Newfield Park: Home to One of New England’s Most Sacred Baseball Sites
by Michael J. Bielawa
Of all the lost stadia across the long history of New England’s minor leagues, Bridgeport’s Newfield Park is certainly one of this region’s most sacred sites. Located in the city’s East End, near the shore of Long Island Sound, this ball yard has been dedicated to the diamond arts for over 110 years. What makes this plot of earth even a more spectacular treasure-trove is the fact that after professional baseball began here in 1898, the stadium was frequented by legions of the game’s greatest, and most famous, ball players.
The place name “Newfield” most likely came about with relation to neighboring Stratford. That community having been founded earlier, its inhabitants eventually expanded farming efforts beyond their town’s “Old Pasture” into communal arable land of today’s eastern Bridgeport, called “the farfield,” which in turn evolved into “the newfield.” Initially all the land encompassing what is today’s downtown Bridgeport was referred to as “Newfield,” dating from about the time of the American Revolution up until roughly 1800. Additionally, the mouth of the Pequannock River was referred to as Newfield Harbor. Over the decades this place name remained intact for the boundary connecting Bridgeport and Stratford. The area stretches from the Yellow Mill River east to Johnson’s Creek (situated at I-95’s northbound exit 30). In 1873 it was organized as the separate borough of West Stratford. Then in 1889 the inhabitants of West Stratford voted to join bustling Bridgeport. The “Newfield” name is still a proud part of the community and the moniker is applied to the East End’s branch library, a major street and public park.
Baseball seemed destined for the land in this section. During the mid to late 19th century much of the area around Bridgeport’s Newfield neighborhood was owned by the ball playing O’Rourke Brothers, John (1849-1911) and James (1850-1919). Following his major league career, Orator Jim converted his land holdings into a ballpark for his professional club, the Bridgeport Orators. This move consolidated his team at a single field, following two seasons of juggling games between the island park of Pleasure Beach (accessible only by ferry), Athletic Park (located at today’s intersection of Boston and Success Avenues), and Avon Park in neighboring Stratford. This latter park was owned by the local trolley company.
The first game ever played at Newfield Park was an exhibition contest between the Bridgeport Orators and Springfield of the Eastern League, on Friday, May 13, 1898. Newfield Park went on to become home to O’Rourke’s league champion 1904 Orators (of the Connecticut League). In 1930, the New York Giants minor league affiliate Bridgeport Bears, took first place in the second half of an Eastern League split season. The Bears then lost to Allentown in the championship series four games to one.
Barnstorming and exhibition contests were often staged at Newfield, featuring Bridgeport’s pro teams or local amateur All-Stars pitted against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, Boston Braves, New York Giants and the New York Yankees. African American clubs visiting Newfield included the New York Lincoln Giants and the Brooklyn Royal Giants. Semi-pro and local Industrial League teams were a vital component of Newfield Park’s dynamic heritage entertaining countless fans.
When the Depression caused a downturn in ticket sales ingenious promotions were employed such as night baseball. The first game played under the lights at Newfield took place on August 4, 1930.
The last pro team to call Newfield home were the 1941 Bridgeport Bees of the Interstate League, an affiliate of the National League Boston Bees (aka Braves). Ironically the Boston Bees can trace their lineage to the Red Caps, the same club where Jim O’Rourke had his National League start. Low attendance during ’41, combined with dim-out regulations resulting from America’s entry into World War II, doomed the possibility of future ball campaigns.
Newfield Park became the stage for carnivals and horse shows. A race track was installed and midget auto races became a weekly feature. During World War II the neglected ball park witnessed vandalism and acts of arson. In April 1944 a portion of the abandoned park’s grandstand collapsed. Neighbors raised safety concerns about teens and children getting injured. Finally, in July 1944 Newfield Park was taken over by the city due to delinquent taxes. City fathers resurrected the razed stadium’s heritage by converting the old ball yard into a public park. The field continues as a neighborhood haven for athletics, including football and basketball. Horseshoe pits are active in the area beyond the vanished right field fence. Embellishing the past, Newfield is now also a home to baseball’s cultural precursor, cricket. Poetically, the game James O’Rourke readily embraced will always be played here. Vintage Games took place in 1999 and more are planned in Bridgeport’s future.
A detailed, illustrated, history of Newfield Park is preserved in Michael J. Bielawa, From FarField to Newfield: The Baseball Dream of Orator Jim O’Rourke (Fairfield, CT: Audubon, 1999). Bielawa’s work also includes interviews of ball players and fans sharing their memories of the park. Few photographs of the ballpark or stadium exist, however the 1934 aerial survey, compiled by the Connecticut State Library, offers a Depression Era view of the field prepared for football. Sanborn Insurance Maps provide an evolutionary look at the grounds. The day to day history of Newfield comes to life in the pages of the city’s newspapers: Bridgeport Daily Standard, Bridgeport Evening Farmer, Bridgeport Evening Post, Bridgeport Herald, Bridgeport Post and the Bridgeport Times-Star. The History Center at Bridgeport Public Library sponsors valuable and entertaining walking tours of Bridgeport’s neighborhoods including Newfield Park.