By TOM DICKAU
This is the sixth 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 1945-1950
Although the years from 1945 to 1950 started with relatively little significant sporting activity, these years forever changed the landscape and historic nature of Muzzy Field. Boxing returned to the premises in the Summer of 1946. The New Departure Interdepartmental Softball League also played its inaugural game on June 10. This league often attracted 1,500 spectators at the West Side ball park. Recognizing the quality of Muzzy Field, the North Atlantic Regional Softball Tournament was staged in late August and attracted 4,600 fans.
However, the most significant event of the year was the selection of Muzzy Field as the site of a major league AAA try-out camp for the New Orleans Pelicans. The management of this event suggested the local park would make an excellent venue for a minor league caliber team. They stated, however, that the one obstacle was the lack of a lighting system to attract large crowds to evening games. This provided the impetus for action.
By mid-August an ad hoc feasibility committee was established, by the city, to explore the possibilities associated with the installation of a lighting system. Cost projections were set around $20,000. As will be seen shortly their report supported such action.
The West End Athletic Club once again attempted to field a football team in the fall. Only a sparse crowd of 200 generally attended. Richard “Stonewall” Jackson, a local African-American player, was the major attraction. He acquitted himself as an outstanding player. He later became a longtime teacher within the Bristol school system. His son, Doug, also became an outstanding football talent during his high school career and later at Columbia University.
BRISTOL SPORTS PROMOTIONS, INC.
The Winter of 1947 became a significant time as the Bristol Sports Promotions, Inc. was established by a group of local sports-minded citizens. Buoyed by the prospects of a permanent lighting system at Muzzy Field, this organization envisioned a return of the ballpark to its former level of activity during the spring and summer. Having traveled to Meriden and West Haven, these organizers witnessed first-hand the impact of attracting large number of spectators at lighted fields. A semipro team, the Bristol Bees, was established. Edward “Jeremiah Donahue, a former Clemson University coach, was selected as coach. He would be assisted by local stalwart, George Scott.
BPS, Inc. knew that Muzzy Field provided a very attractive facility for the team. They were committed to financing attractive salaries in order to attract high-caliber players. They also understood the need to initiate an aggressive marketing campaign to counter the many entertainment diversions that cut into gate revenues.
Recruitment of quality players was quickly implemented. This included assembling a formidable pitching staff. Local pitcher Dick Redman became a member of this staff. Although only an informal relationship was established, the Bees benefitted by acquiring the contracts of young talent on their journey to the Boston Braves of the major leagues. This arrangement resulted because of past relationships between the Boston Braves and the City of Bristol.
The Bristol Bees opened on May 8 attracting a crowd of 600 on a cold spring day.
LIGHTING BECOMES A REALITY
The city in September approvedthe ad hoc committee’s recommendation for permanent lighting at Muzzy Field. There would be 10 steel towers circling the field. Each tower would be 80 feet high. Twenty-five-thousand dollars was allocated for the project but the final cost was nearly $30,000 dollars. The system, purchased from the General Electric Company, was designated for delivery by June. It was not until July 19, however, that the lights finally arrived. Installation commenced immediately. The first night game ever played at Muzzy Field under permanent lights was played on Aug. 5. The Bees opposition was their “old nemesis” the West Haven Sailors. More than 3,000 fans passed through the Muzzy Field gates. An evening of festivities was arranged to recognize this momentous occasion. Unfortunately, the Sailors spoiled the light debut with a 7-5 victory.
SUMMER OF 1947
During the course of the 1947 season several significant teams and prominent players graced the confines of Muzzy Field.
The Bristol Sports Promotions, Inc. was instrumental in arranging for the New York Yankees of the All-American Football Conference to stage an intrasquad scrimmage in August. The Yankees were considered the class franchise of the conference. The All- American Football Conference was formed in1944 as competition against the National Football League. With veterans returning from WWII, the organization felt there was a need and room for another competitive conference. The Yankees held their pre-season training camp at Cheshire Academy, thus Muzzy Field served as a natural site for this attraction. The scheduling of this game at Bristol’s Muzzy Field was announced during baseball games at Yankee Stadium. Thirty-five-hundred spectators arrived at the Friday afternoon contest. Several future Pro Football Hall of Famers, as well as, a former NFL Most Valuable Player participated.
The Bees baseball coach also served in the same capacity with the Bristol Bees football team. They compiled a 7-2-1 record in the fall. This squad served as a feeder system for the Yankee team.
Twice during the season Jimmie Foxx (a three- time Most Valuable Player; two-time World Series champion; 20 year veteran of the major leagues and 1951 inductee into the Baseball Hall of Fame) appeared with the Staten Island Dodgers, a farm club of the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Waterbury native Jimmy Piersall garnered one of only four hits for a Meriden team in a game against the Bees. An outstanding outfielder, he played 17 years with the Boston Red Sox.
The Bees, in a long-standing tradition in Bristol, twice hosted the House of David team from Michigan. Each team was victorious in a game. This was the last season that this organization sponsored a baseball team.
The Hartford Chiefs, a minor league team, were also hosted by the Bees in front of 2,000 fans.
Labor Day week-end, the New York Black Yankees, of the Negro National League, came away with a 4-2 win over the Bees. This league would dissolve in 1948, as the major leagues were beginning the integration process.
The locals were considered a talented team and were selected to host both the Eastern League and International League All-Stars. They suffered a 4-3 loss to the Eastern League, but defeated The Internationals 7-3. Two interesting connections came out of the International League game. Joe Buzas participated in the contest. Thirty years later, after a brief career with the New York Yankees, he returned to Bristol as owner of the Eastern League’s Bristol Red Sox Double A team. This team played at Muzzy Field for 10 years. Al Barillari, who also played, returned to the city in 1949 as the coach of the Bristol Owls, Class B Colonial League entry.
The New York Cubans of the Negro National League played in front of 750 spectators. Included in their line-up was Orestes “Minnie” Minosa. He was signed by the Cleveland Indians, but was quickly traded to the Chicago White Sox, where he spent 17 years as an outfielder. The Bees escaped with a victory over the eventual Negro League champions.
The Bristol Bees concluded their season with a 34-24 record.
Due to the addition of lighting at Muzzy Field, by the end of the high school football season, a yearly attendance record of over 67,000 paid spectators was established.
A SHORT SEASON WITH THE DEMISE OF THE BRISTOL BEES
The Bristol Bees, being an independent, small budget unit, became a turnstile team. Several players defected to higher paying area teams, while others transitioned to the minor leagues. The hometown organization was hosted at the local Chamber of Commerce and was solely sponsored by interested sports-minded citizens. There was no corporate sponsorship, like during the New Departure semipro days.
Coach Donahue complained to the city in April concerning the exorbitant rental fee of $175 per game, which was coupled with a 5 cent head tax per spectator. He projected that with 50 night games and approximately 60,000 spectators the assessments would cost approximately $12,000. He stated that these fees would kill Bristol baseball.
The city did not adjust the assessment. Despite owning a 26-14 record, gate revenues were not sufficient enough to sustain the season. The Bees were forced to cancel their schedule in August and would never again field a team. It appears that Donahue was correct. The city, and as will be seen in the next section, was slow in adjusting and contributed significantly to the death knell of the Bristol Bees. One vestige of the team remained for years as a Bristol Park and Recreation baseball team was named the Bees.
The Bristol Bees football program also disbanded in the fall.
THE BRISTOL OWLS COME INTO EXISTENCE
The Class B Colonial League, a professional minor league circuit had existed since 1945. This league included teams from Waterbury, Stamford, and Bridgeport, as well as, three entries from New York. Bristol wanted a baseball team of stature. With the support of the Chamber of Commerce, a petition for admissions into the league was filed. The approval came in the Spring of 1949. The rental fee per game at Muzzy Field would be 5 dollars and a head tax of 10 cents for each spectator would be assessed. This was certainly significantly less than what the Bristol Bees were charged. Perhaps, the city had learned its lesson.
Al Barillari was named player/coach. A schedule of 63 home games was developed. A “Name the Team” contest was held. Five-hundred-and-twenty-five entries were submitted. The name “Owls” was selected, perhaps because of the number of night games that were scheduled.
The Owls held their spring training at the abandoned Empire Field in Port Chester, New York. This was the site of a previous Colonial League entry that relocated. The Bristol Owls practiced there for three weeks before arriving in Bristol for their season opener against the Waterbury Timers. A crowd of 2,681 watched as the newly formed entry was victorious in their opening game.
The Owls roster included both Carlos Bernier and Ruben Gomez. Bernier, a speed merchant on the base paths, hailed from Puerto Rico. To the present time, he is considered one of the finest minor league players in baseball history. Unfortunately, a lack of self- discipline hampered his professional advancement. He was argumentative, used profanity, oftentimes threw his bat in disgust, ignored coaching signals, and was “kicked-out” of several games. Although possessing outstanding skills, these traits were unacceptable at a professional level. He did receive a major league contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953, but was released the following year. His quick temper, lack of performance, and perhaps his ethnicity contributed to his contract not being renewed.
Gomez suffered a similar fate as Bernier. His career locally did not end on a happy note. The story is unclear as to whether he quit the Owls or was traded to a Canadian team. When playing for the Owls, Gomez did not reach the level of success that Bernier experienced. After leaving Bristol, he quickly moved up the ranks and had a stellar major league career.
Bridgeport and Stamford were always the class of the Colonial League and always appeared at the top of the league rankings. Bristol, in their initial campaign, experienced difficulty defeating these squads. By the beginning of July, the Owls found themselves in the middle of the league standings. Attendance was outstanding, having already drawn 27,000 spectators to Muzzy Field. The Owls’ management utilizing a strong marketing campaign such as ticket packages and promotional nights was able to add a new dimension to baseball attendance. They even hired Max Patkin, the Clown Prince of Baseball, to perform at one of their games. While most league teams were struggling financially, the Owls attendance provided $14,000 towards the payment of the new lighting system.
Despite their financial success, being in the middle of the league standings was unacceptable to the owner. He publicly challenged and threatened his team in the Bristol Press. He questioned the players’ dedication and commitment and demanded a better future performance. Whether this impacted the team or whether other circumstances came into play, by July 22 the Owls took over first place in the league. They were even defeating the Bridgeport and Stamford entries.
The Owls, in their initial campaign, garnered an 82-47 record at the end of the season. In addition to being crowned league champions for the regular season, they also set a league attendance record. Three players from the squad would eventually move on to major league careers.
LIGHT FAILURE AT MUZZY FIELD
The league play offs commenced shortly after the conclusion of the regular season. The Owls were scheduled against the fourth place Waterbury Timers, in a best- of -seven series. The locals won three of the first four games and were ready to finish the series on Sept. 13. The game, however, had to be cancelled because of a light failure during the first inning of play. It was determined that twenty feet of wiring along the first base line had burned and needed to be replaced. This was completed. After a day of rain, the game was rescheduled for the next day. The same thing happened that evening, a second light failure transpired. It was determined that there were several short circuits within the system. After studying the problem, it was surmised that the wiring was not installed to a sufficient depth and that the entire wiring system would need to be replaced. A more resilient heavy duty cable would be utilized. The General Electric Company would provide free service for this installation. All night games for the remainder of the year were changed to daytime events.
The fifth game of the play-off was transferred to Waterbury. The Owls quickly disposed of the Waterbury entry. This now placed them against the Bridgeport squad. The locals in a best-of-three series also prevailed, thus becoming both the regular season and play-off champions.
COLONIAL LEAGUE DISBANDS
Financial concerns were greatly impacting semipro and minor league teams. Times were changing. With the advent of television, people were watching major league games at home. Attendance at all levels was dropping drastically. It became unnecessary to travel to minor league or semipro games, when major league games could be viewed from your living room. It was even rumored that the major leagues would shut off television coverage because of their drop in attendance. This situation was remediated through lucrative advertising packages and incentives. Semipro and minor leagues didn’t have these options.
During the off-season discussion were held concerning the merging of the Colonial and New England Leagues. This did not take place. Dire warnings about the fate of the Colonial League were prevalent. The league management attempted to put a “positive spin” on things. The 1950 season began with financial and internal difficulties facing several league teams. Three teams shut down operations very quickly leaving only three remaining entries. On July 16, it was decided to disband the league. The Bristol Owls announced that all equipment would be sold to the public.
The only remaining baseball at Muzzy Field would be The Bristol American Legion Post #2 aggregation. This was not a bad alternative. They were defending four consecutive state championships.
Julie Larese, Bristol sports promoter, brought the Mickey Harris All-Stars to Muzzy Field in October. They would face the Bristol Tramps, whose roster included some former Owl players. Fourteen-hundred fans attended the game that featured future Hall of Famers: Luke Appling, Johnny Mize and Warren Spahn. Gene Woodling, a five-time World Series champion, was also on the roster.