--03).
An earlier noteworthy player who honed his skills on Park City diamonds was the late George "Kiddo" Davis, an outfielder who batted a combined .381 in two World Series with the New York Giants (1933, '36) and .282 for his major league career (1926, 1932--38). Davis earned a degree from New York University and is a member of the school's Athletic Hall of Fame.
Professional baseball made its debut in Bridgeport in 1885, with the arrival of the Bridgeport Giants of the Eastern League. After his major league career ended, O'Rourke managed Bridgeport's minor league clubs from 1897 to 1908, punctuated by his Orators winning the 1904 Connecticut League championship. He even continued to play well past his 50th birthday.
Prior to America's entry into World War I, Bridgeport's 1916 Eastern League team, the Hustlers, had a player-manager named Neal Ball. He is best known as the first player to make an unassisted triple play in the major leagues, achieving the feat with the Cleveland Indians in a game against the Boston Red Sox, on July 19, 1909. Ball settled in Bridgeport and died there on Oct. 15, 1957.
The Great Depression and then World War II kept pro baseball dormant in the Park City from 1933 through 1946, save for the 1941 Bridgeport Bees of the Interstate League. But in 1947, the professional game enjoyed a rebirth with the arrival of the Class-B Colonial League and another club called the Bees.
Owned by a local restaurateur, Carl Brunetto, and Bob Sherwood, the Bees played home games at the new Candlelite Stadium. Sherwood, a fine athlete, played center field and batted .308 for the 1947 club. But attendance dwindled -- due in part to the growing popularity of television -- and the league folded in July of 1950.
For nearly a half century, the Park City was without a professional franchise, or until the Bridgeport Bluefish were formed and began play in the independent Atlantic League in 1998. Willie Upshaw, a Fairfield resident who had been a first-rate American League first baseman with the Toronto Blue Jays, was appointed manager, and he guided the Bluefish to the league championship in 1999, the second year of their existence.
The century-old Senior City League is the best known of Bridgeport's amateur leagues to provide recreation and entertainment for countless participants and spectators.
Don Harrison, Fairfield resident and former Brooks Community Newspapers editor, worked with the Fairfield Museum and History Center to organize the "It's a Hit!" exhibit. His book, Connecticut Baseball: The Best of the Nutmeg State, was released in 2008.