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Waterbury’s own home run champion held record before Ruth

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 our state is included among its members. Yet there are three “old time” players and two executives enshrined there. This is the first 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.

ROGER CONNOR (Waterbury, CT)

There was little attention given, except in Connecticut and particularly in Waterbury, when Roger Connor, a product of that city, was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1976. Although he was one of the sport’s pioneer players, he had been virtually overlooked until this trivia question became popular:

Q:      Who held the career home run record before Babe Ruth’s 576?

A:      Roger Connor, who hit 138.

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I thought it would be a good idea to find out who Roger Connor was and to share my discoveries with our readers in SportzEdge.

In his book, Roger Connor: Home Run King of 19th Century Baseball,[i] historian Roy Kerr describes how the Connor family settled in Waterbury only to battle poverty and discrimination. Roger was born there on July 1, 1857, and as a youth worked on the family farm on Washington Hill in the neighborhood known as the Abrigador.

At the same time he picked up the game of baseball, and by age 23 was good enough to join the Troy City Trojans in upstate New York. In 1881 he belted the National League’s first bases loaded home run (much later to be known as a grand slam). It gave Troy an 8-7 walk off win (to use another expression not then in use) over the Worcester Ruby Legs.

Troy City and Worcester were early teams in the National League, but they both folded after the 1882 season. Connor and about half of the Troy City players then joined the New York Gothams. He was the largest on a roster of big men at 6- feet three-inches tall and 220 pounds. According to his biography by Bill Lamb of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), Connor was the inspiration for changing the official name of the team to New York Giants.

Roger Connor2Although a lefty, on occasion he batted right handed and hit several homers from that side as well. But he was more than a great hitter of home runs, no mean feat during the “dead ball” era. He was a smooth fielding first baseman and had a .320 batting average in 10 years with the New York Gothams (Giants). In one game he had six hits in six at bats. He became known to his fans as the Rajah of Waterbury and Dear Old Roger, among several other monikers.

In 1886 he was the first to hit a fair ball completely out of the original Polo Grounds. The New York Times reported that the ball “soared up with the speed of a carrier pigeon.” It landed on 112th Street.

Waterbury's Roger ConnorOff the field he was one of the leaders of the game’s earliest players’ union, known as the National Brotherhood of Professional Base-Ball Players. The group made the first organized challenge to the salary cap and the reserve clause. It established the rival Players’ League, but it only lasted one season.  Meanwhile, the dreaded reserve clause, binding players to their teams even after their contracts expired, stayed in effect until Curt Flood’s challenge was upheld in 1975.

Flood sacrificed the rest of a successful baseball career and financial security to battle the system and eliminate the reserve clause. But Connor, who was ahead of his time, is only a footnote to the story, although he was a staunch advocate in the attempt to oppose the owners and establish free agency almost a hundred years prior to Flood.

“Dear Old Roger” concluded his major league career with the St. Louis Browns in 1897. His career home run record of 138 stood up until 1921 when it was eclipsed by Babe Ruth.

After St. Louis, Connor played in the Connecticut State League for Waterbury and New Haven. He finished his baseball days on independent teams, such as the Waterbury Elks Club, until he hung up his spikes at age 53 in 1910.

Connor and his wife, Angeline,[ii] had lost a child, Lulu, just before her first birthday. Shortly afterwards they visited an orphanage and discovered a two-year old girl, Cecilia, while singing to her doll. According to the SABR biography, Cecilia ran right to Connor and threw her arms around his neck and would not let go. Roger and Angeline left the orphanage with a new daughter.

Cecilia was to marry a Waterbury pharmacist, James Colwell. They had five children, including a son, Francis Colwell, who would grow up to play a touching role in the Connor saga.

Babe Ruth broke Roger Connor's home run record in 1921. (AP Photo)

Babe Ruth broke Roger Connor’s home run record in 1921. (AP Photo)

When Hank Aaron broke the Babe Ruth career home run record in 1974 it sparked curiosity as to who held the mark before Ruth. It turned out to be Roger Connor, and that information led the Veterans Committee belatedly to vote Connor into the Hall of Fame.

Getting back to Francis Colwell, on August 9, 1976, he was given the privilege to stand on the stage in Cooperstown and represent his late grandfather at the formal induction ceremony while his Hall of Fame plaque was being awarded.

Connor started his last non-baseball job in 1914 as a Waterbury school inspector in charge of maintenance. He was living at 215 Willow Street when he died on January 4, 1931, at the age of 73.  He was laid to rest in Old St. Joseph’s Cemetery, alongside his wife and another grandson, Roger Colwell, but the grave site sadly was unmarked and unidentified for the next 69 years.

In 2001 Robert (Bob) Dorr and Mike DeLeo, both well-known Waterbury residents, organized a drive to correct the injustice of an anonymous burial plot for one of the city’s most famous and best loved athletes when they learned that the Hall of Famer’s remains were interred there.

They formed the Waterbury Monument Committee, and many of the public were soon solidly behind the effort. “We worked closely with the Catholic Cemetery Association and organized a 70th Anniversary Catholic High Mass at St. Margaret’s Church as a fundraiser for the monument,” Dorr explained. By no small coincidence St. Margaret’s was the same church in which Connor’s 1931 funeral had taken place.

“We spoke on local radio, had newspaper appeals published, and eventually raised about six thousand dollars for the project,” he added.

On June 30, 2001, one day before the anniversary of Connor’s birth in 1857, about 100 devoted followers of baseball history, along with other city residents, gathered at the cemetery to pay a long overdue homage. A four-foot polished red granite monument placed on his grave, was unveiled and dedicated.

The inscription names Roger Connor, “his beloved wife Angelina,[iii] and their grandson Roger Colwell. There is an engraving of his portrait wearing a baseball cap, along with the greatest tribute of them all.

“BASEBALL HALL OF FAME 1976″

Hall of Fame plaque dedicated to Waterbury's Roger Connor, "power-hitting star of the dead-ball era." Courtesy of photo department, National Baseball Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame plaque dedicated to Waterbury’s Roger Connor, “power-hitting star of the dead-ball era.” Courtesy of photo department, National Baseball Hall of Fame

During the ceremony a group of men in old-time baseball uniforms and holding large bats walked down from a hill overlooking the grave stone, a scene that Kerr compared to the baseball ghosts in the film, Field of Dreams.

At the time of the dedication the since deceased Mike DeLeo was quoted in the Hartford Courant saying that Connor “always deserved something like this. He had been without recognition for so long, that it didn’t matter how long it would take us. We needed to do something for Roger.”

Later that day a game of vintage “Base Ball” took place at Hamilton Park under the rules of 1860 between the Middletown Mansfields and the Huntington Suffolks of Long Island. The result is irrelevant, but “for the record” the Connecticut team won, 10-1, which would have made Connor happy.

Bob Dorr, now 64, is a former state senator who later developed and still heads the Connecticut Medicaid Trust Program. Mike DeLeo, who passed away unexpectedly less than six months after the dedication of the monument, was the chief librarian for the city of Waterbury.

This unique weather vane, made of two bats and a ball, was once in Roger Connor's backyard. (Photo courtesy: www.robertedwardauctions.com)

This unique weather vane, made of two bats and a ball, was once in Roger Connor’s backyard. (Photo courtesy: www.robertedwardauctions.com)

When Roger Connor died he was living at 241 Willow Street with a nephew, who apparently could not even afford a fitting memorial. Nor could there be any assistance from Cecilia, who was financially burdened supporting her own five children.

In earlier days the Connor family resided at 1014 South Main Street in a house noted for its cupola and a unique weather vane that was made from two crossed bats and a baseball. It was placed over the roof of a bedroom because Angeline felt protected by it while her husband was on the road playing ball. The house and the cupola are still there, but the weather vane was sold at auction to a collector in 2005.

After the death of his wife of 47 years, Connor remained a fixture around Waterbury and was known to the locals for his daily walks to the Elks Club, where he and his friends would swap baseball stories.

Connor was one of three others from Waterbury to play in the majors. The next was Johnny Moore, a lifetime 300 hitter in a 17-year National League career, who lived in the Waterville section of the city. There is a strange twist linking Connor and Moore.

Apart from the fact that they hailed from Waterbury and played in the major leagues, they both have a Babe Ruth connection. Connor, as stated earlier, held the career home run record before it was eclipsed by Ruth. Eleven years later, Moore was on the opposing team in a legendary Babe Ruth game.

In the 1932 World Series the Babe supposedly predicted he would hit a home run by pointing to the center field bleachers. And on the very next pitch Ruth did hit it right there. The man who was playing center field for the Cubs, and over whose head the home run ball sailed, was none other than Johnny Moore of Waterbury.

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The monument to Roger Connor, his wife and grandson, noting his Hall of Fame entry, placed on his grave at Old St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Waterbury 2001. Photo courtesy: TheDeadballEra.com.

Perhaps the best known of the major leaguers from Waterbury is Jim Pearsall, he of “Fear Strikes Out” fame, whose 17-year career ended in 1967 and who is now 83. The most recent is Ron Diorio, a pitcher in the late 1960’s for Frank (Porky) Vieira at the University of New Haven, who was with the Philadelphia Phillies for parts of two seasons.

If anyone would like to take something from this column, why not ask some knowledgeable baseball fans “Who held the career record for home runs before Babe Ruth?”

Unless they have read this SportzEdge column, or come from Waterbury, chances are very good that they won’t have the faintest idea. Then you can tell them the great story of Roger Connor.

 

REFERENCES


[i]   Roy Kerr,  Roger Connor, Home Run King of the 19th Century (Jefferson, North Carolina;

McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011)

[ii]   spelling of Angeline taken from 1870 census records

[iii]  spelling of Angelina taken from card file of Old St. Joseph’s Cemetery, Waterbury, Conn.