Top 100 Teams
By Bill Weiss & Marshall Wright, Baseball Historians
In 1944, during the height of World War II, most minor leagues had shutdown for the simple reason that travel was difficult and quality personnel was hard to obtain. One of the few National Association leagues that kept operating was the Eastern League. And despite having to utilize less than stellar talent, a team from the city of Hartford excelled in 1944, setting an all time league record.
The city of Hartford, Connecticut, could trace its baseball roots back to the Civil War. Here, a team called the Charter Oaks played other amateur clubs from the Connecticut area and beyond. In 1874, a team from Hartford joined a league called the National Association – which served as baseball’s top ranked circuit. Two years later, following the demise of the Association, Hartford became a charter member of the National League. After two third place finishes, the team dropped out of the circuit.
In 1886, a team called the Hartford Dark Blues joined the minor Eastern League. After an undistinguished 40-48 record, the team disbanded. Later, the city joined other 19th century leagues including the Atlantic Association (1889-90), Atlantic League (1896-98), and Eastern League (1899-1901).
In the first 15 years of the 20th century, the city continued hopping from league to league, placing teams in the Connecticut State League (1902-12), Eastern Association (1913-14) and Colonial League (1915). Interestingly, the Colonial League served as a feeder organization to the major league’s outlaw Federal League, thus operating outside the aegis of Organized Baseball. Here, the Hartford Senators won the pennant with a 55-42 record, a scant .003 percentage points ahead of Brockton.
In 1916, Hartford began a long relationship with a new Class B loop, the Eastern League. In the space of sixteen years, the Senators won pennants in 1923 and 1931, with the latter champion being included in the top 100 list. Midway through the 1932 season, the league folded, taking Hartford with it.
Six years later, in 1938, a new Eastern League was formed out of the New York – Pennsylvania League. Hartford joined the loop in the first year, placing a team called the Laurels in the Class A circuit as a farm team of the Boston Braves. The team languished during its first half-dozen years, finishing no higher than third.
Only Ten Active Leagues
However, Hartford was fortunate to be a member of the Eastern League, one of only a handful of leagues even playing during the height of the war. Following the 1942 season, most minor league circuits closed down. In 1943 and 1944, only ten leagues (down from a total of 31) played their seasons.
Grateful to be a part of one of the ten extant loops, the 1944 Laurels ripped apart the Eastern League, finishing with a fancy 99-38, .723 record, 8.5 games ahead of Albany. Hartford started slowly, but took over first place a month after the season opened and stayed in front the rest of the way.
However, a fickle fate deserted them in the playoffs. They lost the opener, 1-0, when the second Utica batter of the game homered off Pete Naktenis, the league’s leading pitcher in ERA (1.93) and percentage (18-3, .857). They dropped the second game, 5-4, in 11 innings, before winning 5-3 and 4-2 to tie the series. The Laurels lost the deciding game, 9-8, in the ninth inning after making six errors, when Naktenis, charged with only four wild pitches in 182 innings in the regular season, uncorked two in a matter of minutes. With the score tied 8-8, the leadoff batter singled and reached third on a wild pitch compounded by the failure of the third baseman to cover the bag. After the next batter reached first on Naktenis’ fielding error, the winning run scored on another wild pitch and the series was over.
The Laurels were managed by Del Bissonette, a 44-year-old ex-major leaguer. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, Bissonette had played five seasons for the Brooklyn Dodgers as a firstbaseman, compiling a .305 average. His best season ocurred in 1928, when he poled 25 home runs, knocked in 106 runs and batted .320.
Hartford’s best batters in 1944 were firstbaseman Vince Shupe (.339, 109 RBI), Roland Gladu (.372, 102 RBI) and Stan Wentzel (.323). Wentzel also led the league with a modest total of nine home runs. Shupe, who started as a pitcher in the Brooklyn organization, led the league in hits (187) and was third in batting and RBI. A few years later, while playing for San Diego, he dated actress Jean Peters who married Howard Hughes. Naktenis, Wentzel, catcher Bob Brady and 18-year-old shortstop Charles Aickley all made the Eastern League All-Star team.
Aspirins Carried Him
The makeup of the pitching Big Four was fairly typical of a World War II team. Naktenis, a bespectaled 29-year-old left-hander who lived in Hartford, started pro ball in 1936 with the Philadelphia A’s and had pitched briefly for Cincinnati in 1939. He had retired after an 8-8 year with Milwaukee in 1942 and had a full-time job at the Colt firearms plant in Hartford. In a 1944 interview, Pete said he had injured his arm in 1938 and could no longer straighten it out. He said he had been advised by physicians “time and again” to give up pitching and that every time he pitched, his arm hurt. “I take three or four aspirins and have my arm rubbed with liniment before each game.” Naktenis joined Hartford late in 1943, pitching only home games and went 6-0, 1.45. He stayed with the Laurels through 1945 with a combined 35-8 record.
Warren Mueller (18-5, 3.43) was a 25-year-old rookie left-hander from Staten Island, N.Y. He had been offered contracts by Washington in 1938 and Brooklyn in 1940, but turned them down because the money wasn’t enough. Mueller was married on his 18th birthday, became a father the next year and had seven brothers and sisters to help support. He said he made more money driving a truck and playing semi-pro ball. In 1944, a friend of Bissonette’s recommended him to Hartford and they offered him enough to turn pro. He was the first Eastern League pitcher to reach ten victories in 1944 and won 12 of his first 13 decisions.
Bill Marshall (16-5, 3.36), another rookie, was a 22-year-old, 5’9” left-hander from Lowell, Massachusetts, who had been turned down by the armed forces for physical reasons. Hal Shacker (18-7), a 19-year-old right-hander from Brooklyn, had received a medical discharge from the service. His only previous pro experience was four games with Hartford at the end of 1943.
As a reflection of the watered-down talent playing major league baseball during the war, several of the Laurels hitters saw immediate service in the big leagues. Among them were: Shupe, who played one year (1945) for the Braves, batting .269; Steve Shemo, who played in 35 games for the Braves in 1944-45; and Gladu, who batted .242 in 22 games for the Braves in 1944.
Merle Settlemire, Bissonette’s 41-year-old coach, had an 8-5, 2.61 record in relief. Settlemire, who was 0-6, 5.47 for the 1928 Red Sox, had last pitched in 1940 when he was 15-0 while managing Lima in the Ohio State League. In addition, outfielder Jimmy Francoline, another part-time player who worked in an aircraft plant, didn’t have far to go to get to the games. His family’s home was just outside the left field fence.
The Hartford Laurels played another eight years in the Eastern League, finishing no higher than third. Following the 1952 season, the team dropped out of the league. Ever since, the city has not been represented in the minors, although teams have played in nearby locales, such as New Britain.
Baseball during World War II was an uneven game at best. With most of the eligible players serving their country in the service, or in a war-related industry, minor league teams were left scrambling for any available talent. Despite this handicap, the Laurels put together a champion-calibre team – a team which finished with the highest winning percentage in the history of the Eastern League.
|1944 Eastern League Standings|
|1944 Hartford Laurels batting statistics|
|1944 Hartford Laurels pitching statistics|