East Lyme’s Morgan Bulkeley entered Hall as first National League President

Editor’s Note: The 2013 induction ceremonies into the National Baseball Hall of Fame will take place on July 28th in Cooperstown, NY. Despite the storied history of the Hall, most of the followers of the game here in Connecticut are probably unaware that anybody from this state is included among its members. Yet there are three “old time” players and two executives enshrined there. The following is the second in a series of columns for SportzEdge by Joel Alderman, paying tribute to these men from Connecticut for their contributions to baseball and our state.

This is a story about the three B’s, not from the world of classical music but, in this case, Baseball, Bridges and a man named Bulkeley.

Morgan Gardner Bulkeley of East Haddam, Connecticut, was the original president of baseball’s National League, and the first non-player from this state to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. However, few of the game’s fans ever heard of him. In this area his name is familiar more because of a high school and a certain historic bridge that goes over the Connecticut River linking Hartford and East Hartford. The Bulkeley Bridge is referred to repeatedly in daily traffic reports on Hartford area television and radio stations. More on the bridge later.

220px-Morgan_G_BulkeleyThe first “B” – Baseball

The baseball part of Bulkeley’s accomplishments is highlighted by his selection, in the second year of voting, to the Hall of Fame by its Centennial Commission. He was inducted posthumously in 1937, a hundred years after his birth and 15 years following his death. It would be tempting to say he was named because he was one of the greatest of National League presidents. But that is not the case. Instead it was primarily because he happened to be the first president that the league would have.[1]

In 1874 there existed the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. Bulkeley was a founder of one of its teams, the Hartford Dark Blues. He and his group of investors purchased property at the corner of Wyllys Street and Hendricxsen Avenue. Those spellings are unusual but correct, and the roads still exist in Hartford. The land was used to build the Hartford Baseball Grounds.

“The ball park was enclosed with an eight-foot-high wooden fence and measured about 400 feet by 500 feet. A pavilion with seating for 500 stockholders and season ticket holders was built behind home plate, which abutted Wyllys Street. Tiered bleachers for 500 more general admission spectators were built along the first base foul line . . . 350 additional seats were added on the third-base side of the diamond and were reserved exclusively for ladies and the gentlemen accompanying them. Hendricxsen Avenue ran on the other side of the fence behind these stands. More seats may have subsequently been added as it was reported later in the season that seating capacity was 2,000 spectators.”[2]

Vintage baseball games are still being played on the field where Bulkeley’s ball park stood. It is now called the Hartford Base Ball Grounds at Colt Meadows.

In 1876 the National Association folded and was replaced by the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs, which even now is the official but hardly used name for what is popularly just known as the National League. The Hartford team was one of its seven charter members and Bulkeley was named the league’s original president.

Because he also had political and business ambitions, he was more of a figurehead than an active leader. He accepted the position with the understanding that it would be for no more than a year and he stepped aside after only ten months. His main responsibility was “to control illegal gambling, drinking and fan rowdiness.”[3] He did not make any important decisions, and left those to an associate, William Hulbert, who was to take over the National League’s presidency the following year.

Another part that Bulkeley played in early baseball history was to be one of seven members of the Mills Commission, the group that investigated the origins of baseball. In 1907 it came to a conclusion the country wanted to hear- that it is an American game invented by an American, Abner Doubleday. That became a popular myth. It contained statements that could not be verified, and there is good evidence that baseball really originated in England from the game of rounders.

The bridge linking Hartford and East Hartford, named after Morgan G. Bulkeley.

The second “B” – Bridges

Bulkeley was chairman of a special commission created by the Connecticut State Legislature to oversee the building of a span carrying what is now I-84, U.S. Route 6 and U.S. Route 44. It would be the third such bridge at that location. The first, built in 1810, was flooded out eight years later. The second, a covered bridge, was destroyed by fire in 1895. The structure used today has been there since 1910 and was first known as the Hartford Bridge. After his death in 1922 it was renamed in his honor and became the Morgan G. Bulkeley Bridge. It was and still is the largest stone arch bridge in the world.[4]

The third “B” – Buckley in war, politics and business

Although we are mainly just about sports here at SportzEdge, we must digress to point out that baseball was really only a small part of the varied and successful life of Morgan Bulkeley.

He was in the Union army in the American Civil War, was a Hartford city councilman, a four-term mayor of Hartford from 1880 to 1888, a two term United States Senator from 1905 to 1911, the Governor of Connecticut from 1889-1993, and a president and a leading force with the Aetna Life Insurance Company for 43 years. He received honorary degrees from Yale and Trinity. And for more than thirty years he was an official of the National Trotting Association.[5]

Bulkeley HS
Bulkeley’s picture hangs in Bulkeley High School in Hartford.

Another present day connection to Bulkeley is that one of the schools in Hartford has carried his name from the time it opened in 1926.[6] It is officially known as Morgan Gardner Bulkeley High School, but referred to by sports fans, the media, and the general public as Bulkeley High School, Hartford Bulkeley, Bulkeley of Hartford, or simply Bulkeley.

It is ironic that few if any who now attend the high school bearing his name “don’t know who he is,” Lou Frasca, a dean of students, told the Hartford Courant early this year.[7]

To help rectify that situation, a committee of staff and alumni are in the midst of establishing the Morgan Gardner Bulkeley Historical Center at the school. Formerly a book room overlooking the gymnasium and swimming pool, it is now an eleven hundred square foot area to contain a portrait and written biography of Bulkeley, display cases with trophies and memorabilia, a conference table for meetings, and a hardwood floor on which the school crest is painted.

The project is down to its finishing touches, and the formal dedication of the Center, according to Frasca, is tentatively scheduled for September 27th. “It will be used as a meeting place for the Alumni Association as well as for ceremonies and receptions,” he said.

In 1924 a boxed time capsule was placed in the cornerstone of the school building and it is believed to contain newspapers, coins, pictures and other items of the day. The box is expected to be retrieved and opened later this year and may shed more valuable information about Bulkeley and other historical subjects.

The first “B” – Baseball, again

In closing, let’s go back to baseball, because we cannot help but think that the game today could certainly use a man like Morgan Gardner Bulkeley. The conditions he faced and fought against as the first President of the National League in 1876 unfortunately did not go away for long, if they did at all. They still exist in many of our ballparks in the year 2013- “gambling, drinking and fan rowdiness.”