to Put One Over the Fence for a Famous Hitter
By AVI SALZMAN
Published: June 2, 2006
In the Region
Long Island, Westchester, Connecticut and New Jersey
TO anyone who has driven on Interstate 95 through Bridgeport and looked
south, it is impossible to miss: a single house standing in a rocky weed-filled
field, its windows boarded up or broken, its siding stripped. This is
the face Bridgeport presents to the world every day.
No wonder the mayor, John Fabrizi, has made it a priority to turn the
55-acre field, known as Steel Point, into a profitable development, with
housing, stores and office space and a 2,200-foot promenade that will
guide visitors along the shore of Long Island Sound. The developer plans
to start work on the site by the end of August.
But what will become of the house? And what is it doing there in the first
Long before I-95 even existed, James Henry O'Rourke built a Queen Anne
Victorian house in a middle-class community on the east side of Bridgeport
between the railroad tracks and the Sound. Mr. O'Rourke, a Bridgeport
native, had an interesting double career: He was a major league baseball
player and a lawyer. He had such a natural talent for making speeches,
his nickname on the field was Orator Jim.
Mr. O'Rourke was special in other ways. On April 22, 1876, in Philadelphia,
while playing for the Boston Red Caps, he had the first hit in the National
League a single to left field. He also was the oldest person to
play in a National League game; he was 54 when he took to the field for
the New York Giants on Sept. 22, 1904, a record that still stands. All
this, along with his more than 2,000 hits and a reputation for graceful
catches in left field, made Mr. O'Rourke one of the best-known players
of his era. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.
When he died in 1919, the house passed from family to family, eventually
serving as a shelter for battered women. In the 1990's, the city decided
Steel Point needed to be revitalized. Wielding its power of eminent domain,
the city bought and demolished the neighborhood, but the Bridgeport Community
Historical Society argued that the house should be saved.
So the house has remained, but despite big promises from previous developers,
little has grown on the rest of Steel Point except weeds. The effort to
preserve the house has similarly gone nowhere. A group of history buffs
and baseball enthusiasts formed The First Hit in an effort to move the
house, but the nonprofit group has not found a new site for it. If they
don't, the house will be razed. As it is, the house continues to fall
apart. Daniel Pfeffer, the president of Midtown Equities, the lead developer
on the site, said his company had determined that the house was structurally
unsound. Nonetheless, Mr. Pfeffer said his company had agreed to move
it, as long as The First Hit could find a spot.
Michael J. Bielawa and Bernie Crowley, two of the leaders of The First
Hit, said they still hadn't found a site and time was running out. They
visited the house recently and found the door bashed in and fresh graffiti
on the walls.
"It's kind of sad what happens," Mr. Bielawa said.
Mr. Crowley said the house could be a museum.
"This is part of what Bridgeport has been," he said. "There's
a place for history, too."