By TOM DICKAU
This is the fifth 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.
Muzzy Field from 1940 through 1945
The elegance of Muzzy Field had been restored and enhanced just prior to the 1940s with the addition of a new grandstand dedicated to Thomas A. Tracy. Portable lighting was also utilized at Muzzy Field allowing for large evening attendance. It should have been expected that the next decade started with major sporting events. To the contrary, the beginning of the 1940s demonstrated a lackluster start at the renovated stadium.
The City Baseball League was dissolved with the departure of both the West End and Celtic Athletic Clubs. Chuck McCarthy, the Bristol Press sports editor, lamented that softball was taking over. He stated that even the prestigious West End Athletic Club, which was closing its baseball program and downsizing its football program, was giving support to the game of softball. The West Enders during the Fall of 1940 on occasions drew crowds bordering one thousand spectators, but, “the writing was on the wall.” The closing chapter of this great program was right around the corner. In 1941, they failed to field a team, when there was insufficient player interest. Players, including Bristol’s Sugar Hugret, were defecting to out-of-town semipro teams with higher pay scales. Little significant baseball or football was played here from 1940-42.
During the early part of the decade, three amateur senior league baseball teams were spread throughout the city, but garnered little more than family and friend support. A group of enterprising local business men in May of 1941, in an attempt to revive the glory days of baseball, invested in the semipro Bristol Baseball Club. This team failed to gain traction or accomplish the desired results. Even local players, such as Albie Gurske, signed contracts with higher paying out-of-town leagues. For all intent and purpose, the major use of Muzzy Field during the first three years of the 40s was by the local high school teams.
World War II
The history of the United States and the City of Bristol was altered significantly on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese conducted a devastating airstrike against the naval base at Pearl Harbor. The once considered invincibility of our country was shaken to its core. Our country was now in a battle for its very existence. Home front activities permeated everything within the community. Factories changed production to meet war and munitions needs. Women became industrially employed, as their husbands and sons went off in the service of their country. Daycare centers opened to accommodate the children of working mothers. Housing was developed to accommodate the influx of necessary factory workers to our community. School children became involved, buying war bonds and stamps; collecting metal and paper salvage; conducting canned goods and clothing drives; and serving as aircraft spotters on Chippens Hill. The community and schools conducted mock air raid drills and suffered blackout conditions at night. The Bristol Hospital, the Bristol Chapter of the Red Cross, nurses and doctors were trained in the event of a major disaster. The Chamber of Commerce, all civic and fraternal organizations, and churches contributed finances and services to support the troops and community efforts. Merchants and farmers accommodated war needs obliging the mandatory rationing of scarce commodities, food and gas that would be needed for our troops. The Bristol National Guard Chapter was mobilized and sent to foreign territories. The Draft Board and Selective Service Office was ramped up and volunteer enlistments increased. Farewell dinners were conducted for those leaving for battle. A total of over 4,700 Bristol citizens would serve their country with 139 listed as Gold Star Members, giving their lives to preserve freedom.
Muzzy Field in 1943
The war had a strange effect on the utilization of Muzzy Field. Recreational participation and energies, of necessity, were now diverted to other essential undertakings. With many off in service, there were certainly fewer local men available for sports participation. It would be expected the slow start at Muzzy Field would continue. To the contrary, the wartime restrictions; the need for wartime finances, and the desire for recreational diversion from the doldrums of the time, brought about some interesting happenings at the Park Street ball field.
The war restrictions, imposed by the national government’s gas rationing, extended even to Major League Baseball. Teams were prohibited from traveling to the South for their usual spring training. This proved to benefit our city and Muzzy Field. The Boston Braves held their training camp at the beautiful campus of The Choate School in Wallingford.
Bob Quinn, president of the Boston Braves and longtime major league executive, visited Muzzy Field lauding its conditions and field dimensions. With his endorsement an intrasquad scrimmage was arranged during April. This event would be sponsored by The Bristol Community Chest’s United Way Fund. Mayor Dan Davis stated that this event was a well-deserved entertainment for the community’s commitment to the war effort. Armed service personnel would be admitted free due to the generosity of Terryville Furniture Store owner Harry Simon. Casey Stengel, the legendary New York Yankees coach, was then coaching the Boston Braves.
The New Departure Band greeted the team as they entered the stadium. Vernon “Lefty” Gomez, serving as the featured attraction, was expected to pitch. Unfortunately, an accident the night before prohibited his playing. His appearance at the game, however, was a real crowd pleaser. (Gomez was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.)
The major league teams, like all communities and organizations, had depleted rosters because many of the players were serving in the war. Although several replacement players filled the Braves roster, the team still had several players who would become All-Stars that season. A crowd of over 3,000 attended the game.
The Braves’ management was impressed with the field conditions, facilities, and spectator attendance. They felt this northern training ground exhibition game was a highly successful affair and said they would like to return in the future. The box office receipts, by arrangement, primarily benefitted the community. They were used as the final payment on the fence repairs of 1935.
The Bristol Community Chest officials recognized that this event was quite successful and felt that similar events in the future would certainly benefit the community, as well as, charities.
Another major league exhibition game was scheduled with the Philadelphia Phillies. They would face a semipro team from Meriden with Bristol resident, Albie Gurske, doing the pitching. The Phillies were at the bottom of the league standings six of the last seven seasons, and were currently experiencing management/coaching conflict. Despite these circumstances, having another major league team at Muzzy was a significant accomplishment. Fifteen-hundred fans attended the game. They certainly were disappointed to learn that Albie Gurske was ruled ineligible to pitch by the Major League Office stating he had not correctly completed league retirement requirements. Danny Murtagh, who played in the game for the Phillies, would later become the coach of the Pittsburgh Pirates and win two World Series championships. The game benefitted “Kits for Servicemen.” Adding to the already dismal conditions confronting the Philadelphia team they suffered a humiliating 3-1 loss the Meriden squad.
PACKERS AT MUZZY FIELD
The Fall of 1943 was almost devoid of any real football competition, when the WEAC again was unable to field a team. The quiet was broken, however, when Bristol sports promoter, Henry Brophy, masterfully engineered a game that brought the Green Bay Packers of the NFL to Muzzy Field. Having a week off between games in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, the Packers were attempting to schedule an exhibition contest to raise some funds. They had already initiated the process when Brophy entered the picture. Utilizing his professional connections, he quickly negotiated to make Muzzy Field the venue for this game. He skillfully bargained the “game guarantee” from $5,000 to $3,000.
The war had a significant impact on professional football. With players in the service, some teams disbanded while others merged in order to continue. Team rosters were limited in number and schedules were reduced to 10 games. It was not uncommon to lend players to other teams, with the promise of getting them back when conditions improved. Most teams lost more players to the service than the Packers. When Green Bay players went for induction physicals, they were often ruled ineligible for military service for being “too big.” Nice problem for a professional football team. The Packers were known as the strongest team in the West Division. A favorite player of the crowd on game day was Harry Jacunski, a New Britain native.
The opponent for the game would be the powerful New London Diesels, who benefitted from having many players employed at Electric Boat, a submarine contractor. Other players came from coastal war production facilities or were stationed at the U. S. Coast Guard Academy.
The crowd of 8,500 spectators at Muzzy Field was not disappointed by Green Bay’s performance. Utilizing a devastating passing game, they crushed their opponent 62-14. The Packers went on to a 7-2-1 season. Their squad was recognized by having five players honored as All Pro or Honorable Mention All Pro. The loss, by New London, doesn’t seem quite as bad when viewed in perspective to Green Bay’s season accomplishments.
The receipts for the game were utilized to buy cigarettes for New Departure employees in active service.
BRAVES AND PHILLIES RETURN TO MUZZY FIELD
Having enjoyed their first visit to Bristol, the Boston Braves returned to Muzzy Field for a second intrasquad scrimmage in April 1944. Bob Coleman had replaced Stengel as coach. One-thousand spectators attended the contest. After the contest, president Bob Quinn announced the Hartford Laurels, a farm club for the Braves, would conduct their three week spring training at Muzzy Field. The Laurels were one of a few minor league franchises that were able to play during the war years. The team members would live in federal housing on Peck Lane and eat their meals at the New Departure Company cafeteria. They worked out from10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. They purposefully practiced during the lunch hours so employees could watch during their lunch break. Intrasquad scrimmage and games again other Eastern League teams also would provide entertainment for around 500 local spectators.
The Philadelphia Phillies, after changing ownership, settling some of their internal struggles, also returned for a second exhibition game. A crowd of 900 paid spectators and an equal number of free admissions school children (sponsored by New Departure) witnessed the game. The Phillies would again face a Meriden semipro team. Albie Gurske was eligible to pitch this time around. Philadelphia immediately jumped on the winning pitcher from last year’s Bristol exhibition game. By the time, Gurske came to the mound, the visitors had a commanding lead and were able to revenge their previous year loss with a 12-1 victory.
The New Departure CIO baseball team, in its second season, had an outstanding season at Muzzy Field including games staged under portable lights. The team was considered one of the finest teams on the East Coast. They qualified for participation in the All-American Amateur Baseball Association Tournament in Baltimore. They finished third out of 14 entries.
During the Fall of 1944, the WEAC attempted to revive their struggling football program at Muzzy Field, but attendance continued to be very poor. They moved their home base to Torrington in an attempt to improve gate revenue. This again was a signal that the WEAC football team was in its waning stage of existence.
YANKEES VISIT MUZZY
As the Spring of 1945 approached, expectations were of the continued success of the New Departure CIO amateur baseball team. Unfortunately, despite the previous year’s excellent record, the organization suffered significant losses. The New Departure Company did not field a team during 1945.
Two new adult teams were formed and competed in the Summer of 1945. The Bristol Townies utilized Page Park as their home field. The Bristol Tramps, started by Julie Larese, played at Muzzy Field. Both teams were not able to garner the prestige of former teams.
The major baseball event of the season, sponsored by the New Departure Recreation Council, was staged on Sept. 25, when the New York Yankees traveled to Muzzy Field for an exhibition game against the Savitt Gems of Hartford. The Yankees at that time were considered the premier sporting franchise of the major league. They were coached by Joe McCarthy, a future Baseball Hall of Fame Inductee. Bob Steele of Hartford radio station WTIC conducted his, “Strictly Sports” from the Muzzy Field premises. Although the game was expected to draw a large crowd, newspaper accounts indicate a smaller than anticipated attendance. The Yankees won the contest 9-4.
In the Fall of 1945 the West End Athletic Club attempted, a final time, to revitalize their struggling football program. Early in the season, they defeated five time state champions, New London, but were still unable to attract sufficient spectator interest. The WEAC in October of 1945 closed the book on its legendary football program.
The next article, the sixth in a series of 10, will feature the years from 1945 to 1950. These years included the installation of a permanent lighting system; the complete breakdown of this lighting system; turmoil about charges to use Muzzy Field; and the formation of the Bristol Owls baseball team.