By TOM DICKAU
This is the seventh of 10 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 advent of television and other societal diversions during the 1950s were certainly detrimental to the survival of both the minor league systems and semipro franchises in the New England area. Although major league attendance was also on the decline, these circuits had the ability to negotiate lucrative advertising and incentive packages that enabled them to recover from the gate receipt decline. They were once again able to fill their stadium seats. Minor league teams, especially in large television market cities, could not sustain themselves and either relocated or shut down operations.
The Colonial League, during these difficult times, considered a merger with the New England League. This league, born out of the World War II boon of returning veterans with ball playing expertise, folded in 1949. The Colonial League after three Connecticut teams withdrew (Bridgeport, Torrington, and Waterbury) closed down on July 16, 1950. The Boston Braves, an unofficial feeder for the Bristol Owls, moved operations to Milwaukee. Other area teams either went bankrupt or moved to out-of-area locations. Amateur baseball became the main attraction at the West Side ballpark.
BRISTOL AMERICAN LEGION BASEBALL DOMINATES
The Bristol American Legion Seicheprey Post #2 was a very attractive alternative to semipro baseball. Coached by Thomas M. and Thomas R. Monahan, a father-son combination, from 1949-51 and George “Jocko” Yarde in 1952, the locals dominated the American Legion ranks, capturing four consecutive state championships. They cumulated an overall record of 52-2-2 during this span. Hilary S. Driscoll managed the program until 1951 when Fran Mullins commenced his illustrious seven decade tenure as a local, state, regional, and national figure.
The local squad, after winning the state title, would compete in the Northeast Regional Tournament against teams from New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. Post #2 was never able to advance to the national championship level due to the strong competition they encountered.
Sports-minded citizens of today still recall and recognize many of the players that appeared on these rosters: George Ancher, Charles Baillargeon, Dick Borkowski, John Bugryn, Gene Bukowski, Richard Busse, Gerry Burns, Ed Bush, Jack Carpenter, John Dess, Ed “Scratch” Gaski, Bobby Hahn, Dave Hamel, George Hemond, Dick Hines, Charlie Hoffman, Rit Kowalczyk, Bob Laser, Willie Lebeau, Ernie “Buddy” Losey, Gordon Losey, Norm Luba, Dick Lugg, Ernie Maher, Fred Majewski, Russell “Spike” Marcotte, Jack Mc Bain, John Monahan, Harry Peters Jr. , Walter “Babe” Phelps, Dan Posa, George “Yosh” Redman, Vin Savino, George Sitka, Henry Suchinski, Jim Tracy, Joe Tracy, Don Sonstroem, Henry Wilde, and Gene Zahnke.
Rit Kowalczyk signed with the Cleveland Indians. Eddie “Scratch” Gaski also had a major league tryout. Gaski had been the dominant pitching star during these years, displaying an almost “unhittable” drop ball. Gordon Losey went on to play varsity baseball at Wesleyan University, while Jim Tracy participated at the same level at the College of the Holy Cross. Dick Lugg would later become coach of the American Legion squad. Several players continued to participate on local teams while others became coaches, umpires or directors of baseball leagues within the community.
AMATEUR/SEMIPRO TEAMS IN BRISTOL DURING THE 1950S
Several other amateur/semipro teams competed during these years. Players often played for several of these teams during the same year.
The Forestville Eagles, coached by Frank “The General” Owsianko, was formed around 1946-47 and continued into the mid-1950s. This aggregation participated against the top semipro teams in the state. They participated in several leagues including the Northern Connecticut, Tri County, and the Western Connecticut Leagues. They also played an independent schedule each year. Page Park became their home field but many evening attractions were held at Muzzy Field. The “Village” entry always posted excellent records and declared themselves city champions from 1949-1952 when another city team, the Bristol Elites, refused to engage in a city playoff series. Owsianko wrote a letter to the Bristol Press attempting to force the issue. It appears that this had little impact. Such names (this list may be incomplete) as: George Ancher, Andy Anderson, Bob Caron, Richard Cephas, Johnny “Chick” Chapin, John Dess, Walt Ferron, Norm “Foo” Fournier, Ed Haber, John Hartney, George Hemond, Ed Gates, Jim Kilduff, Rit Kowalczyk, Ray Krulicki, Lou Kucharski, Gordon Losey, Dick Lugg, Bill McCooey, Walter “Babe” Phelps, Dan Posa, Dick Ryan ,Ben Savino, D.Savino, Vin Savino, Johnny Shores, Richard Simpson, Rollie Sonstroem, Chet Suhovski, John Utke, Pete Vodarski, Lou Wales, Ray Wales, Yogi Wales, a pitcher named Wojenski, Adam Yuschak, and Bob Zimmerman appeared on their rosters.
On the opposite side of town, George “Rinks” Alexander coached the semipro Bristol Elites. The team was considered one of the best teams in the state. Included within their ranks were such stalwarts as Bill Adams, Ernie Brandt, Jack Carpenter, Cooney Martel, Bill McCooey, Jimmy Mc Guiness, Dick Redman, Dick Ryan, George Simpson, Rollie Sonstroem, Ottsie Tracy, Pete Vodarski, and Henry Wilde.
The Bristol Park Department organized the Junior City League for the youth of the city. Some of the original teams were the Bristol and Forestville Boys’ Club entries, the Clippers, Hilltoppers, Merchants, and Pelicans. This league served as an unofficial prep league for the American Legion program. This league, in more recent years, evolved into the Bristol Park and Recreation’s Thomas M. Monahan, George Scott and William T. McCooey Leagues. These circuits played games at several city locations including Muzzy Field.
The Board of Finance approved $700 in 1950 for the installation of a public address announcing system. They felt this would benefit not only the teams already mentioned but also all other baseball games, concerts, and activities held at Muzzy Field.
MUZZY FIELD HOSTS DISTRICT #3 LITTLE LEAGUE TOURNEY
Muzzy Field was selected in 1951 as the site of the Second Annual District #3 Little League Tournament. This event sponsored by the New Departure Division of the General Motors Corporation featured teams from Berlin, Bristol, Farmington, New Britain, Plainville, Simsbury, and Southington. The Forestville Little League had not been established at this time. Southington was the defending district champions. The winner would advance to the state tourney and possibly to the regional finals. The eventual winner would earn the right to advance to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn. The local league’s inaugural year was in 1950 with four teams. It expanded to six squads in 1951. Bristol’s entry in the tourney would be coached by George Scott, former New Departure semipro player.
Robert E. Casey, Director of the McCabe- Waters Little League, was chosen as tournament director. He, along with Park Superintendent E. Gordon Stocks and groundskeeper Anthony Rafaniello, would direct tournament action and field preparations that would meet national little league standards. The park department crew had previous experience with this type of alteration, having hosted the North Atlantic Regional Softball Tournament in 1948. The base paths were shortened and the mound was moved closer to home plate. A portable snow fence was erected in the outfield to accommodate little league dimensions.
Dick McAuliffe participated with the Farmington Little League. This would be one of his many trips to the Park Street diamond during his illustrious baseball career. Seven years later, he would return as a member of the Farmington American Legion. In 1956, McAuliffe would participate in a Boston Red Sox Try-out Camp at Muzzy Field. He impressed the major league scouts. Being only 16, he was ineligible to sign a contract. A year later, he inked a contract with the Detroit Tigers minor league division. In 1960, at 20 years of age, he initiated a 16 year major league career with Detroit and the Boston Red Sox. He was selected to the Major League All-Stars on three occasions. The Farmington native returned in 1975 to coach the Bristol Red Sox Double A team. He was recalled to the Red Sox during the season to fill in for an injured player. The Boston team was making a drive towards the division pennant. This would be his last year in professional baseball. He, however, would return to Muzzy Field in a fundraising exhibition game.
(Editorial note: The author of this article umpired the contest and had the opportunity to meet Dick McAuliffe.)
BRISTOL SUFFERS THE LOSS OF A MUZZY FIELD ICON
The Bristol community was shocked with the sudden death of groundskeeper Anthony “Tony” Rafaniello on Dec. 16, 1951. His 31 year career started in 1920 and spanned over three decades. He, more than any other individual, was responsible for the accolades, concerning the field conditions, that were so often received from visiting players, teams and organizations. He loved the field and treated it like his home. He was dedicated to his job and was known to be a taskmaster and motivator, expecting perfection. Caretaking at Muzzy Field was modeled after the procedures performed at Boston’s Fenway Park. He would send staff members to Fenway to learn the techniques from personnel that he considered the best-in-the-game. They would return and implement these strategies in their daily efforts. Before his death, he even trained his understudy and protégé, Anthony Guerriero, to assume these responsibilities when it became necessary. He did not leave Muzzy Field as an orphan!
Anthony Rafaniello, more than any other citizen of Bristol, witnessed the comings and goings of sporting legends and teams. He witnessed the outstanding play of both the New Departure Semipro Baseball and the West End Athletic Club Football teams during the Golden Age of 1919-1926. These teams featured many local stalwarts. He saw the final visit of Babe Ruth in 1920. Professional teams such as the Boston Braves, Boston Red Sox, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Philadelphia Phillies, the New York Yankees, and the Green Bay Packers participated on the field manicured by his staff. Players and coaches such as Vince Lombardi, Casey Stengel, Joe McCarthy, Jimmy Foxx, Minnie Minosa, Warren Spahn, Jim Piersall, Lefty Gomez, Ruben Gomez, and Carlos Bernier constantly lauded the field conditions. During his tenure, he saw the transition of Muzzy Field from strictly a baseball facility to a multi-faceted park embracing football, track, soccer, softball, track, boxing, and wrestling amongst other activities. He was present when the color barrier was broken locally, much earlier than in the major league circuit. In the late 1930s, he sounded the alarm as the large wooden grandstand burned to the ground. He also attended the dedication of today’s grandstand honoring Thomas A. Tracy. In 1947, he witnessed the installation of the permanent lighting system and in 1950 the implementation of a public address announcing systems. Towards the end of his career teams such as the Bristol Bees, the Bristol Tramps, the Bristol Owls, the Bristol Elite and the Forestville Eagles all participated on grounds his crew prepared. This would hold true of the local American Legion, High School, Elementary School League, and Park Department circuits.
Anthony “Tony” Rafaniello was indeed, “Mr. Muzzy Field,” during his career. Through his efforts, Bristol benefitted by constantly receiving praise for the quality playing conditions at the west side ballpark. Through these efforts, Bristol was consistently able to attract quality teams and programs. As a tribute to his contributions to the community, flags within Bristol were flown at half-staff until his funeral. He was inducted into Bristol’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1999.
MUZZY FIELD FROM 1952 TO 1955
The Bristol community was certainly proud when one of its own signed a major league contract in 1952. Ed McHugh, a 1947 graduate and three sport athlete (baseball, basketball and football) at Bristol High School, signed with the Boston Braves. He had played with the Bristol Bees in the summer of 1947 and in the fall continued his studies at Yale University. He captained all three sports at the collegiate level. He was assigned to the Hartford Chiefs. This gave locals the opportunity to watch many of his games!
The Manchester American Legion in 1953 ended the Bristol American Legion’s streak of four consecutive state championships. Spearheaded by Moe Morhardt, they defeated both Bristol and perennial powerhouse Bridgeport to win the state title. Morhardt would return to Muzzy Field on numerous occasions. He was co-captain of the University of Connecticut’s baseball team in 1959. UConn utilized Muzzy Field as their training facility before participating in the Collegiate World Series in Omaha, Neb. He, later that year, signed a major league contract with the Chicago Cubs. He played two seasons with that organization. Morhardt, later served as coach of the Gilbert School, the Winsted American Legion and the University of Hartford. These squads played on many occasions at Muzzy Field.
On June 17, 1954, Leroy “Satchel” Paige made an appearance at the Park Street diamond. He was known as “the ageless player” because no records could establish his exact age. He was a former member of the St. Louis Browns and spoke proudly about playing in the “white” major leagues after participating many years in the Negro Leagues. He came as part of a make-shift Harlem Globetrotters baseball team. Unfortunately, many of the records surrounding his playing career have been lost in history. Recognizing his contributions to the baseball world, Paige was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York in 1971.
The Bristol Baseball Club, comprised of former high school players, was organized in 1955. They played 15 games in front of sparse crowds before the Flood of 1955 inundated Muzzy Field. They suspended operations at that time and never resurfaced as a team. Their demise was perhaps due to several circumstances, including the total loss of their equipment. The equipment was stored at Frank’s Stationary in Forestville and became a victim of the flooding disaster!
E. Gordon Stocks, park superintendent, announced his resignation to the Park Board in 1955. He had served in this capacity from 1947-1955. The board regretfully accepted his decision and appointed Joseph J. Riley as interim superintendent. His position would be made permanent and for many years Riley would oversee activities throughout the park system and at Muzzy Field.
THE KING AND HIS COURT VISITS MUZZY FIELD
The King and His Court featuring the amazing pitching and antics of Eddie Feigner visited Muzzy Field on July 10, 1956. This barnstorming four-man softball team formed in1946 brought a 10 year record of 917-54-27 into the contest. Having played in 6,000 towns and 100 countries, Feigner had pitched more than 10,000 games. He struck out over 140,000 batters, authored 238 perfect games, and recorded over 930 no-hitters. Feigner’s antics included pitching on his knees, behind his back, between his legs, from second base, and from center field.
Twelve-hundred spectators paid at the gate. The King and his Court played against a nine man local team, which provided little competition. Utilizing a 104 mile-an-hour fastball, Feigner struck out 16. Two of these strike outs were accomplished when he was blind folded. He allowed only three hits and two walks. The visitors won the contest 3-0.
Feigner’s team would return again a year later. Seven hundred fans witnessed the game, which the visitors won 4-1. Feigner would continue to pitch until the year 2000, when he retired at 75 years of age.
The next article, the eighth in a series of ten, will cover the late 1950s and the 1960s.