History of local ballfields

Copyright Steve Barlow    Rep-American  8/27/11
If these were major league baseball stadiums, they might have sterile, corporate names, like Citizens Bank Park or Citi Field, purchased with millions in naming-rights dollars. Instead, we’re talking here about our local ball fields, the diamond in the center of town with the name that’s familiar to everyone, but whose identity may have become lost in time. “I used to play ball at Greatorex Field when I was younger,” said Waterbury Parks Director Jim Nemec, “but I never knew who Greatorex was.”
The people behind the names are a diverse lot. Besides coaches and players, fields honor a crackerjack marbles champion, a police chief, a fire chief, the teenage victim of an auto-pedestrian accident, a handful of businessmen, a Kiwanis Club president and even a sportswriter. This is not an exhaustive list of every field in Greater Waterbury. (We’d run out of newsprint if we tried that.) But it is an attempt to inform about some of the people honored by the baseball fields where we play our games.
Gallop Field: On June 1, 1971, Gordon Gallop, at the too young age of 17, was killed while walking in Woodbury when a car jumped the curb and struck him. Gordon’s father, Wally, was the longtime coach of the Bethlehem team in the Litch-Haven Babe Ruth League, of which he was one of the founders. At the time, Wally was spearheading the building of a ball field off Main Street. At the next town meeting following Gordon’s death, Bethlehem voted to name the new field after him.
Muzzy Field: In 1912, local mercantile owner Adrian Muzzy donated five acres to the Bristol Public Welfare Association in memory of sons Floyd and Leslie, each of whom died before the age of 3. The BPWA turned the land over to the city of Bristol, which built a ball field on the site. The first games were played there in 1914. Local lore says Babe Ruth was the first to hit a home run at Muzzy while on a barnstorming tour in 1919. The existing stadium was built in 1939.
Sam Eddy Field: Almost everyone in town knows Steve Blass Field was named for the fireballing Housatonic graduate who later became a 1971 World Series hero for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Fewer people might know the story behind Sam Eddy Field next door on Whiting Street. Eddy grew up in New York City, but spent summers in Canaan. He eventually married into the locally prominent Lawrence family. He retired in 1920 and moved to Canaan, where he served as a selectman, school board member and legislator, among other civic offices. When he died in 1945, Eddy left the then princely sum of $5,000 to build the Lawrence playground in the center of town. Five years later, the state widened Route 7 (Main Street), gobbling up part of the playground. As compensation, Sam Eddy Field was built at its current site.
McNamara Legion Field: John McNamara was born in Scotland and raised in Waterbury, but made his mark as the first police chief in Cheshire, from 1954-78. He was quite involved in youth sports in town and instrumental in organizing the American Legion baseball team and keeping it funded. The Legion donated the ball field to the town in 1977, and after McNamara retired in 1978, the town council voted to add his name to the field.
Bartlem Park: Across the street from Cheshire High sits one of the town’s most heavily used baseball and softball complexes. It is named for Richard Bartlem, who spent 25 years working with local kids as the town’s parks and recreation director. Bartlem retired in 1993, and now lives in South Carolina.
Breen Field: Johnny Breen was a prominent businessman in the borough, running Breen’s Store in downtown Naugatuck from 1903 until his death at the age of 84 in 1965.
Breen was also the first chairman of the Parks Commission in 1945 and worked tirelessly to promote and develop parks in Naugatuck. These efforts prompted the borough to rename the Hotchkiss Street field, tucked between Route 8 and the Naugatuck River, in his honor. Breen was deeply involved in civic groups such as the Elks Club and the Chamber of Commerce. He also chaired the town’s welcome home celebration for World War II veterans.
Ray Legenza Field: Legenza is probably best known for the Streak, the 64 straight wins that his Naugatuck High baseball teams reeled off between 1970 and 1972. But there were other amazing numbers: a 361-80 record in 20 years of coaching baseball, 13 Naugatuck Valley League titles, four state championships and a five-year run from 1969 to 1973 during which his teams went 102-4. In the fall, he coached Naugy’s football teams to a 90-33-9 record in 17 seasons. Named National High School Coach of the Year in 1971, Legenza was inducted into the Naugatuck Hall of Fame in 1975, two years after he retired as baseball coach. The high school diamond was named in his honor about 10 years ago.
Peter J. Foley Field: At the time of his death in 1946, Foley was the dean of high school coaches in Connecticut, having coached basketball and baseball at Naugatuck since 1908 and football for 20 years. His teams won state championships in all three sports and placed three times in the New England basketball finals, winning the title in 1943. He also took two teams to the National High School Basketball Tournament at the University of Chicago. He was a member of the inaugural Naugatuck Hall of Fame class in 1972. Besides the Little League field named for him, Foley’s most lasting legacy may have been the nickname his speedy teams acquired for Naugatuck: Greyhounds.
Fuessenich Park: In 1918, Fredrik F. Fuessenich donated land in the center of town to the city of Torrington for use as a ballpark. Fuessenich was a German immigrant who had arrived in Torrington nearly 70 years earlier. He went on to become president of the Hendey Co., a machine tool maker, and married a local woman, Elizabeth Blake. His wife died in 1914, and Fuessenich asked that the ballpark be named in her honor.
John Toro Field: In the early 1970s, when Route 8 was extended north to Winsted, local contractor O&G needed fill for road construction, so the Parks and Recreation Commission came up with a proposal. “We said, ‘Why don’t you take fill from Alvord Park (off Kennedy Drive), level it off and make a ball field,'” remembered Dr. Isadore Temkin, a commission member at the time. “In return for (the fill), we asked (O&G) to develop an area on Perkins Street into a ball field.” That field, home to the city’s softball leagues, was named for John Toro, a member of the Parks and Recreation board.
Ted Alex Field: The biggest error Ted Alex may have made in his life was leaving then Washington High in 1956 for a job in Griswold. But he quickly realized his mistake, returned the next year and set about building a baseball dynasty.
Alex served as head baseball coach at Washington, which became Shepaug when the school district regionalized, for 28 years. His teams won 16 league titles and two state championships under his guidance. After he notched his 300th career win in 1980, the town did what only made sense, naming the charming ball field in Washington Depot in his honor. Alex went on to win 88 more games; he lost a total of 122 in his career. He died near the end of the 1984 season at age 53 after coaching the team to its seventh straight Berkshire League title.
Dick Ayer Field: What Ted Alex was to baseball at Shepaug, Dick Ayer was to softball. Fittingly, the two ball fields named for each man sit side by side in the Depot. Ayer was head softball coach for 31 years at Shepaug. When he retired after the 2005 season, he had won 452 games (vs. 167 losses), seven Berkshire League titles and two state titles. After his 400th win in 2002, the town held a twin ceremony to name the softball field for him and to commemorate baseball coach Dave Werkhoven’s 350th win. Each man arrived believing the ceremony was for the other. “We both sat there smiling for the other guy,” said Ayer. “I was shocked when I found out. I literally had nothing to say.”
Bob Palmer Jr. Field: No one loved Municipal Stadium, “the big ballpark on Watertown Avenue,” more than Palmer. He played countless games there as a fleet center fielder for the Oakville Red Sox and in the City Amateur League and covered countless games there as a sportswriter for the Republican-American. After working as a machinist for 30 years, Palmer started writing for this newspaper in 1968 and continued until his death in 1991, never missing a weekly column. Known widely for his deep love of sports, constant good humor and unending kindness, Palmer was honored by virtually every sports club in the Waterbury area.
Jim Spann Field: For the 50 years that he lived in Waterbury after moving here during grade school, Big Jim was synonomous with amateur baseball in the city. He formed the Waterbury Laurels in 1952, one of the original teams in the old Twilight League. He managed the Laurels for 30 years while competing in the Twi-Met, Nutmeg and Jackie Robinson leagues. He had many friends in major league baseball, including city native Jimmy Piersall and Bobby Bonds, whom Spann befriended during Bonds’ stint here in the Eastern League. Bonds said he considered Spann his adopted father. Active in local unions and the civil rights movement, Spann died in 1985, and the ball field at Fulton Park, which his Laurels called home, was dedicated in his memory. A memorial plaque sits embedded in a rock overlooking the field. Sadly, the casting of his head is missing.
Greatorex Field: One of the most versatile athletes Waterbury ever produced, Bobby Greatorex first gained fame by winning the city marbles championship and competing in a national tournament in Atlantic City. He was an outstanding second baseman in the City Amateur League in the 1930s and ’40s, playing for a half-dozen or more teams. He also coached and played with the Waterville AC and the Westerville Red Wings. He was selected for the City Amateur League Hall of Fame in 1949 and the Hank O’Donnell Hall of Fame in 1998. In 1965, the ball field at Waterville Park was named in his honor and a drinking fountain with a plaque was erected.
Bill Ryan Sr. Little League Field: Ryan coached the Waterville Red Sox for 40 years and also served as commissioner in the old Exchange Club Little League. Along with others, he played a key role in transforming the league into the Waterbury Boys League and later into the Waterbury Reese League as part of AABC. When Ryan started coaching, the league played on a field that was later displaced to allow for the Route 73 entrance/exit onto Route 8. The league had to play for a year at Kaynor Tech and then moved to the South field at Municipal Stadium. That field was named in Ryan’s honor in 1996, just a week or so before his death. “He was pretty frail; the cancer was getting to him,” recalled his son, Bill Jr. “But he was there and he spoke. After, he asked me, ‘Did I do good?’ I said, ‘Yeah, Dad, you did.'”
DeLand Field: You might describe Alfred C. DeLand, for whom the ball field on Echo Lake Road is named, as a Renaissance man. A longtime baseball, basketball and track coach at Watertown High, he also taught chemistry and physical education and directed a high school orchestra. He developed several championship teams at the high school, where he was well-regarded for his kindness and known to everyone as “De.” After DeLand died unexpectedly in 1938, the town decided to name the field for him. It was already known as Heminway Field, but the Heminway family in Watertown graciously agreed to change the name to honor DeLand.
Avery W. Lamphier Athletic Complex: The softball fields at Veterans Memorial Park opened in 1995 and were named in honor of Lamphier, the town’s fire chief from 1958-86. A member of the fire department for 42 years, Lamphier, now 86, retired to Florida, but still spends half the year in Connecticut.
Walker Field: The ball field on Rowley Street was originally named after clock maker William L. Gilbert, who founded The Gilbert School in the downtown buildings where Northwestern Community College now resides. After the school moved in 1959 to its current location on Williams Avenue, the field was turned over to the city of Winsted, which renamed it in honor of W. James Walker, who ran the local Kiwanis baseball league and was the club’s first president.
The original grandstand was damaged in the Flood of ’55, and the existing stands were obtained from the Springfield (Mass.) Baseball Club. A stone marker in memory of Walker sits at the corner of Willow and Rowley streets.