Morgan Bulkeley, the Hartford Dark Blues, and the Birth of the National League

In William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, the character of Malvolio says, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.”

By a conventional wisdom paradigm, Morgan Bulkeley fell into all three categories.

Bulkeley was born into greatness by virtue of the stature that ran through the blue blood of his prominent Connecticut family.  With the Mayflower’s voyage in his family tree, the Bulkeleys enjoyed a rarefied lineage.  Bulkeley’s father, Eliphalet Bulkeley, wielded connections to the power structure in Connecticut’s Republican party through employment as judge, a state senator, and a state’s attorney.  He also co-founded the Aetna Life Insurance Company and served as its first president.

Bulkeley achieved greatness by furthering the family’s political legacy in staking out political territory of his own:

  • Mayor of Hartford for four terms (1880 to 1888)
  • Governor of Connecticut for two terms (1889 to 1893)
  • U.S. Senator for one term (1905 to 1911)

Additionally, Bulkeley became the third president of Aetna, a position he held for more than 40 years, until his death.

Bulkeley had greatness thrust upon him by luck dictating the responsibility, honor, and prestige of the National League’s inaugural presidency in 1876.  Sort of.

With other members of Hartford’s elite, Bulkeley formed the Hartford Dark Blues, which played in the National Association in 1874 and 1875.  When the NA folded after the 1875 season, its demise created a void for professional baseball.  The Dark Blues received an invitation to be one of eight charter members in the nascent National League, set to début in 1876.  “Hartford owed its selection over larger New Haven to the substantial reputation of Bulkeley and his fellow Hartford shareholders, the strength of their team, and the financial reliability they had demonstrated in two NA seasons,” explained David Nemec in Major League Baseball Profiles, 1871-1900, Volume 2: The Hall of Famers and Memorable Personalities Who Shaped the Game.

Bulkeley’s one-year presidential reign was neither significant nor outstanding.  Its greatness, therefore, may be a matter of opinion.  A pro-Bulkeley argument rests on the thesis that Bulkeley provided baseball with a necessary image of honor, respect, and stability to contradict the edgier parts of a game that was, in some cases, far removed from the 19th century pastoral activity depicted in the iconic Currier & Ives painting of a Hoboken baseball game—rowdiness, gambling, and liquor pervaded a game that struggled toward growth, organization, and prosperity.

Representing the Chicago White Stockings, another National League charter member, William Hulbert was a primary force in creating the new league.  Hubert signed marquee pitcher Albert Spalding, the future sporting goods mogul.  They endorsed Bulkeley’s rank in the National League hierarchy.  Bulkeley’s biography on the Baseball Hall of Fame web site states, “A drawing was held to determine the first president of the new league, and Bulkeley’s name emerged first.  This sat well with William Hulbert and Albert Spalding of Chicago, who saw in him the integrity and character needed to drive the league’s acceptance.”

It is a matter of debate concerning Bulkeley receiving the presidency through a drawing, describes Nemec: “Whether the directors were actually chosen by lot or Hulbert deliberately engineered their selection, all of its members could probably have seen as well as Hulbert that Bulkeley was a natural choice for the presidency as an easterner who was personally respected but did not represent one of the traditional powers of eastern baseball.  The office was essentially an honorific one, at any rate.  All the president did was preside at meetings.”

Even so, Bulkeley’s aristocratic image cannot be ignored.  Figureheads can be useful in projecting a reputation of solidity, value, and importance.  Bulkeley was a critical component in helping the National League build a foundation for a sustainable enterprise.  His baseball days ended, however, shortly after his National League presidency.

In 1877, the Dark Blues played their home games in Brooklyn.  It was their last season.  Consequently, Bulkeley’s pursuits did not include further baseball opportunities until he joined the Mills Commission in 1905 to ascertain baseball’s origins.  It labeled Abner Doubleday as baseball’s creator, a mistake rectified in later decades by numerous baseball historians.

Morgan Bulkeley was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on December 26, 2014.

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