Baseball in Connecticut

By Rita Papazian 

While Don Harrison says he has no favorite team in the 2008 World Series battle between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Tampa Bay Rays, there's no doubt he feels a little sentimental this time of year.

Harrison, a 35-year Fairfield resident, covered the Phillies' only World Series triumph in 1980 when they defeated the Kansas City Royals in six games. That was the last Series of nine that he covered in his career as a sports reporter and editor for the Waterbury Republican-American before leaving sports journalism for corporate public relations.

Today, Harrison is the editor of the Greenwich Citizen, a sister paper to the Fairfield Citizen-News and the author of Connecticut Baseball: The Best of the Nutmeg State, just published by The History Press. The book features Connecticut natives as well as players who have lived in the Nutmeg State.

Harrison draws from his 43-year career as a sports editor, reporter and columnist to chronicle some of the best moments and players who have come from the longstanding tradition of Connecticut baseball. His book offers 25 in-depth interviews, along with his choices for a Connecticut All-Time Team. In addition, he presents an extensive compilation of records that highlight World Series and All-Star Game players, award winners, outstanding performances as well as personal career statistics, proof that Harrison is indeed a "Figure Filbert" as he likes to describe himself.

On Sunday, Harrison took time away from his statewide tour to discuss his book, on a day sandwiched between his talk before the Fairfield County chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research at Quinnipiac University on Saturday and meeting New York Mets infielder Tim Teufel, a Greenwich native, at the fourth annual Fairfield County Hall of Fame dinner at the Hyatt Regency in Greenwich Monday evening. In his book, Harrison includes Teufel, one of five Greenwich natives to reach the majors, on his All-Time Team.

Harrison writes: "Teufel's .254 life-time average packed some sting, as evidenced by a pair of seasons with fourteen home runs and a career total of eighty-six."

Another Harrison All-Star player is Norwalk native Mo Vaughn (1991-2003) who was voted the Boston Red Sox's "Most Valuable Player" in 1995, the season Mo "batted .300, walloped thirty-nine home runs and shared the league's runs batted in lead with 126. Remarkably consistent in the American League, Vaughn put together six seasons with more than one hundred RBIs, six straight years with thirty or more homers and give consecutive seaons with .300-plus batting averages," Harrison writes.

Harrison always has been interested in statistics and even once had considered becoming an accountant. One day he was perusing a copy of the Encyclopedia of Baseball and became curious as to how many baseball players were born in Connecticut. He compiled a list and discovered there were "roughly 90." The list has now grown to 175. In his book, he decided to include players who had made Connecticut their home, such as Jackie Robinson

"We have a rich baseball history for a small state in New England with cold winters," said Harrison, who asked former Commissioner of Baseball Fay Vincent to write the book's Forward. Vincent obliged. The former commissioner writes that sports fans "might disagree with Harrison's choices for a Connecticut All-Time Team that's half the fun but you will find it hard to resist the enthusiasm that has united so many fans of the sport."

Incidentally, Fairfield's own Charles Nagy (1990-2003), who won 129 games (versus 105 losses) during his 14-year major league career "the most of any Connecticut native in the past 100 years," is one of three pitchers Harrison names to his All-Time Team. The others are Rob Dibble of Southington and Steve Blass of Canaan.

In 1998, the day after Thanksgiving, Harrison interviewed Nagy, during his appearance at Fairfield High School to thank the community for his induction into the high school Hall of Fame.

"Selected to play in the 1992 All-Star Game," writes Harrison, "Nagy pitched one perfect inning against the National League and, to his own amazement, beat out an infield single the first all-star hit by an American League pitcher since Ken McBride of the California Angels had one in 1963. 'They were harassing me after the hit,' he said with a sheepish grin. 'The guys were joking about it.'"

In his article, Harrison writes of Nagy: " he is unchanged, still self-effacing and quietly confident. His 'aw-shucks' demeanor is reminiscent of ballplayers from another, simpler time."

It is the loss of that simpler time in baseball that led Harrison to eventually leave his career in sports journalism and take a position in corporate public relations, but not before enjoying a lucrative career as an award-winning sportswriter and editor with the Waterbury Republican-American. During his 18-year tenure with the newspaper, he chronicled nine World Series, covered the game's spring training camps in Florida and conducted interviews with many of the sport's luminaries.

He also is a contributor to two editions of the Official Encyclopedia of Baseball. His freelance articles have appeared in the Sporting News, Sports Quarterly-Baseball, The New York Times, CONNECTICUT Magazine and other publications. He is the author of 25 Years Plus One, which captured Fairfield University's meteoric rise in men's basketball, and a contributing author to two editions of Inside Women's College Basketball.

Harrison was born in Brooklyn and grew up in New Haven. His early memories of being a baseball fan include watching the game in black and white on his family's television set. He saw his first game in 1952 at age 12 when his mother and her friend took him to Brooklyn to watch the Dodgers defeat the New York Giants 5-4. They had box seats and a young Harrison couldn't get over how green the grass looked on the field after watching the game so long in black and white.

Four years after the Dodgers left Brooklyn in 1957, and two weeks shy of his 21st birthday, Harrison joined a superstar staff of sportswriters headed by sports editor Dan Parker at the New York Mirror. He remained with the Mirror until the tabloid closed in 1963 and he got a job with the Waterbury Republican-American.

The recent closings of both Yankee and Shea stadiums brought back many fond memories for Harrison. His fondest memory of the Yankees is when he covered Game 3 of the 1964 World Series, which he ranks "among the high points of Mickey Mantle's marvelous 18-year career.

"Entering the bottom of the ninth inning, the score stood 1-1, courtesy of a lively pitching duel between the Cardinals' left-hander, Curt Simmons, and the Yankees' Jim Bouton.

"Now it was time for Mantle heroics. Gimpy knees and all, the Yankee switch-hitter stepped into the first pitch by relief pitcher Barney Schultz - a knuckleball that failed to knuckle - and deposited it into the upper right-field seats for a game-winning home run and a dramatic 2-1 Yankee victory. The homer was Mantle's 16th in World Series competition, surpassing the record he shared with Babe Ruth."

Five years later, Harrison was at Shea Stadium to chronicle the Mets' improbable Series triumph over the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles.

Recalling Oct. 16, 1969, Harrison writes: "The Mets convinced any remaining skeptics that they were the real deal by defeating the supposedly superior Baltimore Orioles, 5-3, to capture their first World Championship in five games.

"After surrendering three runs in the third inning, the left-handed Koosman silenced the Orioles the remainder of the way, allowing only five hits. The Mets rallied to tie the score on home runs by Donn Clendenon and Al Weis, and Ron Swoboda's run-scoring double- his only RBI of the Series in the eighth inning placed the Mets in front to stay."

Harrison describes his experiences covering the games and World Series as "a privilege.

"As a guy who didn't play the game well, it gave me a chance to get on the field these were my baseball cards," a reference to seeing his heroes come to life right before his eyes.

Harrison will do a book-signing at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Westport on Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. His book is also available online at , ,  and .