Wethersfield's Glorious Baseball History

The Strange and Ancient Yankee Game Called Wicket, the Old Broad
Street Grounds, The Life and Death of Charley Onions and Other True
Stories from Wethersfield’s Glorious Baseball History

Copyright 2011 by Gary “Pops” Goldberg-O’Maxfield
SABR Member, Baseball Historian and
Commissioner of the Friends of Vintage Base Ball, Inc.

Wethersfield’s Ancient Sports History

There
is hidden away in Wethersfield a history of long- forgotten times. A
beautiful town on the western banks of the Connecticut River,
Wethersfield, Connecticut has a rich history that goes back to its
earliest beginnings. Along with Hartford and Windsor to the north,
Wethersfield was an outpost to European settlements in central
Connecticut and played a key part in early American history. This is
well known. Silas Deane, Rochambeau and Washington have left their mark
in the annals of this town’s history with stories and places that still
survive. This history helps Wethersfield maintain its unique colonial
identity today.

Wicket: The First American Sport

However,
there is also a rich sporting history in Wethersfield that dates back
to colonial times, and even earlier. In the 18th and 19th centuries,
sporting activities such as rowing and horse racing were being enjoyed
in central Connecticut and one game in particular was all the rage.
Hartford and her outlying towns was the epicenter of this sport even as
it spread throughout the rest of the country. Considered a strange and
ancient Yankee game, the game of wicket or wicket ball was being played
well beyond Connecticut’s borders by the 1830’s when local old timers
considered it ancient. A soldier in General Washington’s ranks recorded a
wicket game that Washington played with the troops at Valley Forge.
“Revolutionary War soldier George Ewing wrote in a letter: ‘ This day
His Excellency [i.e. Washington] dined with G[eneral] Nox [Knox] and
after dinner did us the honor to play wicket with us.”i Abe Lincoln
played wicket in Illinois in his youth. Wicket was an American hybrid of
cricket that was played by sixty players, thirty on a side, and only
two innings long. In 1859, a wicket match between New Britain and
Bristol had over 4,000 fans witness it. The crowd was so large that
special trains from Hartford had to be called in to service. Bristol won
the match that was still being talked about in 1920, 61 years later!

The
New England game of wicket was played on a large meadow, usually on
Monday, and it took most of a day to play. Cricket games took up to a
week to play. Unlike the gentrified British, Americans could scarcely
afford a single day off from their farm or shop to engage in athletics.
Wicket was the All-American solution that offered newly discovered
benefits of sports, being healthy and robust, and it was anonymously
invented to be finished in only one day.

The rules of the game
are too elaborate to describe in this article but here is an overview.*
Wicket was played with 30 players on side and was usually played in
either town wide friendly matches with the married men taking on the
single men or in a much ballyhooed challenge match between rival towns
that happened a half-dozen times each summer. The field was an alley,
like cricket, with opposite side batsmen and bowlers. Unlike cricket,
the bat was a large wooden spoon shaped device and the wicket was 6 feet
long and sat on blocks sitting only 6″ off the ground. The bowler
bowled the ball underhand to attempt to knock down the wicket. The
batsman did not have to run to the base if he hit the ball. It was his
choice. Unless you are familiar with cricket, all of this may sound very
foreign, but up until the late 19th century, Americans knew of and
played this game as much as they did baseball.

The Wethersfield
Wicket Club was one of the older wicket teams and they played on the
Broad Street meadow on the green. Newington was its biggest rival in the
19th century. The entire town came out to watch and celebrate the game
leaving locked stores and both hay and livestock in neglect. Elaborate
picnic lunches and dinners made a wicket match quite an entertaining
event for everyone. It was a rousing town-wide celebration. Unlike
baseball, wicket matches were gentlemanly and without the arguing,
bickering or egos of the newer baseball game. Three umpires kept the
peace. They game stopped for lunch.

Baseball in the Gay Nineties

Baseball
was played just as ardently in Wethersfield and on the same Broad
Street field as the wicketers played in the latter part of the 19th
century. The Wethersfield teams were amateur teams and they played a
loose schedule of challenge baseball matches against other town’s teams,
factory teams and military teams from Connecticut.

The
championship team in 1880 was open to challenges from any team.
Interested parties were to contact Owen Havens, secretary, at his south
Wethersfield home. The custom of the era was for the challengers to pay
travel expenses for challenged teams and maybe to buy dinner as well.
The better teams were host to many challenges each year as upcoming
teams tried to knock them off and garner their own reputations.

WethGlorious Baseball History_baseball weth team.jpgThe
Wethersfield Stars played baseball on the green in the 1890’s. “A
business meeting of the Wethersfield Baseball Club was held Thursday
night at Hart & Wells’ seed store. E.G. Woodhouse was elected
manager in place of J.T. McCarthy, who has resigned. Dr. A. W. Howard
was elected secretary and treasurer. The diamond on the Broad Street
grounds has been changed and a movable grand stand with wire netting in
front will be placed on the west side of the grounds. The boys are
playing good ball and the public should give them good support, as they
have already been to much expense in getting teams to come here and in
making improvements for the comfort of those who attend the games. The
Glastonbury’s play here this afternoon at 3:30 and a good game is
promised.”ii

*The rules of Wicket can be found at http://www.friendsofvintagebaseball.org

Not
everything was rosy in 1897 as the article attested to with a change in
managers mid-season, a new portable and protected grandstand and a plea
to garner local support.

 In 1895, the local nines played a game
versus the Windsor Crescents and 300-400 cranks (fans) showed up to
watch the game as Wethersfield won 10-3 behind the pitching of Dutton.
On July 1st of 1895 the Wethersfield’s traveled to Windsor to defeat the
Windsor Electric team 7-4 behind the pitching of Dutton. When they
returned, they had procured a large hay wagon loaded with baseball
enthusiasts and drove through town setting off firecrackers and roman
candles and blowing horns. Earlier in the week a baseball social was
held with music provided by Abbey’s Orchestra. Due to the rainy weather,
the crowd was not as large as was hoped for.

There were
tragedies at the baseball grounds as well as victories. Byron Whiting, a
10 year old boy who lived on Broad Street was sitting too close to home
base on the grass in July of 1897 when a foul tip struck him squarely
in the nose. The ball came so swiftly that young Byron had no time to
dodge the ball which severely broke his nose. McCarthy, the Wethersfield
catcher quickly picked up the lad and he was taken to a local house
where Dr. Howard, a Wethersfield player, attended to him. The boy died
the next day of brain fever following the injury. This was truly a sad
occasion for Wethersfield baseball.

WethGlorious Baseball History_baseball frank weston-thumb-320x424-522.jpgAgain,
in August of 1897, Frank Weston of 14 Affleck Street in Hartford,
formerly of Wethersfield and a student of the Wethersfield High School,
was knocked unconscious after being struck in the head by a batted ball
while he watched a baseball game on the grass of the Broad Street
grounds and he also died the following day. Young Weston had been
repeatedly warned by his father against going to watch baseball games
because the senior Weston disliked the game and thought it was too
dangerous. Frank Weston was drawn to the game as any young man would be,
for the excitement and the drama of it. It’s odd how his father’s fear
became a reality that hot summer day.

The Great Wicket Revival of the Early 20th Century

Wicket has been lost to time. Wicket started disappearing around
the 1860’s when baseball became the rage and baseball fever swept the country.
A
Connecticut wicket revival happened in the first few decades of the
2oth century as the old timers tried teaching it to the youngsters
before they passed on. Wethersfield’s town green was a choice location
for Wicket matches and the Connecticut National Guard wicket team used
the green in 1904.

A very good wicket team was formed in 1904
between the once rival towns of Wethersfield and Newington, along with a
few New Britain boys. Those who played on that team from Wethersfield
were: Dr. D.W. Howard, Charles Dilling, Alfred Dilling, J.B. Knapp, S.M.
Welles along with the following list of players that was selected from-
the two Welles brothers, Edward Deming and the two Griswold brothers.
Wethersfield had nine players on the team, Newington had sixteen and New
Britain had only five. Dr. Howard was a “crack” bowler for the combined
team. But despite the depth of the team, they could not win a game in
1904.

As the Hartford Courant aptly put it: “Many of the
[Newington-Wethersfield] players come of Revolutionary ancestry, and the
same spirit that animated their forefathers is in the breasts of the
players of the game today and as their forebears fought seven years
against great odds to win finally, so the [Newington-Wethersfield] men
will keep everlastingly at it and they fully expect to win the game some
day from their honorable contestants.”iii

As good as our local
town teams were at the time, no wicket team could compare to (or beat)
the Bristol Connecticut Wicket Club who went over 60 years without
losing a single match. This is probably the longest winning streak in
all of sports history and it has been too long neglected.

Bristol
boys took to wicket like ducklings take to water. The town was a
veritable factory producing the best wicket players in the state for two
generations. They had a bowler named Gus Smith who was so good at
bowling that his mere presence meant a victory for the Bristol boys. Gus
had a delivery that batsmen could not figure out. He put a twist on his
delivery that made his bowled ball bounce up from the ground
erratically at the last second, like a modern day baseball knuckleball.
Gus Smith was simply unbeatable.

The problem with Gus was his
unusual living arrangements in his post war life. Gus, born and raised
in Bristol, was with the Third New York Calvary as a teen during the
Civil War and he saw much hard fighting. By 1904 he was 57 years old and
still was the main bowler for Bristol. Gus Smith was a living wicket
legend.

Smith resided in the Connecticut Hospital for the Insane
in Middletown for many years while waiting for admission to the
Soldier’s Home. He lived in the Soldiers Home in Togus, Maine and later
in the National Soldiers Home in Dayton, Ohio. If Bristol was playing
wicket, they had to spring Gus from the institution, pay for his
transportation round-trip, and make sure he made it back safely. It was a
small price for Bristol to pay when it meant a sure victory. Gus Smith,
however, made every other wicket team crazy in their desire to defeat
the Bristol club. His defeat became a decades long obsession throughout
Hartford County.

WethGlorious Baseball History_baseball sen fenn-thumb-320x445-524.jpgThere
was another Wethersfield connection to wicket in the form of an
anonymous wicket ball maker. From the Hartford Courant: “The members of
the Wethersfield Wicket Club hope that when E. (Edward) Hart Fenn is
elected to the Senate he will not forget them when they have a match on
for they always depend on him to get a new wicket ball whenever they
have a match. There is a life prisoner at Wethersfield [State Prison]
who has a reputation for making wicket balls that is equal to the fame
of the house of Spalding in turning out baseballs. When a match is made,
the wicket players go to Mr. Fenn and tell him about it and he sees the
lifer and it isn’t long before a first class wicket ball is ready. The
lifer was a crack wicketer about 60 years ago and as there was an
important game on, a few years ago, he begged the warden to be allowed
to go see it. He said he would come back and there was no doubt that he
would but the provisions of the place do not allow the prisoners to
attend wicket games.”iv

By 1920, wicket was all but a memory in
Wethersfield and elsewhere, and today, not many have even heard of the
game. The Windsor Historic Society has a wicket bat and ball in its
collection if you wish to see the equipment

Charley Onions: Wethersfield’s Greatest 19th Century Ball Player

The
story of Charles H. Griswold, a Wethersfield athlete who played
baseball alongside one of the all-time greatest names in baseball, that
now is long forgotten. The son of a farmer from south Wethersfield,
Charley Griswold was born in 1861 and played baseball whenever he could
while growing up as a big, strong farm boy. He became a member of the
school team, then he played for the Wethersfield town team and he
developed quite a reputation in town as a crackerjack ball player.

Charley
eventually became a player in the old military league playing left
field for the Governor’s Foot Guard team. It was while playing for the
foot guard team that Charley gained considerable fame as a ball player.
While not the best hitter on his team, Charley was a phenomenal fielder,
using his athleticism and his foot speed to make extraordinary
acrobatic catches, one-handed catches and he was able to rob players of
hits on a regular basis.

Because of his roots in agriculture in
south Wethersfield, Charley Griswold was nicknamed “Charley Onions” by
his teammates, a name he would be known as to his many fans throughout
his life. It was during this time in 1886 that Charley was signed to
play for a new team in Hartford, a minor league team named for the old
Hartford team that was a charter member of the National League in 1876,
the Hartford Dark Blues of the Eastern League.

Hartford lost
their team in 1877 when their owner, Morgan Bulkeley, moved them to
Brooklyn after the season was only a third of its way through because
fans were not supporting the team. Fan support was sparse because of
it’s second-place finish the year before. Hartford had fickle fans, even
back then. The hockey Whalers were not the first professional team to
leave Hartford because of lack of fan support.

Hartford was so
embittered by losing their team that it would take nine years to get
another professional team in town. It was a consortium of baseball men
and a famous author who started the new Dark Blues team in the old
Eastern League.

Lead by Suffield cigar manufacturer Charles
Soby, the new Dark Blues would call in an old major leaguer who starred
for Hartford’s Dark Blues team in 1876-77, “Black” Jack Remsen to be
their player/manager and famous National League umpire and Colchester
native Charley Daniels to help run the new team. They sold stock in the
new club and rumor has it that none other than Mark Twain, a man not
known for being a shrewd businessman, was secretly financing the teamv.
The team leased a field from its old owner Morgan Bulkeley on the corner
of Broad and Ward Streets in Hartford and they assembled a team from
both local talent as well as beyond the state’s borders.
2WethGlorious Baseball History_20px-ConnieMack1887-thumb-320x548-526.jpg
The
previous year, 1885, saw a tall kid from East Brookfield, Massachusetts
come down to Connecticut and play catcher for the Meriden Eastern
League team. Quickly showing his skills with the bat and on the field,
Cornelius McGillicuddy, Sr. became a fan favorite for the Silver City
club. When they disbanded on July 13 1886, Cornelius signed on with
Hartford and played under his shortened name, Connie Mack.

Connie Mack, the Hall-of-Fame manager
who managed and owned the Philadelphia (now Oakland) A’s from their
inception in 1901 through the 1950 season was, in 1886, Hartford’s new
starting catcher. As a player, Mack was “a light-hitting catcher, had a
reputation as a smart player, but didn’t do anything particularly well
as a player.”vi Mack was joined by another East Brookfield player, 
Frank Gilmore, and because both players were very tall and very skinny,
they became known as the “bones battery,” a pair of animated beanpoles.
They were sold together to the Washington Nationals in 1887 where the
Bones Battery was recognized throughout the country.

On that
Hartford team was left fielder Charley Griswold, Charley Onions, the kid
from south Wethersfield who would injure himself later in the year and
get released from the team. Who could have imagined a local Wethersfield
boy playing minor league baseball in Hartford with the future
hall-of-famer Connie Mack? Charley Onions was a very popular athlete who
was a fan favorite due to his acrobatics in left field and his faithful
following from his hometown.

After his playing days were over,
Charley went to work for a Hartford awning company, Simon & Fox
Awnings, as a decorator and awning maker. He married and lived in
Hartford for the rest of his life.

April 30, 1909 was a cold and
snowy early spring day in Hartford when Charley and his helper, Fred
Jurgenson, were installing awnings at the old Aetna Life Insurance
Company on Main and Atheneum Streets (where the Travelers Plaza now
stands across the street from the Wadsworth Atheneum). They were hanging
awnings on the third floor of a building that was owned, ironically, by
Aetna president, ex-National League Commissioner and hall of fame
member, Morgan Bulkeley.

By afternoon it started getting icy on
the 18″ ledge and Jurgenson, who was inside passing tools out the window
to Charley, advised him to come inside before it became too dangerous.
Charley was working with a small ladder on the icy ledge. Charley
replied that he wanted to finish the awning installation and he started
to climb up the ladder. Halfway up, the ladder jerked and pitched
Charley downward to the horror of Fred Jurgenson who watched as Charley
fell silently to the street below. Charley never moved. He struck his
head and died instantly.

As he lay lifeless on the sidewalk,
Charley’s wife departed her trolley that took her home from work at the
scene.  She soon discovered that it was her husband who had fallen to
his death. Charley Onions was dead at 48 and with him went the dreams of
many Wethersfield boys who wanted to play in the “Bigs” like Charley.
Wethersfield may have forgotten him but the baseball fire that Charley
Onions had burning in him lives on in the kids who still play ball in
town to this day. And beyond.

Connie Mack went on to become the
very symbol of baseball greatness for the rest of his long life. He
returned to Hartford many times as manager of the Philadelphia Athletics
to scout players and to meet old friends that he once played with here.
In the 1950’s, Meriden, Connecticut threw Mr. Mack a big party to
celebrate his many years of service to our National Pastime. His battery
mate, Frank Gilmore, moved back to Hartford after his baseball days
ended. Gilmore got a job as park superintendent of Pope Park and he
resided on Oak Street.  His home was a block away from the defunct Ward
Street ball grounds that he and Mack and Charley Onions  played on many
years before. He walked past the site everyday on his way to work.

The
next time you drive by the old Broad Street grounds on the green, if
you stop for a moment, you may still see the kids playing a ball game
and you may still hear the bat crack a daisy-cutter out to the outfield.
It all part of Wethersfield’s rich sporting legacy and for some, it is
as important as anything else that was ever made in Wethersfield.

Hip, hip…HUZZAH!!

    
Bibliography:

i
Thorn, John (2011).  Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret Early
History of the Game.  1st Edition, Simon & Schuster, 2011, page 50

ii
Wethersfield. (1897, Aug 07). The Hartford Courant (1887-1922), pp.
10-10. Retrieved from
http://search.proquest.com/docview/554756558?accountid=40258

iii
Great wicket game at berlin today. (1904, Sep 23). The Hartford Courant
(1887-1922), pp. 1-1. Retrieved from
http://search.proquest.com/docview/555242602?accountid=40258

iv
Athletes in the next legislature. (1908, Oct 14). The Hartford Courant
(1887-1922), pp. 10-10. Retrieved from
http://search.proquest.com/docview/555581419?accountid=40258

v The Sporting News, August 30, 1886, p.5

vi James, Bill. The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers, Scribner, New York, 1997

Photos of 1890 Wethersfield Base Ball Team, Frank Weston and Senator E. Hart Fenn courtesy of the author.

Go the “About the Author”

Return to the Wethersfield Historical Society home page.




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