By TOM DICKAU
This is the second of ten articles to be written by Tom Dickau, president of the Bristol Historical Society and member of the Muzzy Field Anniversary Committee. Each article will be written to follow the history and activities of Muzzy Field through the decades.
Long before Adrian J. Muzzy donated a part of Hickory Park, which would eventually become Muzzy Field, baseball and the game of wicket were both popular within the community. Bristol was known in Connecticut and out-of- state as a premier player within wicket circles.
Pre-dating baseball by many years, wicket appears to be a New England adaptation of the English cricket game. As early as 1859, probably earlier, the Federal Hill Green was the site of events in both sports. Being the largest open area available “The Green” was much larger at that time, not having been reduced by future street construction. Quite oftentimes the Federal Hill area accommodated crowds of several thousand. In 1859 when Bristol defeated New Britain for the State Wicket Championship a crowd of 4,000 was present at the all-day event. Many years later in 1880, the locals, with Adrian J. Muzzy on the squad, traveled to New York to take on and defeated the highly touted Brooklyn Wicket Club. The game of wicket continued to be played by Bristol teams until at least 1905, although abandoned by other communities in earlier years. It was said that, “wicket runs in the blood in Bristol.”
Baseball was beginning to supplement or even rival wicket as a source of community entertainment. It seemed that every factory, fraternal organization or neighborhood was assembling teams that competed on “The Green.” Pick-up games and friendly rivalries were a common occurrence. A rudimentary baseball field with grandstands was also laid out as early as 1889 inside the Hickory Park Fair Grounds. Bristol squared off against a Plainville squad in the opening game. In another game later that year, two local teams would be featured with such Bristol luminaries as Adrian J. and Franklin Muzzy, John. J. Jennings, Edson M. Peck, Edward Ingraham, Dr. George S. Hull, and Miles Lewis Peck as participants.
Yes! Baseball was played on the premises long before it became Muzzy Field.
During the late 1800s and the first decade of the 20th century most sporting events were staged at the Center Street Grounds. Although history hides its exact location, this facility was most likely on the southern side of Center Street between Kelly and West Streets. Records from 1896 indicate that this field served as home field for the amateur New Departure Factory Bells that competed in a series of games against Torrington and Winsted. Recognized for their quality of play, the local entry was accepted into the six-team semipro Connecticut State League the following year. Suspended for the Spanish American War in 1898, the league resumed play in 1899.
Financial difficulties constantly plagued this franchise and on several occasions, only through investments by private investors, was it able to continue. Despite winning what appears to be Bristol’s first state baseball championship in 1901 revenue problems forced the team to disband before the next season. Bristol resident, William J. Tracy, continued to serve as the CSL president from 1902- 1906. Although busy with his league responsibilities, Tracy was able to assist a Bristol squad, “The Flats”, in acquiring entry into the Town Amateur Baseball League starting in 1902. This was probably a New Departure sponsored team.
By the early 1900s Bristol was transitioning from a small rural area to a much larger industrial community. The need for housing, especially around the center of town, where the New Departure and Ingraham Companies were located, was apparent. Around 1910, the Center Street Grounds fell prey to this needed development.
As Bristol developed and grew industrially so too would a parallel interest and growth in baseball transpire. The interest and dedication to wicket foreshadowed the enthusiasm and support that Bristol would give to its baseball development. It might be said, as the game grew over the years, “Baseball runs in the blood in Bristol!”
Gift of land
Adrian J. Muzzy, besides being an avid fan and participant of both wicket and baseball, was also a strong supporter of recreational activities. Muzzy had acquired Hickory Park from the estate of Wallace Barnes with the idea of developing it into a public park. When this concept failed to gain enough support, he sold 18 acres of Hickory Park in 1907 for housing development.
Muzzy, again being insightful, held on to a section of prime land.
Muzzy was appointed a park commissioner in 1911 when Bristol transitioned from a town to a city form of government. In 1912, he conveyed nearly five acres of land to the Bristol Public Welfare Association, an organization charged with preserving public properties for community recreation. His donation was made in honor of his sons, Leslie Adrian and Floyd Downs Muzzy, who both died in early childhood. The deed requested, but did not require, that the land be called “Muzzy Athletic Field.”
The BPWA later transferred this land to the city. Planning for the field commenced immediately. A town meeting was held in February 1913. Constructions of a grandstand and outfield fence, as well as the placement of the field, were on the agenda. It was also stipulated at this meeting that the field would be used exclusively for baseball purposes.
The city moved quickly on construction of the field.
On May 1, 1913 an unofficial grammar school game featured Bristol and Meriden.
It would be over a year later, on July 8, 1914, that the official opening of Muzzy Field would be celebrated. Although unimpressive by today’s standards a crowd of 100 businessmen and citizens attended a doubleheader fundraiser at a cost of 25 cents. This was the first significant event and gathering of local citizens to recognize the contribution made by its benefactor. The funds raised would be utilized for field improvements and an outfield fence.
The first game, a three inning event, featured the East Side coached by Bill Phelan against William J. Tracy’s West Side nine. The second game featured two local squads in a regulation seven inning affair.
The Bristol Press covered the celebration with a meager three paragraph front page story with no mention of Adrian J. Muzzy’s contribution
Baseball tempered by sickness, war and decisions
Bristol’s baseball involvement and fortunes during the remainder of the first decade at Muzzy Field were moderated and changed by external circumstances and by internal decision-making. A major infantile paralysis outbreak within the state, the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918, and the outbreak of World War I certainly set a depressive tone.
Health issues combined with concern for relatives and fellow citizens off in the service of their country became paramount issues within the community.
Bristol factories, especially during 1917 and 1918, were striving to meet war and munitions production. Employment increased significantly and a corresponding need for housing development became essential. Thirteen hundred men from the city were in the service of their country. Recreational participation and energies were now diverted to other essential undertakings.
Even with the clouds of sickness and war hanging over the community, there was a need for recreation as a source of relaxation and relief. Baseball participation did continue to the extent possible, but was never able to blossom and flourish.
The Bristol High School located on Summer Street— in the present Bristol Historical Society building— would continue to play their home games every season at the Park Street field against such opponents as Collinsville, East Hartford, Farmington, Meriden, Simsbury, South Manchester, and Suffield.
Bristol would continue to compete in the highly touted six-team circuit of the Farmington Valley League until 1916 when controversy ended its relationship.
In addition to the local nine, Farmington, Glastonbury, New Britain, Manchester, and Southington squads were included.
Having won the championship the two previous seasons, the locals were ready to challenge Manchester in a game that could have brought them their third championship.
Controversy arose when Bristol’s first two pitchers in rotation left the team. One departed for a major league contract and the other signed with a higher paying semipro team. Bristol petitioned the FVL for permission to add pitchers to their roster. The Manchester entry was able to block this move stating that only players originally submitted on a roster were able to participate.
The emphasis on quality baseball and the expectations that Bristol fans placed on a winning team became quite apparent. After consultation with and approval of many avid fans and supporters, Bristol withdrew from the league and announced that it would complete the season with an independent schedule. The locals were thus able to secure quality pitching replacements and provide the spectators with the style of play to which they were accustomed. The most successful and powerful semipro teams from Connecticut and surrounding states would be engaged to complete the 1916 season.
The 1917 and 1918 seasons witnessed a decline in baseball interest as World War I escalated. People concentrated on the war effort. Manufacturing needs increased dramatically and over 1,300 local citizens went off to serve their country.
During the 1917 season, Bristol joined five other teams in a semipro league. Teams within the circuit included Winsted, Hartford, New Britain, Ivoryton, and Torrington. This league quickly dissolved because of lack of spectator and player support. Most local factory teams also suffered a similar demise.
In August, a high profile benefit baseball fundraiser was held to assist the war effort featuring players from the Old Town Amateur League of the early 1900s. Judge William J. Malone from Bristol, a former Yale pitching standout, was on the mound. Opposed by a squad of current players, the game raised $122 for the American Red Cross.
The mood was even more somber in 1918 when a Spanish Influenza epidemic hit the community. A city hospital had yet to be developed, so the First Congregational Church Parish Hall was utilized as an emergency facility to address these needs.
The New Departure team, however, composed of high school and college players continued to play a week-end schedule against other semipro factory teams. Just like the major leagues, the local schedule was abbreviated by government action on Labor Day. There was an acute need for more service men and factory workers . It had been decided that shutting down these activities would provide these needed resources.
The New Departure Mutual Relief Association, as a diversion from the everyday war effort and as a means of recognition of its employees’ dedication by President DeWitt Page, staged its Annual Field Day at Muzzy Field and Rockwell Park in the fall of 1918. This colossal event began with a parade led by the Bristol Military Band. Over 2,500 management personnel and employees marched from their plant on North Main Street to a grove behind Muzzy Field. Females were transported to the site by specially arranged trolleys. This group would be joined by 500 employees from New Departure’s Elmwood facility. In preparation for this massive assembly, New Departure workers labored for days at the site. The area known as Page’s Grove was cleared; 1,300 feet of water pipes were installed for the barbecue pits and picnic tables were constructed to accommodate the gathering.
Approximately 5,000 people would feast on 80 barbecued sheep, over a ton of roasted corn (five acres were purchased), and other delicacies. Two-hundred waiters provided service with entertainment being provided during the meal. At the conclusion of the meal, sporting and recreational activities were provided for both male and female participants at Muzzy Field. A spirited baseball game was also played between Elmwood (Plant C) and Bristol (Plant A).
This field day was considered to be the largest event of this kind in the country and was filmed to be shown at local and national theaters.
On Armistice Day, Nov. 11, 1918, Bristol and the nation rejoiced and celebrated the end of the war and the return of service men. Positive feelings, renewed optimism and a return to normal everyday living replaced the doldrums of the war years!
In the spring of 1919, The New Departure Athletic Association was formed to provide year-round availability of recreational and sporting activities for both men and women. Muzzy Field would open its doors to other sports in addition to baseball.
Babe Ruth, “The Sultan of Swat,” would make his first of two appearances at the park. These events signaled that Muzzy Field was now ready to be not only a local player but was also ready to act on the regional and national stage. The next article will cover this transformation.