It was a picture that caught
Craig Kelly's interest the one of his elderly former neighbor at the
Pequonnock Apartments as a younger man.
"We were already friends," Kelly recalled of that day back in the 1970s
he helped Rufus Baker and his wife bring groceries into their apartment in
the now-leveled public housing project.
The photograph showed Baker crouched in baseball pinstripes, the name
"Yankees" emblazoned across his chest.
"I didn't know he had a baseball past," said Kelly, a city firefighter.
"That's when I found out he had played in the Negro Leagues."
Now Kelly is on a mission to make sure the city Baker called home until
his death in 1992 at 74 years old does not forget him.
He has asked the City Council to ceremonially name the portion of Broad
Street linking South Frontage Road and University Avenue, "Rufus Baker
Kelly said the site would make for an appropriate tribute because it is
near both Baker's home at the former Pequonnock Apartments, as well as
baseball itself embodied by the adjacent Ballpark at Harbor Yard, home of
the Bridgeport Bluefish.
The City Council has referred the matter to the Public Safety and
Transportation Committee for consideration. It turned out the unassuming
Baker had quite a story.
A Georgia native who first came to Fairfield as a child and later moved
to Bridgeport, Baker was a shortstop for the New York Black Yankees, a
Negro League team founded in Harlem and relocated to Albany.
Baker was a highly regarded fielder in the days when black men weren't
allowed to showcase their skills with whites.
"He was a very, very good defensive shortstop," said Michael J. Bielawa,
a Bridgeport Public Library research librarian, and author of "Bridgeport
Baseball," a book about the city's baseball heritage set to be published
this summer by Arcadia Publishing.
But more to the point, Kelly said, is that Baker was a man of great
faith who never became bitter because of the racism he experienced.
Black ballplayers weren't able to stay in the same hotels, eat in the
same restaurants, or sometimes shop in the same places that white people
In a 1991 Connecticut Post story, Baker recalled stopping in
Mississippi for a soda and having a shotgun pulled on him. In Texas, fans
Bielawa, whose earlier book, "From FarField to Newfield," focuses on
the city's native baseball Hall of Famer, James "Orator Jim" O'Rourke,
says discrimination was an experience both men shared, as O'Rourke was a
star in the 1800s, when there was much anti-Irish sentiment.
In that book, Bielawa tells how Baker was discovered when the visiting
New York Black Yankees were on a barnstorming tour here, playing against
the Colored Stars, a semipro team. He was invited to try out, and made the
As a Black Yankee, he played in some of the country's most storied
parks, and Yankee Stadium was home. But he only played there when the
regular Yankees were out of town.
He didn't exactly distinguish himself with the bat in the days when
power hitting was so important. But, Bielawa said, his fielding was
important because it saved so many runs.
Baker was regarded highly enough, Bielawa said, that he was among those
selected to join later barnstorming tours that included such black legends
as Roy Campanella and Monte Irvin.
"He must have made a mark if he was picked by Roy Campanella," Bielawa
In all, Baker played about about eight seasons with the Black Yankees,
who disbanded in 1950, amid the integration of the Major Leagues. Baker's
contract was sold, but he decided he didn't want to bother with Chicago
Instead, he came home to Bridgeport, where he was a factory worker who
played baseball in local leagues and devoted himself to youth through the
Boys Club, as he and his wife had no children.
Kelly said he never knew his own father, and Baker was an important
figure in his life, giving him valuable guidance in raising his own two
He said that naming a street after Baker will help remind the community
about a "heck of a man" and send a message that one can overcome racism to
lead a meaningful life.
"Even through adversity and hard times there's light at the end of the
tunnel," he said.
Susan Silvers, who covers regional issues, can be reached at