Rise and Fall of Pro Baseball in New Britain, Part 1: One vote changes baseball history for city, leading to championship won, an affiliation lost a decade later and a new stadium gaining approval

Published on Monday, 18 November 2019 09:44
Written by RYAN CHICHESTER

@ryanchichester1

The New Britain Bees recently announced they would be leaving the Atlantic League to join the Futures Collegiate Baseball League, effectively ending an era of pro baseball being played in the city. This four-part series chronicles the rise and fall of pro baseball in New Britain. In Part 1, pro baseball comes to New Britain, as one vote changes baseball history for the city, which leads to a championship won, a surprising affiliation lost a decade later and a new stadium gaining approval. Part 2 can be read herePart 3 can be read herePart 4 can be read here.

If residents and baseball fans of New Britain are looking for someone to thank for more than three decades of professional baseball in the Hardware City, they can start with the city council of Portland, Maine.

Professional baseball’s path to New Britain started with a drastic detour north to Portland, where legendary minor league owner Joe Buzas, who owned the Bristol Red Sox at the time, was looking for a new home for his team, as the conditions at Muzzy Field were no longer acceptable for a minor league club.

By July of 1982, Buzas had potential destinations in mind: Portland, Maine was one, and another was New Britain. One day that summer, Buzas and general manager Edward Kenny Jr. popped into executive vice president Gerry Berthiaume’s office for an update.

“They said they were taking a ride to Portland,” Berthiaume said, “because we might wind up in Maine.”

Berthiaume was ecstatic. Having grown up just 10 miles away in Biddeford, Maine, he had played baseball there in his high school days before signing as a free agent with the Cincinnati Reds. Buzas, an accomplished baseball player himself and the Opening Day shortstop for the New York Yankees in 1945, approached the opportunity with caution. Portland’s city council needed to pass a resolution by a two-thirds vote to greenlight a $500,000 project to renovate Hadlock Field, the current home of the Portland Sea Dogs.

Before Kenny left with Buzas for Maine and the momentous council meeting, he told Berthiaume if he didn’t hear from him, consider the move to Portland a done deal. If the vote passed, things would move quickly, and the Bristol Red Sox would be hopping on I-84 East to settle into its new home.

“I was pretty excited,” said Berthiaume, now 64. “Then midnight passed, then 1 a.m., and I’m thinking, ‘what’s going on?’ Then Eddy called and said, ‘we’re not going to Maine. I’m going to take a day off. I’ll see you later.’”

A confused Berthiaume read about the news the next day, with the city council rejecting the resolution by one vote to bring the franchise to Portland, and shortly after putting the paper down, the Bristol Red Sox were on their way to meet with New Britain Parks and Recreation commissioner Paul Shaker.

 

NEW BRITAIN DELIVERS ITS PITCH

 

Buzas and the Red Sox brass had met with Shaker before heading to Portland. In fact, they had met long before, back in 1978, when Buzas told Shaker he wanted to move his team out of Bristol, but wanted it to be kept a secret. An excited Buzas, five years before news came out about the Red Sox’s pending move, began to draw up plans to upgrade Beehive Stadium.

“[The only thing] that stadium had was grass,” Shaker, now 79, said of Beehive. “There were no stands, no locker rooms, no lights, just a flat field. So I started building a stadium. I talked with the mayor (William McNamara) and he said ‘go ahead.’ We started with lights, and then I went to the council and the finance board.”

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In September of 1982, backed with the approval of the finance board, Shaker took his blueprints for Beehive to Buzas, who agreed to the plans, and, according to Shaker, was impressed with the layout. His actions just hours later said otherwise.

“The next morning the mayor’s secretary comes in and says he has a message for me,” Shaker said. “I go to the phone and it’s a reporter, and he said, ‘do you know Joe Buzas is heading to Portland?’ I was dumbfounded.”

Shaker moved on with his plans and hit the links at Stanley Golf Course with owners of the Cleveland Indians minor league affiliate in Waterbury, who were interested in making the move to New Britain. But Buzas came back from Maine after the resolution by the Portland city council was denied, asking Shaker if he would accept the team in New Britain.

Shaker had a strong sense of Buzas’ plan before being rejected by Portland, but despite the manner in which he left for Maine after what seemed like an optimistic meeting, he wouldn’t turn down a chance to finally bring a pro team to his city.

“He was probably using us at the time,” Shaker said, laughing. “Nobody really knows that he was trying to screw us. But we became friends after that.”

New Britain, considered Plan B for the Bristol Red Sox, was now the best remaining option, and Buzas came to town to work out the details with Shaker and McNamara. The city offered financial help to upgrade Beehive Stadium, while Buzas pitched in roughly $18,000 of his own. It was an upgrade from Muzzy, but the early years at Beehive were full of on-the-fly renovations. A mobile trailer was used as team offices, while stands were added up the foul lines and the home clubhouse was expanded. It wasn’t flashy, but it was home, and it would be for the next 13 years.

“It was as minor league as minor league could be,” Berthiaume said. “It was a pretty decent place.”

 

‘HOW CAN YOU NOT BE A FAN?’

 

Professional baseball officially began in New Britain in 1983, with its inaugural season serving as a fitting tone for the years of success that were to follow. Behind the young, lively arm of Roger Clemens, the New Britain Red Sox won the Eastern League championship in their first year at Beehive. The Red Sox defeated the Lynn Sailors in four games, behind Clemens in the series clincher.

All four games of the championship series were played in New Britain after the Sailors were kicked out of Lynn midway through the season. The Red Sox were listed as the visitors in the clinching Game 4, but had the home crowd behind them, a home crowd that was able to see the likes of Clemens and Steve Lyons win a championship. Local residents were drawn to the high level of the sport in their own backyard, while some had that luxury in a more literal sense.

“When Steve Lyons played in New Britain, he was my neighbor,” said Chris Sawyer, a New Britain native who later went on to work as an usher for the Rock Cats. “He lived right behind me. I grew up with his oldest daughter and used to go to Red Sox games with his family. I got to know Roger Clemens and a bunch of others. Being a young kid and having that in your backyard, how can you not be a fan?”

That sentiment was shared throughout the city, and as the Red Sox’s grasp on New Britain tightened, so did the city’s grip on the team. Even Buzas, famous for moving his various minor league teams to new places at a sometimes dizzying pace, began to feel a softening to the Hardware City. It felt like a place to settle down.

“He was getting a little older,” said Berthiaume, who was named general manager after New Britain’s championship in 1983. “He felt good about where he was. We were making money, and he started to get to know people. He was normally the type of person that didn’t want to get to know many people. He was eccentric, but something happened in New Britain. He started to get close to people.”

Perhaps Buzas’ endearment toward New Britain was due to the atmosphere around Beehive, which fell perfectly in line with what he envisioned baseball should be. The team was consistently profitable, but the stands were rarely packed, which was just how Buzas wanted it. Crowds were manageable, and fanfare was gentle.

“Joe’s idea of a great crowd was half the crowd,” Berthiaume said. “He said if there were more people, it meant more problems. He was a purist.”

 

RED SOX SEE GREENER PLAYING FIELD ELSEWHERE

 

By 1993, 10 years after the Red Sox arrived in New Britain, Buzas began receiving a nudge from the Boston Red Sox front office, mainly from general manager Dan Duquette, to make a change. Duquette and the Red Sox wanted more fans, and believed the best way was to bring the team closer to Fenway Park, specifically Springfield, Mass. Beehive was no longer fitting for a minor league club, and the team needed to expand.

For Buzas, one big reason to resist was the city he found himself growing increasingly fond of, as well as a lack of financial incentive to pack up and move.

“Springfield had nothing,” Berthiaume said. “They had no money. They claimed to have a site, but they had zip. I was very transparent. I said, ‘where’s the money guys?’”

Springfield didn’t have an answer, but Connecticut governor Lowell Weicker did. A frequent attendee of games in New Britain, Weicker called Buzas and Berthiaume into his office and tried to work out a plan to keep the Red Sox in central Connecticut.

One of Weicker’s pitches that grabbed Buzas was another one of the longtime baseball man’s soft spots: saving money.

Buzas was always keen on stretching his dollars, sometimes taking comical measures to do so. Berthiaume remembers a large, circular machine in Buzas’ office filled with erasers, which Buzas would use to violently scrub away the scuffs off batting practice baseballs in hopes of using them again. Back in his Bristol days, when he also owned the Pawtucket Red Sox, Buzas would run bags of popcorn from one venue to the other, making sure not one kernel was left unpopped or unsold.

“At Beehive Field, us kids, if we couldn’t get the money to get into the game, would scale the fence of the softball field (next door) and we would shag fly balls,” Sawyer, now 43, remembered. “Every night when Joe was in town, we’d give him the balls back. You think Joe would give us some tickets or sodas for it, but we just have the stories to tell about it. That was typical Joe. He was old school, but he was dedicated to New Britain.”

Buzas asked Weicker for $15 million to keep the Red Sox in New Britain, as he needed a new stadium to satisfy minor league baseball regulations. Weicker offered $10 million with the hope the city of New Britain could offer the remaining five. They did, and the softball field that Sawyer crossed to shag home run balls would become the sight of New Britain Stadium, though Boston wasn’t convinced.

“(Duquette) came to the park one day and said, ‘where is this stadium going to be built?’” Berthiaume said. “I went outside with him where there was a beautiful softball field and a practice field next door, and I said, ‘it's going to be plopped right here. Your team is going to play in a beautiful multi-million dollar stadium right here.’”

A team would play on that ground, but it wouldn’t be the Red Sox. Duquette left, as did the Red Sox affiliation, causing Buzas to seek out his Minnesota Twins connections from one of his many other minor league teams, the Salt Lake Buzz. Suddenly, the Red Sox were gone, but ironically, the change sparked what would become the most successful string of professional baseball in the city’s history.

Buzas made the official announcement in August of 1994: he was keeping his team in New Britain. On the day of the press conference, he arrived at the park and went straight to his office, demanding to be left alone as he came to grips with his groundbreaking decision. His solitude was disrupted by New Britain mayor Linda Bogaslowski, who brought him a picture of the two standing together, Buzas’ arm around Bogaslowski, to remind Buzas of his relationship with the city, and why staying put was the right choice.

The photo would be used the following season on the cover of the team’s program.

Having broken through Buzas’ vagabond exterior, Bogaslowski and the city had ensured baseball would live on in New Britain. But minor league baseball was changing, and the team, now with a new affiliation, needed a new name and a new identity.

Ryan Chichester is a sports writer for the New Britain Herald. He covered several games during the New Britain Bees final season as an Atlantic League team in 2019. He can be reached at (860) 801-5094 or rchichester@newbritainherald.com.

 

SERIES BREAKDOWN



Posted in New Britain Herald, New Britain Bees, New Britain, New Britain on Monday, 18 November 2019 09:44. Updated: Monday, 18 November 2019 09:47.