by David F. Pendrys
Michael Bielawa, a librarian at the Bridgeport Public Library recently presented at the Barnum Museum on P.T. Barnum’s role in growing baseball within Bridgeport, despite the showman not particularly liking the game. What follows is a few notes from an hour filled with information.
The presentation began with an interesting photo recently unearthed of a team from a sewing machine cabinet company in Bridgeport. The importance of the photo was left a mystery as Bielawa related that after P.T. Barnum won his election to be Mayor of Bridgeport he lamented that there were those who were idle or baseball fans in his inaugural address. It is possible there was a political angle, as a member of the Bridgeport City Council and brother to the legendary player James O’Rourke who was also a baseball player as was the opponent Barnum had defeated.
The statement illustrated Barnum was not in love with the game. This was bolstered by comments Barnum made in the paper about not being much of a sports fan overall and denying that he supported a professional walking contest professionally.
Barnum however had been working to use his riches to build up houses and the neighborhood in East Bridgeport to give back in a civic sense. He was also constantly putting business deals together which contributed to the growth of sewing machine factories and related industry. The massive influx of workers created a need for recreation and dozens of baseball teams sprung up attached to the factories in the immediate post Civil War period. Barnum did benefit from baseball as people rode his horse railway to get to the free games and the railway actually advertised the games by placing a flag onto the railway cars. Back downtown, Bryant, Stratton and Corbin’s Business College also was formed and the college leadership enjoyed baseball themselves. The college fielded a team in 1865.
Baseball continued to grow with teams starting to play teams from other locales. A stadium was soon called for and Barnum donated the land. The first pro team in Bridgeport, the Giants soon played their games in the 1880s and the first game was against nearby New Britain. Barnum arrived during the game’s second inning to take a victory lap. Over time a variety of storied baseball players passed through Bridgeport including the legendary Connie Mack and Moses Fleetwood Walker, the first African-American to play pro baseball.
Bielawa tied things back to the original photo noting that the team pictured featured the opponent Barnum defeated, however that team had defeated a team Barnum backed. He also noted that the current era Bridgeport Bluefish honor Barnum by donning “Magic City” uniforms every Sunday in reference to one of Barnum’s tag lines to describe his operations. This summary barely scratches the surface of the presentation and strongly I recommend seeing it if Bielawa presents on the topic again. More information is posted on the Bridgeport Public Library’s website and Bielawa is also the author of the book “Bridgeport Baseball.”