Sunday, May 28, 2023

Bridgeport Baseball

By:  Michael Bielawa, Baseball Historian

The fields and shoreline of Bridgeport, Connecticut possess a magnificent baseball heritage. Since its inception, “base ball” profoundly impacted the city. In fact, Bridgeport’s social history provides a fascinating microcosm of baseball’s evolution from a regional amateur game to its eventual ascendancy into the national pastime.

The game was fully received in Bridgeport during the closing years of the American Civil War. The year 1865 marks two important symbiotic events in the community’s social fabric, illustrating a rising interest in the outdoors and physical exercise.1

  • The Common Council moved to dedicate and improve lands for two public parks, Seaside Park and Washington Park.2
  • The birth of serious-minded ball teams.

There was actually a lack of teams calling Bridgeport home prior to 1865. It was more common at this time for local newspapers to list billiard results, horse racing and the only ball game in town – cricket.3

By year’s end, the East Side boasted some of the very first baseball games in Bridgeport. Citizens could watch the Excelsiors and Stars play, but these teenage clubs were strictly “muffin,” or rather, ill-practiced at best. Inter-squad games were also played in the East Side by the American Base Ball Club at their grounds situated just north of Washington Park.4

A big step toward regulation games took form at the end of August 1865 when 98 students and administrators from the local college, Bryant, Stratton & Corbin’s Bridgeport Business College and Telegraphic Institute, gathered to write a constitution and by-laws creating a 30-man base ball club.5 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.6

This era also marked the advent of Bridgeport’s most famous baseball player, James O’Rourke (1850-1919). Jim and his brother John played ball in east end fields during the late 1860s and early 1870s. James O’Rourke’s big league career began when he signed with the National Association Middletown Mansfields in 1872.7 A few years later, as a member of the Boston Red Caps, O’Rourke got the first hit in National League history on April 22, 1876. This was one of many “firsts” James would record. His accomplishments on the national level and his contributions to the game in New England led to O’Rourke’s induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.8

Bridgeport’s first professional team were the Giants of the Southern New England League and later the Eastern League.9 Their home grounds were situated within the northern portion of P.T. Barnum’s Winter Headquarters on State Street. Just a few years later, during the late 1880s, an outstanding amateur circuit also took hold in Bridgeport, the Senior City League. Still in existence, this league plays its games at Seaside Park.

Baseball blossomed in the Park City during the opening years of the 20th century. Beyond the popular local professional team, the Orators, Bridgeport’s sprawling industrial base gathered an immigrant population capable of supporting numerous semipro ball clubs.10 A world without automobiles, air-conditioning, television or radio fostered neighborhood socialization on a tremendous scale. Outdoor sports, dictated by the seasons, were readily embraced. Workers playing baseball during their free-time represented places of employment, churches, guilds and social clubs. Recreation, company pride, and team bragging rights prompted factory owners to finance clubs. Bridgeport’s Industrial League, organized in the early 1900s, enticed citizens onto diamonds and into the stands, for half a century.

 Want to learn more about Bridgeport Baseball? The Bridgeport History Center has the following materials available:

1. Bridgeport Evening Farmer, March 29, 1866, notes, “Now that the season for all outdoor sports and amusements is approaching, everything is being got in readiness by the various clubs and individuals, lovers of field, turf, and aquatics, to make this year one of unusual interest. Amongst the various outdoor sports, that of Base Ball is becoming by far the most popular, and very properly so, being entirely of American origins.” Bridgeport Evening Farmer, May 26, 1866, states, “Every city, deserving the name, has its public grounds, its breathing places, where the hard-worked and over-worked sons of toil can find pure air, healthy exercise, cheerful scenery, sun and shade, green trees, the fresh earth, blue skies, and sparkling waters… Boston has her Common, Hartford her Park, New Haven her public Greens and Elms, New York her Central Park. These are all the peoples’ grounds, the public parks, open and free to every man women and child…so it will yet be with Washington and the Seaside Parks by the people of Bridgeport.”

2. Numerous articles in the Bridgeport Evening Farmer and Bridgeport Evening Standard during 1865 and 1866 provide excellent coverage of the embryonic stages of these parks. The fine story concerning Washington Park and the origins of the East Side are emphasized in the architectural survey by Charles Brilvitch, Pembroke City Historic District Bridgeport, Connecticut (Connecticut Historic Commission, 1990).

3. Bridgeport’s newspapers and the New York Times report on Bridgeport’s 1857 – 1866 cricket matches.  Cricket results are also noted in the weekly baseball newspaper, “The Ball Players Chronicle,” Edited by Henry Chadwick (New York: Thompson & Pearson, 1867).

4. Bridgeport Evening Farmer, August 8, 1865. Maps of Bridgeport help illustrate probable locations of contemporary ball fields; Atlas of New York and Vicitnity, “City of Bridgeport, Fairfield County, Connecticut” (New York: Beers & Soule, 1867) and Bridgeport City Directory Map, 1867.

5. Bridgeport Evening Standard, August 29, 1865.

6. Bridgeport Evening Farmer and Bridgeport Evening Standard, September 1, 1865 and Michael J. Bielawa’s section in The Pioneer Project, edited by Peter Morris (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011), details this Bridgeport team as well as the game’s earliest appearance in the Park City.

7. A concise history of Connecticut’s first major league club is, David Arcidiacono’s  Middletown’s Season in the Sun: The Story of Connecticut’s First Professional Baseball Team (East Hampton, CT: Published by the Author, 1999).

8. For an in depth look at the life and legacy of James O’Rourke see, Michael J. Bielawa, From FarField to Newfield: The Baseball Dream of Orator Jim O’Rourke (Fairfield, CT: Published by the Author, 1999).

9. For a photographic history of the city’s connection to the sport see, Michael J. Bielawa, Bridgeport Baseball (Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2003).

10. A wonderful look at Bridgeport’s industrial history can be found in Samuel Orcutt, A History of the Old Town of Stratford and the City of Bridgeport, Connecticut, 2 vols. (Bridgeport: Fairfield County Historical Society, 1886) and George Curtis Waldo, Jr., History of Bridgeport and Vicinity (New York: S.J. Clarke Publishing, 1917).

Michael Bielawa
Michael Bielawa is a baseball historian and poet. He is the author of Bridgeport Baseball; Wicked Bridgeport; Wicked New Haven; and From Fairfield to Newfield: the Baseball Dream of Orator Jim O’Rourke. He is a Youth Services Librarian at the Bridgeport Public Library.