If you’ve been itching to watch some baseball at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, you’re in luck. And if you’re interested in the City of Hartford’s baseball heritage, it’s must-see baseball.
The venerable Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League will stage a doubleheader Monday beginning at 6 p.m., fans allowed, to raise money for what’s yet needed to complete Johnny Taylor Field at Colt Park. A host of future major league players have appeared in the GHTBL though its history, which began in 1929, but Taylor, though he was kept out of the segregated major leagues in his time, is considered by many to be the greatest of them all.
“He’s probably the most talented pitcher to ever come from Hartford,” said Wes Ulbrich, GM of the Ulbrich Steel team and the league’s historian. “The Yankees were going to sign him, and he would have been the first Black player signed in the history of the game, but they decided not to when they found out he was African-American. He would have been the first in the 1930s.”
Taylor played for Bulkeley High as a senior in 1933, and struck out 25 batters in a nine-inning game against New Britain. A Yankees scout, Gene McCann, was sent to Hartford to watch Taylor pitch, and called the Courant to find out when he’d be on the mound again. Sports Editor Albert W. Keane told McCann that Taylor was African-American, and McCann’s response, “cannot be printed in a family newspaper,” Keane wrote. The Philadelphia A’s were also reported as interested at the time, but unwilling to sign Taylor.
Taylor. who had the nickname “Schoolboy,” went on to a long professional career in the Negro Leagues. In 1936, columnist Lewis R. Dial in the New York Age, chastised Yankees’ top executive Ed Barrow for not signing Taylor, who was by then starring for the New York Cubans. “Surely, Mr. Barrow has heard of him, for his talent scout went all the way to Hartford to look over this youngster,” Dial wrote.
One can only imagine how many games the fire-balling Taylor might have won for the Yankees of the 1930s, with Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Tony Lazzeri and Bill Dickey producing runs for him.
There were suggestions that Taylor renounce his heritage, learn Spanish and pose as Cuban, but he would not do that. He often returned to Hartford to play before packed crowds, at Colt Park or Bulkeley Stadium. In September 1941, Taylor brought an all-star team from the Negro Leagues to play the famous Savitt Gems; his catcher was Hall-of-Famer Josh Gibson. Taylor struck out 15.
“There was one time [Taylor] needed a police escort, because there were so many people,” Ulbrich said.
Taylor’s story is particularly relevant this summer as the Negro Leagues’ 100th anniversary is commemorated. He finished his pro career playing for the Eastern League’s Hartford Chiefs in 1949, and he lived in the city until his death in 1987.
Through the Colt Park Foundation, Ulbrich hopes to raise more money to supplement funds already allotted for improvements. Johnny Taylor Field at Colt Park is supposed to be ready for the spring of 2021.
“We’re going to donate to Public Works, so they can get things like bases and signage,” said Ulbrich, “or they might choose for us to buy it and donate it. … We really need lights, which is a lot of money, but they just gave an additional $500,000 for Colt Park. We want to keep fund-raising through the Colt Park Foundation. We really care about the park and it ties in with our league’s history so much.”
The Greater Hartford Twilight League is playing its 92nd season despite the pandemic, with health and safety protocols and social distancing rules proving effective so far. The league schedule, usually 24 games, is 12. “We’ve had no issues,” Ulbrich said.
For the games Monday at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, the league got a reduction in rent from the Yard Goats, and secured free parking in the Trumbull Street Stadium lot, which holds about 250 cars. With Dunkin’ Donuts Park’s 6,000 capacity, and a 25 percent capacity limit, that should be enough for Monday’s doubleheader. Tickets are $10 for adults, children under 14 get in free. The Record-Journal Expos play People’s United Bank at 6 p.m., Ulbrich Steel plays the East Hartford Jets at 8 p.m.
Dom Amore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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