By TOM DICKAU
This is the fourth 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.
The 1930s witnessed the transition from baseball to football as the dominant sporting activity at Muzzy Field. Later in the decade, a growing interest in softball would signal a decline in baseball events at the West Side ballpark. These years also recorded several firsts at Muzzy Field. These would include the first professional verses semipro football game; the first night game; the first female to pitch at Muzzy Field; and the construction of the first brick and steel grandstand. Disasters and near catastrophes also marked this period.
This decade would also bring to the forefront prominent individuals who participated at Muzzy Field. Today’s sporting enthusiasts recognize and honor these individuals at events such as the Bristol Sports Hall of Fame and the Bristol Tramps Annual Dinners. Individuals such as Joseph “Sugar” Hugret, Andy Palau, Albie Gurske, Henry Brophy, George “Rinks” Alexander, Phil Alexander, and Thomas M. Monahan, along with others, have taken their place in the sporting annals of our city and will be forever remembered. Due to his relationship with Palau, Vince Lombardi, an out-of-towner, also became significant.
The crash of the Stock Market and the subsequent onset of the Great Depression influenced participation and somewhat limited or changed activities at Muzzy Field. People, out of necessity, chose to forego the box office admissions. They, instead, utilizing their limited resources for basic necessities. The highly successful City Baseball League, won by the Maple Ends in 1930, witnessing a disinterest by fans, became financially insolvent and closed its doors in 1931. The highly successful Friday Night Fights of the 1920s suffered a similar fate!
Local sporting attractions such as high school baseball and football, coached by Thomas M. Monahan, were generally free to attend and began to take center stage. The combination of student athletes, Albie Gurske and Andy Palau, supported by their teammates, began to dominate spectator interests. During the spring season, Gurske and Palau served as the pitcher/catcher combination that led their squad to three consecutive Central Connecticut Interscholastic League Championships. The team recorded a perfect 14-0 record during the 1932 season.
Football was beginning to explode into a major sport in Bristol during the early 1930s. With Palau as quarterback and Gurske, as one of their best running backs, Bristol High School also dominated the gridiron landscape, winning three consecutive championships.
Monahan showed the same coaching expertise on the basketball court .Winning five consecutive league championships, his squads also won the state and New England championships in 1933. All three sports garnered high standing within the state rankings and attendance at most events exceeded 1,500.
Palau attended Fordham University after graduation. After one year of prep school, Gurske joined Palau on the New York campus, becoming part of a nationally-ranked football team. Palau would be responsible for introducing fellow player, Vince Lombardi, to Bristol. He would also induct him into the coaching ranks as his assistant at a private New Jersey school. Palau and Lombardi would remain close friends throughout their lives. In1942 Lombardi would leave the area to begin what would be an outstanding career as the legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers.
Palau and Gurske, along with Joseph “Sugar” Hugret, would be followed by local newspaper coverage during their collegiate careers. Hugret participated with the local high school in the late 1920s and later played football and basketball at New York University. All three hometown boys would return to Bristol and continue their athletic pursuits after their collegiate or brief professional careers.
Football and baseball teams were not only gaining momentum at the high school level. Several city athletic clubs were fielding semipro teams during these times. At one point Bristol had nine football teams including the high school squad. The West End Athletic Club continued its dominance within the city, but the Northsides, the Maple Ends, and the Celtic Club began to present formidable challenges. These organizations were able to attract many high-priced, quality teams to Muzzy Field. Crowds always numbered several thousands and gate receipts did quite well. Extraordinary crowds numbered over 5,000. Teams, such as Torrington, during these difficult economic times would participate in benefit games against these semipro entries to assist with community relief funding for the unemployed. Football was indeed becoming the dominant sporting event at the Park Street field. Players such as George “Rinks” Alexander, Phil Alexander and Jim Kane appeared with these teams.
An interesting feature was the lay-out of the field. Today, the field runs east to west, or from the first base line to left field. During the 1930s the field ran north to south and was situated from the third base line to right field. This arrangement provided cover in the bleachers for most spectators during inclement weather.
BASEBALL AND SOFTBALL
During the Depression years, these athletic clubs often fielded baseball teams in addition to their football entries. With the high school and the Bristol City Twilight League utilizing Muzzy Field, it became necessary to spread baseball games across the Bristol landscape. The East Bristol Recreation Grounds (later Casey Field), the newly developed Page Park, and the Pons Field on King Street(perhaps the present Wilson Field) were utilized for semipro games. The New Departure Company christened new athletic facilities behind their North Main Street plant in June of 1934. This complex included one baseball field, two softball fields, and two tennis courts. Known as Endee Field, the hardball diamond was the site of the New Departure Inter-departmental League.
Softball was rapidly gaining popularity as a sporting event for women and older men. Fielding a team was less expensive than its baseball counterpart while men could continue playing to a much older age. Women’s baseball had no national organization to support them. Several organizations, however, were available to assist with softball issues and scheduling.
The All-Star Girl Rangers of Chicago, a traveling team, visited Muzzy Field on July 6, 1934 for a baseball game. This attraction probably provided the first female pitcher ever to pitch at Muzzy Field. It is, however, difficult to discern whether there was a female pitcher because men were dispersed throughout the line-up. The expected female pitcher did not appear on the mound. With the waning interest in exhibition teams such as the Rangers, they disbanded the next year. Many members joined the softball ranks and continued their career in that manner.
The Hawaiian Good Will Baseball Club, a men’s traveling team, visited Bristol in July of 1937. Virne Beatrice “Jackie” Mitchell, a female left-handed pitcher, was on the roster. Six years earlier, at the age of seventeen, she had consecutively struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The Major League Office heard about her exploits and voided her Minor League contract. They stated that there was no room for women in baseball. She pitched one scoreless inning against the West End Athletic Club in front of six hundred fans. She probably is the first authenticated female pitcher to pitch off the Muzzy Field mound!
Softball was grabbing hold in Bristol. Quite oftentimes female softball games were held as a preliminary to a baseball game. When the WEAC and the Celtic Athletic Club staged a best of three championship series in 1936, the women’s softball teams from the West End, North Side and Celtic Club staged preliminary contests. Women’s games, played as separate events, many times attracted crowds similar to men’s hardball encounters.
FOOTBALL IN THE MID-1930S
After lackluster gate receipts in 1934 and 1935, the West End Athletic Club decided to gamble and followed the former New Departure semipro model of bringing in the most competitive teams they could schedule. Gates revenue had decreased in 1934 due to poor competition.
A fire in 1935 had destroyed a wooden fence utilized to keep “freeloading spectators” out of the stadium. The result was that, even though there was a crowd of one thousand at a game, there was very little gate revenue. Most entered free. A chain link fence was constructed to solve this dilemma and a metal corrugated green fence was constructed behind the bleachers on the third base side. This situation brought to the surface the question of whether the deed for Muzzy Field permitted an entrance fee. After researching the document, Corporate Counsel Francis V. Tracy stated that no one could be denied free admissions according to deed stipulations. Entrance fees continued to be posted. Most people understood this necessity. The rule was generally ignored. This topic of free admissions is still brought up in today’s discussions.
The West End Athletic Club following the model utilized by the New Departure semipro team attempted to bring in the best possible competition. This oftentimes was quite expensive. With Sugar Hugret as coach, the West End Athletic Club brought in teams from the American Professional Football Association and other highly competitive leagues. The gamble was quite successful as the average attendance climbed to over 1,500. Spectators once again wanted to view competitive games.
The first night game ever played at Muzzy Field was held on June 4, 1936. The Connecticut Nighthawks from Winsted brought their own lights in a mammoth truck. This equipment included a 100,000 watt generator, a gas engine, and portable 50 foot high light towers that were placed around the field. The locals had early difficulty in adjusting to playing under the lights, losing the contest 11-8.
The Fall of 1936 brought a great deal of excitement to Muzzy Field when it was announced that the Fordham University team would play the West End Athletic Club on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. This game, however, would be cancelled if the Fordham Rams were selected to play in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Fordham carried high hopes and an excellent record into their Thanksgiving rivalry with New York University. A win in this game would pretty much assure an excellent chance for a Rose Bowl bid. Fordham had defeated NYU 21-0 in 1935in front of 75,000 fans at Yankee Stadium. Unfortunately for Fordham, New York University turned the table and defeated Fordham 7-6 in front of 57,000 fans at New York’s Polo Grounds. Fordham was later offered a bid to the Orange Bowl in Miami. They viewed this as a consolation game and refused the offer. They, instead, journeyed to Muzzy Field for the promised exhibition game. This game would benefit a local toy fund. Andy Palau, Albie Gurske, and undersized, little known Vince Lombardi arrived with the Fordham Collegiates. Lombardi was a close friend of Palau and had often visited Bristol during his college years. The Celtic Club members hosted the players overnight in their homes. Collegiates proved early in the game that they were not here to be defeated. A crowd of over 4,300 watched as the locals, coached by Sugar Hugret, provided excellent competition but ultimately lost the contest 13-6.
Henry L. Brophy, an extraordinary promoter, became manager of the West End Athletic Club in August of 1937. Through his connections and skills he was able to develop the most competitive schedule that the West Siders had ever played. Teams from the American Football Association and the American Football League served as rigorous opponents. The AFA was like a minor league feeder system to the National Football League, while the AFL served as direct competition against the NFL. Brophy also arranged for the first ever West Coast team to journey to Muzzy Field. The Los Angeles Bulldogs from the AFL defeated the locals 28-7. Attendance of 2,000 or more at these games was a common occurrence.
CATASTROPHE AT MUZZY FIELD
The season opening exhibition game on Sept. 12 against the Brooklyn Dodgers of the NFL was more important for what happened after the game than during the contest. Four thousand spectators watched as the visitors defeated the locals 19-0. In the early morning hours of the next day, groundskeeper Tony Rafaniello reported a fire at the stadium. By time the fire equipment arrived the wooden grandstand was a raging inferno. Flames could be seen 15 miles away. The bleachers, which had been refurbished only three years earlier, were a total loss. Damages were estimated between $5,000-$7,000 dollars. After an investigation, it was determined that the fire was caused by a carelessly discarded cigarette at the previous afternoon’s game. Temporary bleachers with a seating capacity of 1,200 were brought in. The season continued with no delay. After four years of losing the state championship to Danbury, the WEAC was able to capture the state title.
The next season would bring the end of wooden grandstands at Muzzy Field. Manager Rebelle Carpenter of the West End Athletic Club in May threatened to cancel their fall football schedule unless a permanent grandstand was constructed in order to return Muzzy Field to its former stature. It was determined in August to apply for funding through the Public Works Administration to assist in the building of a brick and steel structure. The Board of Park Commissioners approved the dedication of the new facility to Thomas A. Tracy, the Bristol Press editor, who died the night of the fire.
Softball was continuing to expand at this time. Little baseball besides local leagues was played at Muzzy Field. Longtime Bristol Press Sports Editor, Charles “Chuck” McCarthy lamented that even the best players “were cavorting around the miniature field”. He was worried that baseball would be replaced by softball.
As the Fall of 1938 approached spectators, once again, voiced their opposition to playing high-powered, out-of -town competition. Gate revenues had begun to drop towards the end of the previous year. Management listened and scheduled accordingly. The usual Brooklyn Dodger exhibition game opened the season with an attendance of over 2,000. Shortly after the season opened, a vicious mid-September hurricane struck the New England area. Taking 600 lives, this hurricane caused $6 million in damages. Although the Bristol area was not directly impacted, several Bristol residents were killed while vacationing in Rhode Island. The season was delayed two weeks and then continued. Games were scheduled against Danbury and Naugatuck. The Naugatuck game drew 2,000 fans, while a frenzied crowd of 5,000 spectators arrived for the Danbury encounter. The temporary bleachers were located on soft ground and began to sway. Spectators were asked to vacate the bleachers, but many were slow in following these warnings. Eight sections of bleachers collapsed sending 700 spectators hurdling to the ground. It was miraculous that only 14 injuries were reported. The game was able to continue after a short break.
NEW GRANDSTAND AT MUZZY FIELD
The new grandstand was a necessity and was scheduled for completion by the Spring of 1939. P. Allaire and Sons of Bristol were selected to build the new complex, which would accommodate 1,300 spectators. The structure also included locker rooms, showers, adjacent dugouts on the third base side, a groundskeeper’s office, restrooms, and a concession stand. A press box, located at the top of the grandstand, would permit its windows to be opened. The cost of nearly $35,000 would be defrayed by federal and city funding. Former president of the New Departure Company, Dewitt Page, also contributed $5,000.
The grandstands were completed on April 27. After the final inspection, a dedication ceremony was scheduled. A Bristol High School game would be featured at this event. The ceremony was rained out and did not take place until August. Two city youth league teams participated at the event. The grandstand, honoring Thomas A. Tracy, was officially dedicated with a permanent memorial plaque.
The first night football game at Muzzy Field was played in the fall. The elegance of Muzzy Field had been restored and enhanced by the addition of the new grandstand.
The decade of the 1940s would find our country fighting for its very existence during World War II. Several significant events would transpire at Muzzy Field. This will be covered in Article 5.