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Play Ball! Baseball’s Opening Day evokes memories of Hartford’s big league past

View of the home plate area and its now vacant backdrop. During the height of the Dark Blues existence, a grandstand capable of seating 500 fans stood in this area.
View of the home plate area and its now vacant backdrop. During the height of the Dark Blues existence, a grandstand capable of seating 500 fans stood in this area.
Patrick J. Mahoney

A Land Divided: Major League Baseball and Hartford

Hartford Dark Blues, 1875, Including Hall of Fame pitcher and believed inventor of the curveball, William Arthur 'Candy' Cummings (third from left, second row)
Hartford Dark Blues, 1875, Including Hall of Fame pitcher and believed inventor of the curveball, William Arthur 'Candy' Cummings (third from left, second row)
Prescott & White, 1875

Lying midway between Boston’s baseball cathedral at Fenway Park and that house in the Bronx that a fella named Ruth built, the city of Hartford finds itself situated upon what can be described as the baseball equivalent of the Mason-Dixon line in the storied rivalry between the Red Sox and Yankees. However, long before the battle for supremacy in the American League East became the focal point of baseball discussion in the capital city, local fans were united in their support for their local club, the Hartford Dark Blues, as they challenged the rival Boston Red Caps for the National League pennant. As another season of Major League Baseball unfolds this week, fans from across Connecticut will plan to make pilgrimages to the 37,000 seat confines of Fenway and the nearly 50,000 seat Yankee Stadium. Yet, for those baseball enthusiasts looking to get off the beaten path and explore a bit of baseball history, one needn’t look any further than Wyllys Street in Hartford’s south end. On what now appears as an unassuming patch of land on the grounds of the Church of the Good Shepard, the Dark Blues, one of the original eight teams in the National League, played their home games from 1874-1877. While the 2,000 seat stadium that once stood on the site has long since faded into the shadows of time, the site still holds the unmistakable feel of what once was.

The Dark Blues in the National League

In 1876, after two seasons of play in a league known as the National Association, Hartford became the smallest of eight cities to join the newly formed National League. The latter is the same league still in existence today as a part of Major League Baseball. In addition to the Boston Red Caps, the Blues were joined in the inaugural season by the Philadelphia Athletics, Cincinnati Reds, Chicago White Stockings, New York Mutuals, Louisville Grays, and St. Louis Brown Stockings. Despite general success on the field and overwhelming support from the Hartford fans, including season ticket holder Mark Twain, team president Morgan Bulkeley decided to relocate the club to Brooklyn for the 1877 season. Bulkeley, who had been elected as the first president of the new league, wrongly assumed that a move to New York would ultimately prove to be more lucrative and allow for more national exposure. However, financial woes would continue to plague the club, renamed the ‘Brooklyn Hartfords’. After one uneventful season in their new home, the club disbanded in 1878.

The Hartford Base Ball Grounds

At the height of the Blues existence, home games were played in a ballpark known as the ‘Hartford Base Ball Grounds’, built in 1874 on land leased to the club by Elizabeth Colt. The grounds, located on Wyllys Street, were noted by contemporary sources to have been ‘as good as any other in the country’. According to the Friends of Vintage Baseball’s description of the historic park, it was ‘enclosed with an eight-foot-high wooden fence and measured about 400 feet by 500 feet’. In addition to two tiered bleachers along the first and third baselines that could accommodate up to 900 spectators, the park contained a grandstand ‘with seating for 500 stockholders and season ticket holders behind home plate’. However, it seems that additional seating was made available to accommodate the number of spectators that typically turned out for big games. One report of the time noted that in a conservative estimate, a full ‘three thousand persons’ were present to watch the home team take on the New York Mutuals, with the recently renovated bleacher extensions showing ‘no signs of giving way’ even at their ‘fullest capacity’.

Plaque stolen

In recent years, a number of efforts have been put forth to recognize the importance of both the Hartford Blues and the Wyllys St. Ball Grounds within the grand narrative of America’s pastime. In 2008, in an effort spearheaded by Wethersfield’s Ron Bolin, donors erected a bronze historical plaque at the site. However, later in the year, the plaque was stolen. Today, commemorative bases remain on the grounds, providing imaginative visitors with a glimpse into the past. Additionally, the nearby site of Colt Meadows has become a popular home to vintage baseball games, in which players dress in old-style uniforms to play competitive games under the old rules. For a complete schedule of games to be played at the Hartford Base Ball Grounds at Colt Meadows this season, check for updates from the Coltsville Vintage Base Ball League at http://www.friendsofvintagebaseball.org/coltmeadows_sked.html.