Just over a decade after Abraham Lincoln preached his anti-slavery sentiment to the residents of New Haven while campaigning for President, and just 15 years after the city was stripped of the co-capital status of the state with Hartford in 1863, New Haven hosted its very first professional baseball game.
The New Haven Elm Citys, as they were called, played 47 games in the town before folding in what was considered at the time the highest pro baseball league in the country.
The New Haven Nutmegs would appear just eleven years later, and would be the first of several more variations of professional baseball teams to call New Haven home through the 1930s. Since then, teams like the West Haven Yankees, New Haven Ravens, and New Haven County Cutters have tried to keep the tradition of the sport alive in the greater New Haven area.
But today, baseball in New Haven appears to be dead and buried, with a revival nowhere in sight. One of baseball’s earliest homes has appeared to have abandoned it completely.
“New Haven doesn’t care about minor league baseball,” says current Associate Professor of Journalism at Quinnipiac University Rich Hanley, “Nor should it.”
Hanley’s opinion doesn’t appear to be a minority one. Since the Ravens left New Haven in 2004 to become the still functioning New Hampshire Fisher Cats, there has been little push to regain a franchise in the area (the County Cutters did play from 2005-2007, but were a small Independent League team that received little fanfare.)
But why? Why has a town with the second highest population in the state of Connecticut, and one on top of it that has a deep rooted connection to the sport been unable, or stranger yet unwilling, to accept a pro baseball team into the fray?
The 2010 US Census lists the population of New Haven to be 129,779. As of 2014, 18 minor league baseball teams played in cities with populations more than 80% lower. The Gateway Grizzlies of the Independent League, play in the St. Louis, Missouri suburb of Sauget: population 159.
Sam Rubin wrote a book in 2003 called Baseball in New Haven chronicling the rich history that the city and sport share. He found in his research that players like Ted Williams, Ty Cobb, and even Babe Ruth came through New Haven at some point during their Hall of Fame careers. He also worked with the now-defunct Ravens as their Director of Internet Operations.
“I would say there just wasn’t enough support,” said Rubin, “So that was why it ended ten years ago and there just hasn’t been enough change in the support level to justify anybody bringing one back or starting one up.”
The recently-announced Hartford Yard Goats are generating some significant buzz in another one of Connecticut’s largest cities, while the Bridgeport Bluefish, Connecticut Tigers, and Mystic Schooners also claim title to being minor league teams in Connecticut. The closest geographically is Bridgeport, around 20 miles away.
Hanley points to New Haven’s geographic location as well, but not in relation to other minor league squads; instead, it’s relative closeness to major league ball-clubs like the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, and New York Mets.
“New Haven has always struggled with minor league sports, simply because the lore of the major league teams, which are easily accessible by trains, make it difficult for a minor league club to sustain attendance over a long summer,” Hanley said.
The geographic argument is an interesting one. Yes, New Haven is within a 90 minute drive or so from New York, and just over two hours from Boston. But neither Boston nor New York is even in Connecticut, and certainly not in New Haven. Wouldn’t the allure of having a pro team right in their backyard attract at least some New Haven residents to support the idea of having a team to call their own?
Quinnipiac journalism professor Ben Bogardus doesn’t think so.
“It’s not like we’re in South Carolina or something like that where there’s just nothing for hours and hours drive, so there’s just no urgency for it,” Bogardus said.
“The big fans are going to find a game regardless, it’s the middling fans the people who just think it would be a fun afternoon to take the family to a baseball game. Those people are more likely to see the big-time game rather than just go to a minor league park….I don’t think that New Haven has that community loyalty that would really support a team.”
Perhaps it has to do with New Haven’s apparent lack of an identity. Multiple people I talked to for this piece described New Haven as a transient town. People come to Yale, or any of the surrounding schools for four years and then leave. Or, people find a temporary job in New Haven but don’t stay to hold a career. Everyone is just coming to New Haven to plan their next move, getting in and getting out, with no time to develop any connection with the city in which they reside.
With no prospective buyers showing any real interest in the immediate future, and no stadium ready to hold a team (the Ravens played in Yale Field, which was barely up to standards for them over a decade ago) it appears as though those clamoring for baseball in New Haven, if there even are any anymore, will have to continue to wait, maybe even forever.
It’s tough to pinpoint a singular reason why baseball in New Haven has passed on. In reality, there probably isn’t one. But for a game like baseball, a sport in which tradition and history arguably means more than in any other, seeing one of its oldest suitors fade away into obscurity seems unjust and unbecoming of the baseball mystique.
But such is the reality.
New Haven is a different town now. Not only is there no minor league baseball, there’s no minor league anything. If anything were to come back, hockey probably has first dibs. Basketball probably is just as likely to come as baseball. Just because something has a history doesn’t indicate that it can be sustained in the current climate. As New Haven has changed over the years, decades, and centuries, so has its love for the game of baseball.
“There’s been efforts, especially towards the end of the time that the Ravens were here, with the book coming out, to make people more aware of the history of baseball in this area,” said Rubin, “But at the end of the day that simply wasn’t something that was going to turn around support for the overall franchise.”
Bogardus put it a little differently: “If you’re not interested in it, you’re not interested in it. If you’re not interested in baseball, you wouldn’t become interested in baseball just because you heard 40 years ago there was a team that was very popular.”
It’s more like 140, but really, it doesn’t seem to matter. Baseball is dead in New Haven, and nobody even bothered to go to the funeral.