New Britain’s residents have throughout history enjoyed sports of various forms. Col. Isaac Lee, the well-respected colonial magistrate who named this city, was known for his prowess as an athlete, especially in wrestling. But it was a small, leather-clad ball that residents here would grow to love. One of the earliest documented team sports in central Connecticut was Wicket, a game that was similar to (and an earlier form) the game of Cricket from England. As early as 1767, this game was being played in Hartford County, and the Phoenix Wicket Club of New Britain was organized in 1847.
Elihu Burritt reported a Wickets game in one of his newspapers in 1858, which was the first written account of such a game in New Britain. The modern variant of baseball, as developed in New York, would catch on explosively during the Civil War and develop into a national game.
Due in part to troops playing the game during the war and development of a national league, the Phoenix Club and two other clubs started organizing baseball games in this city beginning in the 1860s.Leagues were organized by individual city wards, companies, churches, fire and police departments, and schools.
Industrial leagues, with teams formed by individual manufacturing companies, were the most celebrated and promoted here, as they helped boost pride and morale among factory workers and the city in general. The Industrial League had regional ties, often referred to as “Triple-A” (Amateur Athletic Association) baseball. Championships were therefore played between local companies, and teams from other towns in the state or beyond. This league peaked with industries up into the 1940s, then slowly began to fade in the 50s and 60s.
The high school team was extremely popular among students and very successful in producing strong players for the industrial leagues. Steve Dalkowski, our famous fastball pitcher, still holds a high school state record for striking out 24 batters in a single game.
Early on, some promoted the idea of organizing professional state or national league clubs in the city, but most people seemed satisfied with local and amateur leagues. Finally, in 1884, New Britain joined a professional league, beginning with the Connecticut State League.
This team ran sporadically until 1912, known after 1908 as the New Britain Perfectos. It was the Perfectos that drafted the first Cuban players to an American team. Unfortunately, the league was lost when it attempted to join an Eastern Association league in 1913, which only lasted a year.
It was not until 1983 that New Britain would see professional baseball again, when the New Britain Red Sox began as an AA affiliation for the Boston Red Sox. The current AA team, the New Britain Rock Cats, began in 1995 as affiliation for the Minnesota Twins. Both of these clubs have done very well in the league and have produced some outstanding major league players.