Two of major league baseball’s most prominent personalities of recent years share a surname with a “V” and Fairfield County as their roots.
Mo Vaughn, an economy-sized first baseman with a power bat, was born and raised in Norwalk. He thumped 328 home runs, primarily with the Boston Red Sox, in his career and won the Most Valuable Player Award in 1995. No other Connecticut native has duplicated these achievements.
, one of the state’s greatest all-around athletes – he was a first-team football All-Stater for three seasons at Stamford’s former Rippowam High – was hampered by injuries as a player, but became one of the game’s finest managers, winning the National League pennant with the New York Mets in 2000. He’s practically synonymous with his hometown of Stamford.
Moving up the shoreline, the town of Fairfield can lay claim to Charles Nagy, a strapping 6-foot-3 right-hander who was the dominant pitcher on strong Cleveland Indian clubs in the 1990s. He won 129 games in his career, more than any other Nutmeg State native since the dawn of the 20th century, and pitched in two World Series and two All-Star Games.
On the day after Thanksgiving in 1992, Nagy made an early-morning appearance at Fairfield High School to acknowledge his inclusion into the school’s athletic hall of fame and to thank the town for its support. (He was unable to attend the awards dinner.)
“It’s hard to look back and see the things I’ve done,” Nagy told the gathering of 250 people. “I’m just living out a dream. Baseball’s a kid’s game. I’m just a big kid playing baseball.”
It’s not surprising that Fairfield County has been a leading purveyor of baseball talent since the game’s early days. Baseball traces its origins to the Northeast – to a cow pasture in Cooperstown, N.Y., according to lore, but more likely to other primitive playing fields in New Jersey, Connecticut and New York.
One of the game’s greatest players of the 19th century, , grew up on the East Side of Bridgeport. One of only two Connecticut natives elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame as a player, O’Rourke was a left-fielder and catcher for most of his 19-year (1876-93, 1904), playing for Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New York and Washington.
This son of Irish immigrants holds the distinction of getting the first hit in National League history (April 22, 1876); 2,303 more were to follow and he concluded with a .310 lifetime batting average. O’Rourke was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945, decades after his death. (Roger Connor, a Waterbury native who held the career home run record prior to Babe Ruth, was inducted in 1976.)
An educated man in a sport dominated by ruffians, O’Rourke earned a degree from the Yale Law School during his playing days and eventually opened a law practice.
Last August, a life-size statue of O’Rourke was dedicated on the plaza outside the Ballpark at Harbor Yard in Bridgeport. Susan Clinard of West Haven was the sculptor.
Among the five Connecticut natives active in the major leagues today, only one hails from Fairfield County – Craig Breslow, the Yale-educated left-handed relief pitcher from Trumbull.
Last season, Breslow, 30, ranked second in AL appearances for the second year in a row, with 75 games, recording five saves, a 4-4 won-lost record and a 3.01 earned run average.
Off the field, he’s also received plaudits as the founder of the Strike 3 Foundation, a charity that raises awareness, support and funding for pediatric cancer research.
Because of its proximity to New York and for other reasons, Fairfield County has become home to dozens of major league players, past and present. The first of my boyhood heroes, Hall of Famer and civil rights leader , considered Stamford home for the final 15 years of his life.
Phil Linz, the Yankee infielder who hit a pair of home runs in the 1964 World Series – but became best known for the “harmonica incident” on the team bus – still makes Stamford his home.
Greenwich, though, seems to attract the most. Lee Mazzilli, the former outfielder and manager; Bobby Bonilla, a six-time all-star, and retired Mets pitcher Craig Swan have settled in town. Hall of Famer slugger Ralph Kiner and another home run hitter of note, George Foster, have lived in Greenwich, at least some of the time, for many years.
Hall of Famer Tom Seaver resided in this affluent community for two decades, starting when he pitched the Amazin’ Mets to the 1969 National League pennant and World Series title. Two pitchers with Cy Young Awards, Tom Glavine and David Cone, and a pair of first-rate relievers, Billy Wagner and Skip Lockwood, also called Greenwich home in recent years.
On the front office side, former baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent and the late George Weiss, who, as general manager, became the architect of the New York Yankees’ post-World War II dominance and was elected to the Hall of Fame, were longtime Greenwich residents. Both are state natives. Vincent was born in Waterbury and raised in New Haven; Weiss also hailed from New Haven.
One of Weiss’ successors as Yankee general manager, Brian Cashman, lives in Darien with his family. During Cashman’s tenure (1998-present), the club has won four World Series and six American League pennants, most recently in 2009.
Willie Upshaw, who spent nine years as a first baseman-outfielder in the major leagues, settled in Fairfield after his playing career ended. But you’ll still find him at the ballpark these days as manager of the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League.
Here are some other notable major leaguers who were born and raised in Fairfield County:
- Tim Teufel, Greenwich – The infielder appeared in 1,073 games across 11 seasons (1983-93) with the Minnesota Twins, Mets and San Diego Padres, hitting .254 with 86 home runs. In the 1986 World Series, he contributed four hits, including a homer, in nine at bats to the Mets’ seven-game victory over the Red Sox.
- Joe Lahoud, Danbury – A power-hitting outfielder, Lahoud slammed 65 home runs – including three in one game against the Twins in 1969 – and batted .223 with the Red Sox, California Angels and three other clubs. Last April, Lahoud was among the first 10 inductees into the Abbott Tech Hall of Fame.
- Angel Echevarria, Bridgeport – The outfielder-first baseman compiled a .280 lifetime average in seven seasons (1996-2002) with the Colorado Rockies, Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs. He was a three-sport standout at Bassick High School.
- George “Kiddo” Davis, Bridgeport – A fine defensive centerfielder who broke in with a bang with the 1932 Philadelphia Phillies (.309 average, 39 doubles, 100 runs scored, 16 stolen bases, 437 putouts and 15 assists). The following fall, he contributed a .368 average (7-19) to the Giants’ World Series championship over the Washington Senators. His lifetime average for 575 games was .282.
- Pete Castiglione, Greenwich – A scrappy infielder who grew up during the Depression, Castiglione played eight seasons (1947-54) in the NL, primarily with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a lifetime .255 hitter. Castiglione died last April at age 89.
- Bob Saverine, Darien – A versatile infielder, Saverine was just 18 years old when he made his debut as a pinch-runner for the Baltimore Orioles in 1959. He spent a portion of six seasons (1959, ’62-64, ’66-67) in the AL with the Orioles and Washington Senators, batting .239.
- Mike Sandlock, Old Greenwich – The sprightly Sandlock, 95, spent 16 seasons in pro ball as a catcher and infielder, reaching the majors with the old Boston Braves (1942, '44), Brooklyn Dodgers (1945-46) and Pirates (1953). He was a lifetime .240 hitter in the majors.
- Kurt Kepshire, Bridgeport – In the starting rotation for the St. Louis Cardinals’ pennant-bound 1985 club, Kepshire contributed 10 victories and a 4.75 earned run average. Called up in mid-season the previous year, he pitched back-to-back shutouts against Montreal and Chicago. Finished 16-15 over-all.
Don Harrison, of Fairfield, is the author of "Connecticut Baseball: The Best of the Nutmeg State," published by The History Press in 2008 and now in its second printing. He was a two-time winner of the Connecticut Sportswriter of the Year award.