By Michael J. Bielawa
photo: Seth Jones 1863
Most fans in tune with collegate baseball’s heritage are familiar with the College World Series played each June in Omaha. Many may discuss outstanding programs at Louisiana State University, USC or Arizona State. As for historic college ball, New Englanders have inherited storied Ivy League grandstands filled with cranks tossing straw hats high in the air to cheer nines from Yale or Harvard or Brown. However, the contributions of college baseball in Bridgeport have long been neglected. In reality, college baseball had a tremendous impact on Bridgeport playing fields during the game’s primordial era.
The city’s college baseball lineage dates back to those months immediately following the close of the American Civil War. The Bryant, Stratton & Corbin’s Bridgeport Business College and Telegraphic Institute College was located downtown, situated in rooms above the post office. The school was a member of a national chain of mercantile colleges founded in Cleveland in 1854. Here in Bridgeport, Professor A. Corbin, Jr. oversaw classes advertised for “Young Men, Boys, Men of middle age, and ladies desiring to act as Book-keepers, Accountants, Salesmen, Agents, or wishing to perfect themselves as Teachers of Penmanship, or to engage in active business of any kind.”
On August 28, 1865, ninety-eight students and administrators from the Bridgeport institution gathered to write a constitution and by-laws creating a thirty-man base ball club. Professor Corbin was elected president of the “Business College Base Ball Club of Bridgeport.” Grounds were secured downtown, on the upper part of Beaver Street, and the school team voted to follow the rules of the New York game Professor Corbin graciously distributed copies of 1865 regulations. Practice days were selected to take place Mondays and Wednesdays, from five to six o’clock in the afternoon, and Saturday mornings at eight.
Across the Pequonnock River, in East Bridgeport, the recently organized American ball club had been playing scrimmages against first and second nines of their own club. Now the East Bridgeport club had the opportunity to take the field against this new downtown college team.
Five months after the founding of the Bridgeport college club, at the end of January 1866, Professor Corbin was succeeded by his assistant Seth Benjamin Jones, Jr. Jones is a pivotal figure in the city’s baseball landscape. Born in Bridgeport on July 3, 1841, he attended Williams College in northwestern Massachusetts where he was a member of the school’s vaunted Greylock Baseball Club. Following graduation in 1863 Jones taught for two years in Bennington, Vermont before coming home to a job at the Bryant, Stratton & Corbin’s Bridgeport Business College (Seth would continue to exert a potent impact on the city’s education system by founding the long lived Park Avenue Institute in 1871.)
At the helm of the business college Seth shared his knowledge and enthusiasm for sports with his Bridgeport students. Jones expanded the team’s community appeal when he helped reorganize the club on May 30, 1866. On that date the college team was renamed the Bridgeport Club and the roster was no longer restricted to students. In addition, home grounds were moved to the foot of Warren Street nearer to the new Seaside Park.
Seth Jr., who played first and third base, along with his siblings, became the prime force behind the Bridgeport Club. The Jones family resided on Union Street, in downtown, with their father Seth Jones Sr., an early Bridgeport entrepreneur. Daniel Jones, a club director, was a captain of one of the school’s various nines, he played left field as well as second and third base; Nathaniel, was stationed in center field; and William, the club president, was the team’s catcher. William H. Jones, born about 1845, was a partner in the Lyman & Jones agricultural warehouse located next to his brother Seth’s business college. Nathaniel H. Jones, born in 1839, was later a teammate of future Hall of Famer, James O’Rourke, on the 1871 state champion Osceola Club.
As notoriety of the Bridgeport Club grew, the Yale Base Ball team decided to challenge the Park City’s most prominent nine. Yale’s ballists were cordially received at the train depot by the Bridgeport Club on Saturday October 20, 1866, and escorted to a ball field at the old State Fair Grounds. This ball yard was located on a farm owned by Deacon David Sherwood, just beyond the city line in neighboring Fairfield. The area had been utilized nine years earlier, in 1857, by the Connecticut State Agricultural Society to highlight the state’s farming.
The well-attended game was the Bridgeport team’s first baseball match against Yale, an event that would be repeated several times over the next 18 months. Yale handily won the initial contest by a score of 58 to 10 and then departed for their ivy halls on the five o’clock train.
As the season came to a close William H. Jones and Stephen M. Cate Jr. were selected to represent the Bridgeport Club at the National Association of Base Ball Players held in New York City, December 12, 1866. Bridgeport baseball was now officially recognized on a national level.
In less than a year and a half after its founding, the dynamic efforts of Bridgeport’s college team had greatly enhanced the area’s sports scene. They represented the first official baseball club in city history (although organized a little earlier, the Americans hailed from across the river and called East Bridgeport home); the college team helped solidify the more modern rules of the New York Game in Bridgeport; the team’s presence provided a means for games to be played beyond inter-squad contests; and by enticing Yale’s nine to visit Bridgeport, local baseball’s influence expanded. As a result, the Bridgeport College Club should rightly be remembered as an important component of mid-Nineteenth century baseball’s establishment in southwestern Connecticut.
Bridgeport newspapers, the Bridgeport Evening Standard and the Bridgeport Evening Farmer, illustrate the progress of cricket and baseball, as well articles concerning the Bryant, Stratton & Corbin/Jones College during 1865-1866. Biographical information regarding the Jones family is drawn from United States Census records and newspaper coverage. Seth Jones, Jr.’s college and career in education is set forth in, Williams College Class of 1863, Class of Sixty-Three Williams College Fortieth Year Report, 1863 – 1903 (Boston: Thomas Todd Printer, 1903). The Bridgeport Club’s matches against Yale are listed in local newspapers, “Base Ball at Yale,” in The Yale Literary Magazine, December 1868 and The Ball Players’ Chronicle, October 10, 1867. For information about all of Bridgeport’s parks, including a history of Seaside Park, the History Center at BPL owns extensive files. The first Connecticut State Agricultural Fair was held in 1854. Locales varied year to year and were selected by an executive committee based upon the dollar amounts offered by each bidding city. Bridgeport was chosen to host the fourth annual fair in 1857 (Bridgeport Daily Advertiser and Farmer, April 23, 1857). The grounds were located on “thirty or forty acres” of farmland owned by David Sherwood, a neighbor of P. T. Barnum’s. Once a part of Fairfield this area is now within the boundaries of Bridgeport. Researching 19th century maps and land owners it appears that the approximate locale of the 1857 State Fair was on Fairfield Avenue (running south toward Long Island Sound) near the intersection with Lincoln Avenue (today’s Clinton Avenue). These ball grounds, near the western terminus of the horse railroad, were capable of accommodating a large crowd, perfect for important games.