The baseball grounds on Derby Avenue in West Haven, Conn., just over the New Haven town line, and officially known as Yale Field, have justly earned the designation of the word “Historic” to precede its actual title. Going back to the mid-1800s, when it was converted from an apple orchard to a ball park, many have appeared there who have left their marks in sports and public life.
Few today, however, know that it was the site of the inaugural game in the very first NCAA baseball tournament, also known as the College World Series, which just completed its seventieth year with the crowning of the new national champion, the University of Florida.
To our knowledge, no such connection with Yale-Field has previously been made. If so, it has been long forgotten, except by those old enough to remember that the Clemson-Yale game in 1947 was the start of what is now an American sports tradition.
Perhaps the media of that era did not grasp the significance of what took place or did not believe the NCAA baseball tournament would continue and be going strong seventy years later.
Simple to prove
Giving the Clemson-Yale game the honor of being the first came after a bit of sleuthing and deductive reasoning. After examining old newspapers and college records, there should be no doubt that the conclusion we have reached is correct.
The inaugural NCAA baseball tournament took place on June 20, 1947, with doubleheaders in two locations. Eight teams were divided into two divisions- the East and West, playing single elimination. The division winners then met in a best of three championship round at Western Michigan College’s Hyames Field in Kalamazoo, Mich.
On a cloudy afternoon that ended in a light rain, the first game in the East Division matched host Yale, winner of the Eastern Intercollegiate League, and Clemson, representing the Southeast after winning a four-team playoff in Charlotte, N.C. The other game had Illinois, the Big Nine winner, playing New York University, champion of the New York Metropolitan Conference.
Meanwhile, in the West, there were two other contests. Texas, the Southwest Conference title holder, against Oklahoma, the Big Six champion, and California, representing the Pacific Coast southern district, vs. Denver, the runner-up in the Big Seven.
Getting the tournament started was a challenge
Prior to 1947 attempts to conduct a national championship baseball tournament had failed because of concerns that it would not be possible to keep college teams together long after the end of the school year. Also, interest in college baseball seemed to have reached a low point. But In the winter of 1946 a newly formed coaches association of about 200 members voted to conduct an event to determine a national champion. It has continued to be held ever since.
The first competition was the Clemson-Yale game the following June. It started in the early afternoon and, according to the box score, took 2 hours and 15 minutes. Meanwhile, the opener of the West competition, a day-night affair, was in Denver, Colorado, and had a starting time of 3:15 pm, which was 5:15 in the East.
As a result, not only was the Clemson-Yale game the first one of the four to get underway, it was played in its entirety before the opener in Denver even started. Therefore, it became the very first ever played leading to the crowning of a national champion.
For the record: Yale 7 Clemson 3
The result is not really relevant to the main point of this article, which is that the game marked the start of the NCAA tournament run. For the record, however, a brief summary of that game follows.
Clemson was designated the “home” team and Yale batted first in its own ballpark. The Bulldogs led 6-0 after three and a half innings, helped by three Clemson errors. The Tigers scored all three of their runs on a bases-loaded triple by pitcher Joe Landrum in the fourth. Yale picked up its last score in the seventh on Art Moher’s home run into the left field bleachers and emerged the winner, 7 to 3.
Joe Landrum, the hard-luck hurler and hitter for Clemson that day, was a college all-American. He later appeared in 16 National League games for the Brooklyn Dodgers during the 1950 and 1952 seasons. His career was cut short when he entered the military during the Korean War. His son, Bill, also became a major league pitcher. At last report, Landrum is a Clemson survivor of the first NCAA game and should now be 88 years of age.
Frank Quinn, of West Hartford, Conn., was Yale’s ace. After graduation that year he signed with the Red Sox and become one of major league baseball’s so-called “Bonus Babies.” In 1949 he appeared in nine games, compiling an ERA of 2.86. His stint was brief in the majors, mainly due to injuries.
Against Clemson, Quinn pitched all nine innings and struck out ten despite working on only two days rest after shutting out Harvard.
In the second game at Yale Field that day, Illinois and NYU played four and a half scoreless innings before being halted because of rain. As a result, the third place, or consolation, contest, which would have taken place the next day, was canceled, and NYU and Illinois restarted from the first inning. NYU won and then immediately faced Yale for the East championship.
Yale came from behind in the late innings to eliminate the Violets, and then journeyed by train to Kalamazoo where the Bulldogs lost the first College World Series, two games to none to the California Golden Bears.
Names in the game
The Clemson hitting star against Yale was Frank Gillespie, who played first base and shortstop, and had three hits in four plate appearances. Gillespie, who died this year at the age of 94, is the last Clemson athlete to letter in three sports (football, basketball, and baseball).
Yale’s first baseman was George H. W. Bush, who would become our country’s 41st president. Some years later the Bulldogs’ coach, former major leaguer Ethan Allen, correctly predicted of Bush that “You’re going to be president but I won’t vote for you.” Allen was a staunch Democrat. Bush came from a family of Republicans.
Bush, generally known as Poppy, threw left-handed but hit righty. That season he was just 20 for 88 (.227) but had a .947 fielding average. The following year, when he was captain, his alert reaction was a key play in executing a triple play.
According to a 1996 article by Woody Anderson in the Hartford Courant, Jim Duffus, Yale’s No. 2 pitcher, said that Poppy ran one of the gin rummy games on the train to Kalamazoo.
At least two members of the 1947 Yale team, both from Connecticut, were future lawyers. Bob Rosensweig of East Hartford and Jim Bracnaro from Shelton. Rosensweig was the youngest member of the team at age 18. Most of the players were at least a few years older since they had spent time in the service. Bracnaro became a part-time Superior Court fact finder in addition to practicing law.
Bush was later honored at Clemson
Several years later Poppy appeared for a speaking engagement at Clemson. The Sports Information Director, Bob Bradley, presented him with a laminated and framed copy of the scorebook from the 1947 game. It would have revealed that Bush went 1-for-4, scored one run, had a stolen base and was charged with an error. Known as a “good field no hit,” he was placed eighth in the batting order, a position he still likes to describe as “second clean up.”
70 years later, Yale Field in 2017
Yale Field was empty and the gates locked this past June 20, 2017. As far as can be determined, with the exception of Poppy Bush, those who were on that diamond exactly 70 years earlier have retired to their eternal dugouts. The last known Yale survivors were Bracnaro, who died in 2013, and Duffus, in 2014. Duffus hurled the second game of the finals in 1947. His father reportedly took home moves of that game and if they can be located would be of great historical interest. Duffus went on to play Triple-A baseball and, like Quinn, had a “look” with the Boston Red Sox.
Anyone visiting Yale Field today might want to look hard and visualize the Clemson Tigers and the Yale Bulldogs playing their baseball game that led to the first College World Series. It was just another reason why the site, that was first an apple orchard, is now known as “Historic” Yale Field.