Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
In 1916, a team from New London, Connecticut won the Eastern League title. As an adjunct to winning the flag, the team served as a home for several veterans of baseball’s third major league. One of these vets, two years earlier, had the unique opportunity of explaining baseball to royalty.
The city of New London, situated on the southern coast of Connecticut, and site of the United States Coast Guard Academy, first enjoyed baseball in the 1860s, when an amateur nine known as the Pequot club tilted against other Connecticut foes. Thirty years later, New London’s initial pro team was formed. This club, called the Whalers, finished sixth in the Connecticut State League in 1899 with a record of 45-52. In subsequent years, the team never strayed far from the second division, finishing as high as third only once. After a pair of tail-ender campaigns, the club left the circuit following the 1907 season.
New London’s next pro team enjoyed more success. In 1910, another Whaler team won the Class D Connecticut Association pennant. Playing in a trim four-team league, the club finished with a 32-25 overall best record while winning the first half pennant. The season ended prematurely on August 4, after Meriden stopped playing on July 19.
In 1913, New London’s old home, the Connecticut State League was renamed the Eastern Association in honor of Massachusetts entries from Pittsfield, Springfield and Holyoke. Into the mix was thrown a new New London outfit known as the Planters. After finishing one game under .500 the first year, the Planters took off to win the 1914 bunting with ease, compiling an 81-35, .698 record. Following the disbandment of the Eastern Association after the season, a new league called the Eastern League was formed, ready to start play in 1916. This outfit, also a Class B organization, featured teams from Connecticut to Maine and was a different outfit than the top level Eastern League, which had changed its name to the International League four years earlier.
In the Eastern’s first season, New London and Portland proved to be the teams to beat. The Planters took the lead from the beginning, but were overtaken by Portland in mid-July. After six weeks in the second spot, New London overtook the Duffs in early September and won the pennant by four games. The club finished with an 86-34, .717 record. Two of the ten teams folded early as both Lawrence and Lowell disbanded on September 4.
The Planters were led by 40-year-old Gene McCann, who had pitched for Brooklyn in 1901-02 (3-5). His managerial career was all in the Northeastern U.S. He piloted Jersey City in 1908-09; Bridgeport, 1910-11-12; New London 1913-14, 1916-17; Bridgeport, 1921-22-23; Springfield (Eastern), 1924-25-26. McCann was a highly regarded scout for the New York Yankees from 1927-41. He died in April, 1943.
Three key members of the squad, along with a fourth who was traded, were veterans of the ill-fated Federal League, the third major league, which had folded the year before. In addition, many other ex-Federal Leaguers found refuge in the minors. For instance, St. Louis Terrier hurler Doc Crandall, who previously pitched with the Giants, went on to a lengthy career with the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, interspersed with brief stays for the Browns (1916) and Braves (1918). Also, Pittsburgh’s second baseman, Marty Berghammer went on to ply his trade for the American Association’s St. Paul team.
The reason so many Federal Leaguers continued their careers in the minors is because that is where they came from. Although ostensibly a major league, the Federal League was populated in great part with top-level minor league stars, not veterans from the American or National Leagues. For instance, Berghammer, although a fine player in the American Association, was at best a fringe major leaguer.
One of these expatriates was outfielder Gil Whitehouse (.255), who had played as a part-time outfielder for the Newark Peppers in 1915. Another was catcher Harvey Russell, who had served as a Baltimore Terrapins backstop in 1914-15. In addition, third baseman Dave Howard (.220), who was traded to Lawrence, was a backup infielder for the Brooklyn Federals in 1915.
The best batter on the 1916 Planter nine was outfielder Harry (Bud) Weiser (.323), who also stole a team-high 55 bases. He played briefly in the majors, compiling a .162 average in 41 games for the Phillies in 1915-16.
The Planters’ most interesting player was 22-game winner Bunn Hearn, a lifelong North Carolinian. Hearn, a left-hander, pitched parts of five seasons for the Cardinals, Giants and Braves between 1910 and 1920 and went 6-11, 3.27 for Pittsburgh in the Federal League in 1915. A good hitter, in 1912 he hit three home runs in one game, two in the same inning for Springfield (Three-Eye). In 1913, he pitched a 20-inning scoreless tie for Toronto. His 1959 obituary in The Sporting News stated that, “One of the highlights of his long association with the game occurred in 1914. As a member of John McGraw’s world- touring Giants following the 1913 season, Hearn was on the sidelines during an exhibition game before a crowd of 60,000 in London when King George V, who was occupying the royal box, asked to be shown how a pitcher holds a ball. Hearn was summoned and he explained to King George the various grips used by pitchers.”
In 1921, Hearn returned to Wilson (Virginia) where he had made his pro debut 11 years earlier and pitched for that club through 1927 when the team disbanded. He managed Wilson to the pennant in 1922 and also piloted the team in 1926-27. The next year he was part-owner, manager and pitcher for Winston-Salem’s Piedmont League champions. During his playing career he won 247 games in the minors.
It was as a college coach, however, that Hearn achieved his greatest success. He was head coach at the University of North Carolina in 1918-19, then returned to the Tar Heels in 1932 for 15 more seasons. His North Carolina teams won six Southern Conference titles and two Big Four championships. Hearn suffered a stroke in 1947, but remained with the team in an advisory capacity for another ten years. Hearn is a member of the American Association of College Coaches Hall of Fame.
Hearn was joined in the 20-win circle by Pat Martin (21-6) and Fred Reiger (20-9), while Gary Fortune (19-7) just missed. Martin went 1-6 for the Athletics in 1919-20 while Fortune compiled a 0-5 mark for the Phillies and Red Sox in 1916, 1918 and 1920.
Right-hander Fortune later won 24 consecutive victories in the Eastern League over a three-year period. He won his last 16 for Pittsfield in 1919 and was 6-0 for Springfield in 1920 before being purchased by the Red Sox. After pitching in Toronto in 1921, he returned to Springfield in 1922 and won his first two decisions before losing to Fitchburg on June 10.
New London remained in the Eastern League for two more years, winning a pennant in each. Its final title in 1918 came in a truncated season, cut short in July because of World War I. The city’s only other fling in pro ball came in 1947 as a member of the Class B Colonial League.
Although their stay in the Eastern League was brief, the 1916 Planters set league records for wins and percentage (Note: the 1918 New London franchise had a .793 winning percentage which came in a war-shortened campaign.) In addition, the team served a key function by giving a home to several Federal League players, allowing many to return to their minor league roots.
|1916 Eastern League Standings|
|NEW LONDON||86||34||.717||-||NEW HAVEN||56||65||.463||30.5|
|1916 New London Planters batting statistics|
|Al O'Dell (Bridgeport)||3B||116||385||37||80||20||.208|
|Dave Howard (Lawrence)||3B||117||413||51||91||25||.220|
|Wheeler Fuller (Lawrence)||P||30||86||7||12||0||.140|
|Steve Manning (Bridge.)||OF||29||85||5||20||2||.249|
|Ralph O'Connell (Bridge.)||SS|
|1916 New London Planters pitching statistics|
|Wheeler Fuller (Lawrence)||16||12||.571||31||235||202||48||109|