The man considered by many to be the greatest baseball player ever to come out of Connecticut got off to an unusual start. The future pitcher and slugger who would be idolized by fans across the Americas as “Schoolboy” Johnny Taylor (“Escolar Taylor” in Mexico), was a track team member focused on high-jumping and pole-vaulting his first three years at Hartford’s Bulkeley high school. Baseball then was Taylor’s second sport, relegated to sandlot league play at Colt Park. His Senior year, however, Johnny Taylor joined the Bulkeley Maroon’s varsity baseball team and immediately pitched and hit his way into the record books. In 1934, Taylor went 8-1 and batted .428 and in his final high school game for Bulkeley he set a state record, striking out an unprecedented 25 New Britain players in a one-hit 13-4 victory.
Asked in a Bridgeport Sunday Herald interview in 1934 about the future opportunities for blacks in American sports, Taylor said “I think eventually Negroes will be playing big league ball. It may not come in my career as a pitcher, but it will come.” Unfortunately, that time never came for Johnny Taylor, though it would eventually come for one of his greatest opponents, the baseball legend and Hall of Fame pitcher Satchel Paige, who Taylor faced in a Negro League pitching-mound duel at the New York Polo Grounds, today in 1937.
Taylor had signed as a pitcher for the New York Cubans of the Negro League in 1935. Though racial prejudice caused the league to be considered a tier down from the white major league, it consistently boasted some of the best players in the sport. Paige, who played in the Negro Leagues before becoming one of the first black players in the American League and pitching his way into the Hall of Fame, thought the Negro League as good, or superior in ability to its white counterpart. “In the late Thirties, any Negro League club could have beaten any white major league team,” Paige said as a Hall of Famer. “The best team in the world was the New York Yankees then, and . . . they’d have had to go like hell to beat us.”
Taylor demonstrated conclusively the truth of Paige’s statement when he faced off against the pitching giant in aforementioned September 19th 1937 famed Polo grounds game. Paige’s pitching was clearly expected to dominate the match, though the younger Taylor was expected to give a good account of himself, and possibly even eek out a win. No one expected what actually happened, Before thousands of astonished fans, Johnny Taylor threw a no-hitter against Paige and his Dominican All-Stars, coming away with a 2-0 victory. Sportswriter Joe Bostic exclaimed, “The select circle of baseball’s immortals has a new member. His name is Johnny Taylor.” A surprised and self-effacing Paige remarked, “It’s a mighty bad feeling when a young punk (Taylor) comes along and does better than you and you know it.”
“It’s a mighty bad feeling when a young punk (Taylor) comes along and does better than you and you know it.”
–––––––––––– Satchel Paige
In a different world, both Taylor and Paige would have been propelled directly into the “Bigs.” But as it was, Paige had to wait eleven years before becoming a Cleveland Indian at age 42, the oldest player ever to debut in the major leagues. Taylor’s chance never came. He spent his career playing on a number of Negro League team, and in Cuba and Mexico, where, as a member of the Vera Cruz eagles, he filled his wardrobe with fifteen custom suits given by a manager who promised to buy him a tailored suit every time he pitched a shutout.
Hampered by a back injury he sustained while working in Mexico, Taylor returned to Hartford to work in the defense industry during World War II. He then reentered baseball, playing for various teams and leagues until retiring in 1949. He then took up golf, becoming both a scratch golfer with a three handicap and a trailblazer for blacks in Connecticut. He was one of the first black men in Connecticut to have a state handicap card, and became a member of Edgewood Club in Cromwell (site of today’s Player’s Tournament) by 1959, when Baseball great Jackie Robinson was denied membership in a private gold club in Stamford.
In April, 2021, field #9 of the Colt Park Baseball Field was renamed Johnny Taylor field, in Taylor’s honoor. As his daughter, Lynette Taylor Grande, watched, Taylor’s grandson, Robert Grande, threw out the first pitch.”
Karyl Evans, “Schoolboy Johnny Taylor: Shut Out, Not Shut Down”
John Daly, “Johnny Taylor,” Society of American Baseball Research
Steve Thornton, “Swinging for the Fences: Connecticut’s Black Baseball Greats,” connecticuthistory.org
“Johnny Taylor Field Opens at Colt Park,” Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League
“Satchel Paige,” National Baseball Hall of Fame