A Century of Muzzy: The dawning of a new baseball era for Bristol

By TOM DICKAU

BRISTOL HISTORICAL

SOCIETY

Muzzy Field was now ready not only to be a local player, but also to act on the regional and national stage as a first class, non-major league field. With Armistice Day celebrated on Nov. 11, 1918, the nation rejoiced the end of the war and the return of servicemen to their families and communities. Industrial employment increased dramatically with a corresponding resurgence in athletic and recreational interests. Recognizing this post war trend, the New Departure Athletic Association was formed in the spring of 1919. DeWitt Page, New Departure president, gave his full endorsement and financial support to this organization. Its mission was to provide year-round athletic activities for both male and female employees. Soon after the New Departure Girls’ Athletic Association was formed to assure equal access for females to basketball, baseball and track competition. The stage was set for a golden era of baseball at Muzzy Field from1919 to 1926.

Athletic talent abounded at the New Departure facility. A semipro baseball team comprised of former major and minor league players, as well as, collegiate stars was soon organized. The annual schedule included games against the most outstanding teams from Connecticut, the highly touted Massachusetts Industrial League, stalwart teams from surrounding states and the in-state and out-of -state New Departure affiliated teams. Bristol’s rosters always included many pre-eminent players. Everyone wanted the opportunity to challenge the New Departure Endees. Oftentimes, a crowd of over 3,000 spectators would attend these games. Heated rivalries developed as out-of-town newspapers accused the Bristol entry of hiring “playing mercenaries” for minor jobs while permitting them to practice during the work day. Despite these allegations, which were never proven, the local entry acquitted themselves quite well in their inaugural year winning the informal Connecticut State Semipro League Championship.

Three players from this team currently have leagues within the city named in honor of them. The McCabe-Waters Little League is named after James Arthur “Swat” McCabe and Clyde Waters, while a BristolPark and Recreation circuit memorializes George Scott. McCabe, a former Cincinnati Reds player, patrolled the outfield, while former minor leaguer Clyde Waters handled catching duties. Bristol native George Scott anchored the second base position.

Sporting events would once again instill community pride, become a major source of entertainment and provide social camaraderie.

Although Muzzy Field remained a public park, the New Departure Company by mutual agreement assumed responsibility for its maintenance. Taxpayers would not pay for its upkeep and improvement. Field conditions were immediately addressed with the installation of new soil and sod. Necessary leveling of the field also transpired. The City of Bristol would constantly receive accolades regarding the quality of the field.

Former Commissioner of the Connecticut State League and Bristol resident, William J. Tracy, served as a representative of the Board of Park Commissioners. He successfully encouraged the assistance of local merchants, industrialists, and athletic clubs to provide labor for the construction and painting of a large wooden grandstand. This structure would accommodate 1,200 fans, five times the capacity of the former bleachers. At a cost of $12,000, it was designed to be completed before June 14(Flag Day) so that an appropriate ceremony could be held to honor the city’s veterans. The facility was finished on time. In addition to increased seating capacity, it also included a ticket office, dressing rooms, showers, and other amenities.

Although specially designated in 1913 for baseball, it was not long before other sporting activities and events would be approved. Boxing matches had already been staged at the field. In June of 1919, the Park Board and City Council approved the installation of a cinder track in the outfield at a cost of $1,000 to accommodate interscholastic and independent meets. It was not long before football entered the picture. At the request of the West End Athletic Club in mid-September, the Board of Park Commissioner authorized the construction of a football field that could also double as a soccer venue. Adrian J. Muzzy, a Park Commissioner, once again assisted by selling to the city, for one dollar, the additional land needed to construct this field.

The arrival of Babe Ruth and Major League Baseball

Babe Ruth and the Boston Red Sox were coming to the city for a Sunday exhibition game. As a prelude to their arrival the next day, the Fourth Annual New Departure Field Day was held at Muzzy Field and Page’s Barbecue Grounds (located behind Muzzy Field). This colossal event was designed to bring management, employees and families together with a feeling of connectedness and esprit de course. Featuring a festival of food, entertainment, and competitive sporting and recreational activities, the 50 cent admissions charge was utilized as a donation to a relief fund that assisted employees unable to work during illness. Considered to be the largest corporate party in the Northeast, and possibly the country, this event was documented by national magazine and movie coverage.

Professional baseball was prohibited in Boston on Sunday, thus affording the opportunity for this in-season exhibition game featuring the first major league team to ever play at Muzzy Field. The day had finally arrived. Babe Ruth, the Sultan of Swat, and the Red Sox team arrived for an afternoon game against New Departure. Several thousand of the nearly six thousand spectators arrived early for batting practice. They were here to hopefully witness the power-hitting Boston star become the first player ever to challenge the distant fences of Muzzy Field. The fans were not disappointed as he drove several out of the park during this pre-game session. Early in the game Ruth again whipped the crowd into frenzy when he stroked a prodigious blast over the right field fence. The ball was never recovered. It was rumored that it landed in the PequabuckRiver, a distance of five hundred feet from home plate, and floated downstream. Ruth also singled in the Red Sox 6-2 victory.

Babe Ruth was quite complimentary regarding the field conditions, the quality of play by the locals, and the gracious reception accorded him and his team. This, however, would be his last appearance as a Red Sox player at Muzzy Field. Some spectators, players, management and coaches did not respect his power-hitting style feeling that “this was a gentlemen’s game” utilizing finesse and strategy. Management strongly encouraged him to adjust his hitting style but he would ultimately refuse. During January 1920, he was traded to the New York Yankees. Ironically during his first season with his new team he hit 54 homeruns and forever changed the thinking about the game. The trade to the New York Yankees created the fabled “Curse of the Bambino,” the name attributed to Babe Ruth. The Red Sox previous to the trade were a major league powerhouse and had won several World Series championships. After the trade their next championship was not captured until 2004, 84 years after Ruth’s departure.

At the zenith of his playing career, “The Babe” made his second and final appearance at the local field on Saturday, Oct. 2, 1920. Communities from New England, the Midwest, Pennsylvania, and New York were begging for his participation within their towns as part of a postseason exhibition tour. He could name his own “asking price,” which was generally around $1,500. It appears that the reception he received during his first appearance at Muzzy Field had a significant influence in his decision to play an exhibition tilt in Bristol as a member of the Hartford Poli Team. The game, a natural rivalry from the previous year, would provide a competitive setting. During batting practice, “The Homerun King”, drove several out of the park. Ruth played eight positions and collected four hits, including two doubles. He did not pitch during the contest. Three thousand spectators watched as the local team shutout the visitors 7-0.

The day before this game Babe Ruth was driving to Springfield for an exhibition game in his $12,000 Packard Touring Car, which he had purchased four days earlier. While traveling through the Yalesville section of Wallingford, he collided with a truck, totally demolishing his automobile. Fortunately he received only minor scratches and with assistance was able to continue to his destination. An early and erroneous headline by a Meriden paper reported, “The Babe close to death after auto accident!” Think about how history would have been changed if this was accurate!

The Red Sox would return once again in 1922, winning that game 9-2.

The New Departure team at Muzzy during the early and mid 1920s

Other events would contribute significantly to the glory days of Muzzy Field during the early to the mid-1920’s. During these times, the major league system was not comparable to today’s circuit, where negotiations and contracts yield multi-million dollar salaries and guaranteed player rights. To the contrary, it was not uncommon that players either chose not to enter the major leagues or returned to the semipro ranks from both major and minor league teams. Players often felt that holding a steady weekly job while participating with semipro week-end teams provided their families more security and financial stability!

The New Departure team was certainly a benefactor of these circumstances being able to acquire extremely talented players with big league experience. Playing from April to September, their roster, although having some consistent names, would also become a revolving door with players coming and going. The Endee players would oftentimes compete against former teammates. Throughout the years the locals were highly successful within very competitive schedules. Strong rivalries developed with in-state teams, especially Torrington and Manchester. Competing against Manchester became extremely heated, antagonistic and bitter. Both local newspapers added to the hostility with their incendiary reporting. It was not uncommon that these teams would square off as many as seven times during a season. It was also quite common that they would play a home-and-home doubleheader on the same day. Serving as an example, Manchester might play at Bristol in the morning and then both teams would journey to Manchester for an afternoon game. After losing to their archrival in closely contested series during the previous two years, the New Departure team prevailed in1923. Antagonistic newspaper reporting, including accusations against management, team and spectators, was prevalent leading up to the game. Extensive pageantry surrounded the deciding game including large car parades, participation by the New Departure Band and the appearance of the Royal Rooters (a newly organized singing group). The Manchester team conducted similar activities. After winning the contest in front of 3,000 spectators, a mock funeral procession of 1,000 fans marched to centerfield to bury a black draped coffin symbolizing the Manchester team!

Bristol breaks the color barrier and welcomes other groups

Muzzy Field and the New Departure Endees broke the color barrier during the 1921 season welcoming several all “colored or black” teams to Bristol. These teams included the Cuban Stars, the Elm City Giants, and the Brooklyn Royal Giants. Although many of the players were some of the best of their time and quite capable of competing at the major league level, the big league teams refused to sign them. It would be many years before the “color barrier” would be broken at the major league level. The Bristol Press, while reporting the arrival of these teams, recognized their talent but utilized racist style language and even questioned the players’ intellectual levels. If it wasn’t for their “color,” many of these players would be memorialized today as some of the best players to ever participate in our national pastime. These teams would return each season to compete against the locals.

The House of David from Michigan journeyed to Muzzy Field for the first time during the 1922 season. This unique team would become an annual attraction. This religious cult would challenge any team in the country in order to raise funds for their commune and also to spread the gospel message. Sporting long beards and wearing long hair because of religious teachings, the Bristol Press described them as, “decrepit old men” although most of them were still in their 20s. They even traveled with their own portable lights for night games. Bristol won the initial encounter 3-2.

The West End Athletic Club fielded its first football team at Muzzy Field in 1919. During their initial campaign only the Mohawks from Meriden were able to score against them. Clyde Waters, from WilliamsCollege and serving as the New Departure baseball catcher, starred as quarterback. Thomas M. Monahan assumed coaching responsibilities. Competing, during the fall season, this team was comparable to the New Departure baseball team who scheduled the best quality state teams. The West Enders also continued the Thanksgiving Day football tradition that had previously been conducted at the Center Street Grounds. This would often include a morning game at Muzzy Field and an afternoon contest in a different community. This tradition would eventually be passed on to BristolHigh School.

The West End Athletic Club also held an annual track meet at Muzzy Field, which drew over 1,500 spectators and participants. Track and field events, tug-of-war contests and bicycle races were parts of the festivities. The WEAC also sponsored a baseball team.

In addition to the New Departure Endees competing against out-of town competition during the week, two separate local twilight leagues also played at Muzzy Field on weeknights. The first, the New Departure Twilight League, featured games between buildings or divisions from the local factory. The second was a local Industrial League comprised of the Wallace Barnes Company, the Bristol Brass Company, the E. Ingraham Clock Company, the Humason Manufacturing Company, the Sessions Clock Company, and the C.J. Root Company. It is possible that other teams joined this circuit.

Muzzy Field was also beginning to garner state recognition as a superb athletic facility. It was selected as the host site in 1920 for the Connecticut State Soccer Championship between New Haven and Manchester.

Times and thinking were changing

Times and thinking were changing for the New Departure team and their counterparts within the state and throughout the surrounding areas. After playing for approximately five years, spectator interest began to wane. Games that previously garnered the support of several thousand fans were only attracting five hundred spectators. A corresponding drop in gate revenue occurred.

Increased travel mobility with the opportunity to engage in other diversions and activities perhaps contributed to this pattern. Even during the stellar years of the New Departure team during the early 1920s, spectators signaled that they preferred to watched local talent perform on the field rather than out-of-town luminaries and all-star teams. Perhaps this thinking was beginning to play out as attendance dropped.

The New Departure team captured the Connecticut State League championship in 1924. With sagging attendance at games and weakened by financial pressures, several teams were unable to support a team in 1925 and withdrew from the league. The CSL had insufficient entries to conduct a schedule during the 1925 season. With this in mind, Bristol management made a calculated decision to independently schedule teams from the surrounding states with the best playing reputations. Due to a lack of attendance at many instate games during the previous year little attention was given to most state teams. The exceptions were rivals, Torrington and Manchester. Although New Departure’s record was as strong as usual, this strategy proved unsuccessful and failed to bolster crowd support.

A Memorial Day doubleheader scheduled against Torrington drew a crowd of less than 500. Bristol, which had not played Manchester in 1924, attempted to renew the heated rivalry in 1925. The usual newspaper rancor was displayed on both sides, perhaps as an attempt to induce a larger attendance. Previous crowds at these games had numbered over 3,000. Unfortunately these numbers never materialized. The game attracted a split crowd of only eight hundred.

Martin Dihigo and the Cuban Stars arrived for a weeknight game in June to challenge the local nine. Having played previously at Muzzy Field, this game should have been an appealing contest to witness. Dihigo was considered one of the finest players of the time and would later be inducted into Halls of Fame in the United States, Cuba, Mexico, and Venezuela. With the previous game history and with Dihigo in the lineup a large crowd was anticipated. Only 500 spectators arrived at the ticket booth to see the game and possibly the greatest player of all times.

It’s ironic that even with the reduced crowds, New Departure’s quality of play and record permitted them to lay claim to the unofficial 1925 state championship.

The demise of the golden era of New Departure baseball

The demise of the Golden Era of New Departure baseball at Muzzy Field was evident. During the 1926 season, there was a drastic cutback in the number of star studded teams from out-of-state that journeyed to Muzzy Field. Decreased gate revenues made it financially impossible to continue these rivalries. Newspaper accounts also changed, giving more support, and space to other local teams. This shifting pattern was a sign of the times, reflecting what the community viewed as relevant. Local elementary, high school, and industrial league games received increased coverage, while there was also a corresponding reduction for the New Departure team.

Debatably, the greatest game ever to be played at Muzzy Field transpired as the New Departure team was in its declining stage. The world champion Pittsburgh Pirates visited Muzzy Field on June 13, 1926 for an exhibition tilt. Having an open date between games at Philadelphia and Boston, they brought a roster that included four future Hall of Famers. Although the Pirates were experiencing internal and coaching difficulties, they expected little difficulty with the local nine. Newspaper advertising for the game was not as comprehensive as previous years. However, extra temporary bleachers were installed with the expectation of a large crowd. Only 3,000 spectators watched the game that benefitted the firefighters’ pension fund. The final outcome was one of the most significant in the history of Muzzy Field. The New Departure team defeated the major league Pittsburgh Pirates 4-3 in extra innings.

During the latter half of the 1920s Bristol baseball fans became more interested in watching hometown talent rather than recruited and paid semipro stars. Many players on local teams worked in factories. The players and their families were often known or familiar to the spectators. The local factory teams, elementary competitions, high school games and developing church leagues garnered strong local interest and support.

In June of 1927 the Bristol Twilight League was organized and soon after commenced playing week-end games. A New Departure factory team was one of the teams within the league. These games generally drew better attendance than the semipro team, which continued to have an excellent record during the 1927 season. During the 1928 season, the New Departure team entered the highly disorganized Connecticut State League. Attendance figures at these games were extremely poor. Talk was prevalent that the New Departure Company was considering severing its ties to baseball.

An era had come to an end! When the 1929 season opened the New Departure semipro team no longer existed. It had merged into the Bristol Twilight League. The contributions of this organization to the City of Bristol and Muzzy Field were remarkable. Recognizing the caliber of its players and the quality of baseball played, major league teams had competed at Muzzy Field on three different occasions. The “color barrier” had been broken at Muzzy Field long before major league teams permitted signing of “colored or black” players. Many former major or minor league players, as well as some of the greatest players of the time had graced the Westside Ballpark. Lastly, as the city was developing industrially, the New Departure Company engendered a sense of community pride, provided activities to attend and brought citizens together in a social context. New Departure’s contributions to the changing and developing history of Muzzy Field cannot be underestimated.

The Muzzy memorial gate

With the construction of the Muzzy Memorial Gate in 1927, the entrance to the park was significantly changed and beautified. A granite archway donated by the Muzzy family was installed memorializing the two sons of Adrian J. Muzzy, both of whom died in early childhood. The inscription reads, “This field is given by Adrian James Muzzy in the name of his two sons Leslie Adrian and Floyd Downs Muzzy.”

Next article

The next article will encompass changes during the 1930’s and how the Great Depression effected play at Muzzy Field.

 

The House of David was among the teams that traveled to Muzzy Field.

The House of David was among the teams that traveled to Muzzy Field.

Babe Ruth, when he was with the Boston Red Sox, was among the top players to step onto Muzzy Field for a game.

Babe Ruth, when he was with the Boston Red Sox, was among the top players to step onto Muzzy Field for a game.