|Colonial League a Trail Blazer in 1947 Debut|
Stamford Team Fielded Six' Black Players
WORLD WAR II decimated minor league baseball. Then, like the legendary phoenix rising from the ashes, the 1945 low of 12 leagues soared to an impressive 52 leagues in 1947. They ranged from Triple-A to Class D and covered the length and breadth of the United States plus towns in Canada and Mexico. Old leagues were re-established and new ones were formed. Among the latter the Class B Colonial League had its baptism in 1947.
The league's president was New York Giant football star Ken Strong of the educated toe, who was still active in a
Giant uniform during the football season. Although big Ken is best remembered as a great Giant running back and place kicker par excellence, he was no stranger to minor league baseball. During the 1930 season, as an outfielder with Hazleton of the Eastern League, Ken hit 41 home runs and drove in 130 runs. The 41 homers still stand as an Eastern League record. (Dick Lancelloti of Buffalo equaled the record in 1979.) Johnny Scalzi, who saw a little action with the old Boston Braves in 1931, served as secretary of the Colonial League.
The six charter members of the league were Port Chester and Poughkeepsie in New York and Bridgeport, Waterbury, New London and Stamford of Connecticut. Several of the new franchises were affiliated with major league clubs, while others operated independently. Waterbury had a connection with the Yankees, Bridgeport worked with the old Washington Senators and Poughkeepsie had a tie-in with the New York Giants. Stamford assembled its entry from a melange of minor league veterans, talent out of the semi-pro Stamford Twilight League, outstanding college players from the New York City area and, of historical note, the largest influx of black players on any club in Organized Baseball that year. This, of course, was just one year after Jackie Robinson broke the sport's modern color line with Montreal.
Veteran catcher Jim Acton managed the pennant-winning Waterbury Timers, whose home was Municipal Stadium. The race was nip and tuck until early August when the
Timers pulled away to win by 14½ games. Acton led his club in hitting (.357) and was a workhorse behind the plate. He received a lot of help from first baseman Leo Eastham, who hit .312, and from Frank LaManna. LaManna was a pitcher as a major leaguer with the Boston Bees during the 1940-42 seasons. With the Timers he played the outfield and had a brilliant year with a .335 average and league-leading totals of 21 home runs and 120 RBIs.
Waterbury had three of the best hurlers in the league: Mike "Iron-Man" Kash (20-3), Billy Sharp (18-8) and Al Yaklich (13-3).
Likeable Mike Kash was a story in himself. He had been with Minneapolis from 1941-45 and Jersey City in 1946. He didn't throw hard, but he had great control and knew how to pitch. In 1947 he equaled an all-time record by pitching and
The similarity in the names of the author and the Stamford catcher is not coincidental. Jim McGreal played in the minors from 1939 to 1949 except while in service.
winning five doubleheaders. In 1908 Louis "Bull" Durham of the American Association's Indianapolis club had performed the same feat. The original man of steel, "Iron-Man" Joe McGinnity, pitching for the New York Giants in 1903, won both ends of doubleheaders on August 1, 8 and 31. So Mike was in elite company.
The Poughkeepsie Giants played out of Riverview Park down the hill from Vassar College and fielded a fine team. Their second-place finish attested to the hitting prowess of players like first baseman-outfielder Ed Sudol, Chuck Quimby, Alex Korponay and Hal Leach. In addition, they had outstanding pitching from Tony Napoles, who was 18-0 during the regular season; "Billy the Kid" Ostrum, Dick Whitesell and Vernon "Pete" Taylor. Seven Giants were Colonial League All-Star picks: outfielder Korponay, infielders Sudol, Quimby and Pat Colombo, catcher Leach, and pitchers Whitesell and Napoles. Giant manager Eric McNair guided the All-Star team in its 4-1 victory over league-leading Waterbury on August 11.
The New London Raiders were based at Mercer Field. Player-manager Eddie Butka saw some wartime service with the Washington Senators. The mainstays of the club were pitcher Ed Bedell and veteran catcher Max Goldsmith. Bedell and Goldsmith, plus infielders Ed Zarolds and Pedro Gomez, were All-Star choices.
Candelite Stadium was home to the Bridgeport Bees. If one's taste didn't run to baseball, and for many Bridgeport locals it didn't, there was always the roar of midget cars racing around the ball park when the Bees were out of town. The club was owned by Carl Brunetto, a big-hearted guy with a Roman candle temperament that could explode like the Fourth of July. Brunetto managed the club at first, then catcher Tony DePhillips, who had some experience with the 1943 Cincinnati Reds, took over in mid-season. After a few weeks, the reins were turned over to co-owner and hard-hitting outfielder Bobby Sherwood. Sherwood and pitchers Dick Welteroth and Joe Murray were selected for the All-Star team.
Empire Stadium welcomed the visiting clubs to Port Chester. Feisty Al Barillari, a pitcher-outfielder who had played in the International League, guided the club and was always ready to challenge any umpire, player or fan. The Clippers struggled throughout the season, despite the efforts of veteran outfielder Connie Creeden and pitcher Bill Sahlin, who were named to the All-Stars. Creeden was the class of the league in hitting with an average of .395. Sahlin came to the club via the Brooklyn Bushwicks, and whenever the crafty lefty was calling the shots it was a tough night for the opposition.
A couple of New York City entrepreneurs, Lou Haneles and Stan Moor, were the moving figures behind the introduction of professional baseball to Stamford. Haneles, a one-time lefthanded catcher, was a former City College of New York athlete who excelled in baseball and possessed the eagle eye of a talent scout. He operated on a tight budget and relied on selling some of his players at the end of the season. Local Stamford businessman Ted Mitchell also had a piece of the action. The home of the Stamford Bombers was Mitchell Stadium, usually called Mitchell Field, out on Shippan Point in proximity to the city dump. Perhaps that's why such a lush stand of grass grew along the outfield fence. If a long fly ball lost itself in that miniature jungle, the lucky batter sometimes scored an inside-the-park home run. Outfielder Eddie Sudol, later a National League umpire, often could be heard declaiming: "Come out to Mitchell Field; the grass is longer there." Heavy-hitting Ed later was sold to Poughkeepsie, much to the consternation of his Stamford followers.
Because of Stamford's nearness to New York City, its citizens tended to be big-league fans. They were a tough draw in a minor league park. Television, which would sound the death knell for most minor league ball in later years, was in its infancy, but all season long the New York teams were on the ten-inch tube, ghost image and all, in a few homes and most bars. Many an afternoon we watched the big boys on TV at Luigi's bar and restaurant behind the left field fence.
To combat the big-league mystique and lure fans to the local park, Haneles hired one of the most colorful guys who ever put on a major league uniform, Henry "Zeke" Bonura, as player-manager. Following Army duty in World War II, Zeke returned to baseball as a minor league playing manager in 1946. He could still hit the ball a mile, then would thunder down the base paths like a slow freight. Occasionally he stole a base; in today's over-worked phrase, the feat was awesome.
Spring training for the Stamford club opened in mid-April in the chilly confines of Mitchell Field. The Colonial League's opening night of May 8 at Stamford found 600 hardy fans shivering in arctic weather. It was snowing as league president Strong caught the first ball tossed by Stamford Mayor Charles E. Moore. When the opening game was finally in the books, Stamford had walloped Waterbury, 16-5, the town had experienced its first professional baseball game, and local hero "Scotty" Koproski had lofted one high and far over the center field fence for the first recorded Colonial League home run.
From the opening game the Stamford Bombers lived up to their name. With hitters like Koproski, Vito DeVito, Tony Russo, Ed Sudol, George Godlewski, Danny Perlmutter and Zeke Bonura, who had the league's second highest average of .385, the Bombers finished the season with a team batting average of .300.
Despite success on the diamond, things were tough financially. Owners Haneles and Moor tried everything to bring people to the park - circus acts, rodeos, boxing, etc. - when the Bombers were out of town. Dealing in flesh was vital. Haneles signed one of the most sought-after college players on the East coast in June of 1947. Danny Perlmutter was a graduate of City College of New York, where his .531 average commanded the attention of every major league scout in the area. Perlmutter wound up hitting .362 in 91 games for the Bombers and was sold to San Diego of the Pacific Coast League for the 1948 season. Sudol and pitcher Larry Cauvel were sold to the Poughkeepsie Giants for much-needed cash and three players, including a second catcher, Charley Faughnam. Charley entered the league record book by banging out nine consecutive hits on August 7-8.
Among Stamford's pitchers were the aforementioned Cauvel, Nicky Thornton (12-6), Francisco Sostre (5-3), Stan Drouse (8-4) and Sid Schacht (18-7). Sid was the premier righthander in the league with a blazing fast ball and superb control. He commuted from his home in New York City, and every four days Bonura would hand him the ball. It was like money in the bank.
Schacht rarely had a bad day, and when he lost it was usually because his teammates were handcuffed by the opposing pitcher. Sid led the league in strikeouts with 180. In mid-season he was sold to San Diego for a bundle of cash and another pitcher, but he opted to stay with Stamford the remainder of the season because of his ailing mother. Sid went on to pitch in the American Association, where he threw a no-hitter, and eventually reached the big leagues for short stays with the now-defunct St. Louis Browns and Boston Braves. Naturally, he was named to the 1947 Colonial League All-Stars along with five other Stamford players
- infielders Bonura, DeVito and Russo, outfielder Perlmutter and catcher Jim McGreal. DeVito, a shortstop with a .324 average, was also sold to San Diego for 1948 delivery. The only Stamford player to go there in 1947 was Mickey Winters, a second baseman with a .283 average.
The Bombers continued to do well while rumors flew: The club was on the verge of folding; the club was moving to another town. None of it happened. Haneles managed to hang on and kept finding players, especially pitchers.
In July Haneles began his wholesale introduction of black players. Johnny "Schoolboy" Haith, a hard-throwing 19-year-old righthander, inked a Bombers' contract on July 24. He came highly recommended from the Albany, N.Y., area and made his debut the next night at Mitchell Field against the New London Raiders. He pitched a good game through six innings, trailing 3-1. Then wildness brought disaster as he gave up nine walks and some untimely hits for a 10-1 loss.
When Haith drew his release, Roy Lee, Jr., checked into the Bombers' clubhouse. The 21-year-old Durham (N.C.) Eagles pitching star stood a husky six-foot-one and owned a blistering fast ball. In his first outing on July 30 he faced the league-leading Waterbury Timers before a large crowd at Mitchell Field. Lee drew crafty Mike Kash as his mound opponent and was charged with the loss after six innings of work. Like Haith, he saw wildness contribute to his downfall.
On August 1 Lee turned in a fine relief job in the first game of a twin-bill against the Poughkeepsie Giants. In his second start, on August 3, he faced Sahlin of the Port Chester Clippers and lost, 7-4. Sahlin was known as a guy who wouldn't hesitate to come under the chin with a pitch, and he did exactly that to Lee in the seventh inning. At Bonura's urging, Roy reluctantly retaliated when Sahlin came to bat in the eighth. The Portchester players stormed out and a typical baseball rhubarb erupted. Lee gained his only victory on August 20, beating Port Chester, 8-2, and later saw action in the playoffs.
Alfred Preston reported to the Stamford club from the New York Black Yankees on August 6 and was immediately pressed into service against the Waterbury Timers. Big Al was a welcome addition, both as a player and as an individual. He towered over six feet, was a righthander and was well schooled in the art of pitching. In his debut the Bombers drew the horse-collar and he lost, 6-0. Al gave up only five hits, but the Bombers committed eight errors.
Preston took things in his own hands in his next outing four days later, blanking Bridgeport, 4-0, with a three-hitter. He finished the season with a 3-4 record and won another game in relief in the playoffs.
When Carlos Santiago joined Stamford on August 10, the club acquired a real class guy and a topflight infielder. He was just what Bonura needed to round out what was already a good infield. The Puerto Rican was one of the island's finest and had been playing in the fast Negro League on the East coast. In his first game he contributed a hit in Preston's whitewash of the Bridgeport Bees. Carlos had all the tools. He had a strong arm, good speed and was a tough out at the plate. He could play any infield position equally well and settled in at shortstop as the Bombers made their run for the playoffs and the league championship. Carlos had hustle and effervescent good humor.
For some unknown reason, Santiago is not listed in the averages contained in The Sporting News 1948 Official Baseball Guide. But he was there at Stamford for the last month of the 1947 season and was a major contributor on the field. As a footnote, my last report of Carlos was that he was doing some scouting for the California Angels.
Pitchers Fred Shepherd and Andre Pulliza made their first appearance with the Bombers on August 13. Pulliza, a Puerto Rican lefthander, came to the club by way of New York City, where he had been pitching in the Negro League. Shepherd, a former Atlanta Black Sox star, was the starting pitcher against the Poughkeepsie Giants and turned in a very creditable performance. He went a good, solid eight innings that night, but because of a lack of runs had to come out for a pinch-hitter while losing, 2-0. Pulliza relieved him in the ninth inning and gave up a run that resulted from a base on balls and a couple of wild pitches. The final score was 3-0.
Pulliza worked in relief again the next night against the Port Chester Clippers in a losing cause and drew his release the following day.
Shepherd charged the mound again on August 18 and was really eager for that particular game to get under way. It was an exhibition with the Newark Eagles, the 1946 champions of the Negro National League. Bill Veeck and the Cleveland Indians had purchased Larry Doby from the Eagles in July. With players like Monte Irvin, Johnny Davis and Lennie Pearson, they were still the best of the Negro National League. Shepherd may have felt he had something to prove that night. He held the Eagles in check for six innings with two runs before surrendering a pair in the seventh, and another pair in the ninth, but the Bombers pounded out 11 hits to post a 9-6 win. Fred was a rugged six-foot, 200-pound righthander with a dancing knuckle ball, good fast ball and a dipping curve. He was a competitor all the way, doing any job Bonura asked of him, including stints in the outfield and at first base. In the first game of the championship finals, Shepherd pitched superb relief ball for seven and one-third innings to gain a 13-4 decision against New London.
In all of 1946 and 1947, from Jackie Robinson to Fred Shepherd, only 16 black players crossed the color line in minor league baseball. Six of them - or more than one-third of the total - were signed by Haneles. The Stamford Bombers and the Stamford fans had no problem accepting an integrated team. White and black, the players were a team working together to win games.
The Stamford Bombers finished third during the regular season, but went on to capture the playoffs and the President's Cup to become champions of the 1947 Colonial