It was on April 22, 1876, that Bridgeporter James Henry O'Rourke is credited with making baseball history -- the first base hit in the then-fledgling National League -- while at bat on a Philadelphia ball field in a game celebrating America's upcoming Centennial.
The dramatic instant after ball and bat made contact is captured by West Haven sculptor Susan Clinard -- with O'Rourke frozen in his follow-through swing -- in a life-size bronze statue that was unveiled Friday, August 27, 2010 in ceremonies at Bridgeport's Ballpark at Harbor Yard.
Photo: View east. (Dave Pelland)
Former Baseball Commissioner and Waterbury native Fay Vincent is scheduled to be keynote speaker at the event, which comes a few days shy of the 160th anniversary of O'Rourke's birth. Ceremonies, which are expected to be attended by scores of O'Rourke's descendants from throughout the country, are scheduled to take place next to the statue, rain or shine, on the plaza in front of the ballpark.
A 7:05 p.m. game will follow, pitting the Bridgeport Bluefish against the Long Island Ducks. And as a tip of the hat to O'Rourke's heritage, festivities will continue after the game with a free concert by Irish button accordion player John Whelan and his band.
"It's just incredible, a really great statue," said Mayor Bill Finch last Saturday while on hand for a portion of the day-long installation process. Bridgeport's most famous ballplayer -- O'Rourke, dubbed "Orator Jim" for his intellect and verbosity, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945 -- will finally get a small fraction of the recognition he so greatly deserves, the mayor added.
"Bridgeport in many ways is overlooked, forgotten when it comes to great historical moments. But Bridgeport has ... stood for great things. And O'Rourke is one of them. Yale-educated, a lawyer, a scholar-athlete, who was sensitive to discrimination (issues) long before that was popular -- now that's a role model for all the children of Bridgeport," the mayor said.
For many years, the house O'Rourke built and lived in on the city's East Side was the subject of a preservation drive to honor his unique status in baseball. A sagging economy and the widespread structural deterioration of the house defeated those efforts. The home was demolished in June 2009.
The statue is the culmination of about seven years work by a consortium of concerned citizens, led by Bernie Crowley and Michael J. Bielawa, founders of The First Hit Inc., a group dedicated to keeping O'Rourke's memory alive in the Park City; the city of Bridgeport; and such major donors as Bridgeport Landing Development and the Christoph family, developers of the Steelpointe Harbor project, which kicked off the campaign with a $50,000 donation. Additional support has been provided by the G. Pic Construction Co. of Bridgeport, O'Keefe Controls Co. and the Conan family.
Creating the O'Rourke statue has been "a fascinating and complicated journey" of more than two years, said artist Clinard Saturday.
Clinard, who specializes in the human figure, explained that she did extensive research to ensure that the statue would be historically accurate with correct body, hairline, facial features, batting posture and follow-through. O'Rourke is depicted at about 5'8" tall, about 185 pounds, she noted.
To capture the fluidity of his swing and the correct positioning of his fingers, Clinard, 37, worked with live-model ballplayers and consulted with the coaching staff at the University of New Haven. Bielawa, author of "Bridgeport Baseball," was brought in to wear a vintage baseball uniform that he owns, which helped the artist to understand the way in which "an old-time jersey, pants and socks" would crease and fold when worn.
The sculptor then began the process of creating a small clay model, or marquette. When the design was approved, she began work on the next stage by building the armature, or interior welded support, to keep a 500-pound clay sculpture standing while being worked on. When this large clay statue was done and approved by baseball historians, O'Rourke's descendants and Bridgeport officials, the casting got under way using the "lost-wax process" at Cavalier Sculpture Casting in East Haven.
With a patina in warm brown, the finished bronze statue weights about 900 pounds, she said. On Saturday, its multi-ton black granite base was set in the plaza, with the statue then secured for permanent display.
Beyond capturing O'Rourke's physical likeness, Clinard said, she was intent on conveying O'Rourke's "sense of stature and pride, including those multidimensional attributes that made him a unique human being, such as his powerful intellect and his physicality."
At O'Rourke's feet, Clinard has placed an open book, also in bronze, on which is written one of O'Rourke's most famous quotes: "Baseball is for all creeds and nationalities."
When all the bills are tallied, the statue project is expected to cost approximately $70,000, according to mayoral spokeswoman Elaine K. Ficarra. Although most of that amount has already been raised through donations, Ficarra said, fundraising will continue to establish a scholarship fund in O'Rourke's memory for scholar-athletes in Bridgeport schools. (A portion of the ticket sales from Friday's game will go toward the fund when purchasers mention O'Rourke's name.)
Boros, A. S. “Statue of Hall of Famer James O'Rourke to be unveiled Friday at Harbor Yard ballpark.” CTPost, August 26, 2010.
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A life-size bronze casting of O'Rourke at the peak of the follow-through of his historic 1876 base hit. The casting is mounted on an inscribed granite plinth.
Inscribed on plinth, side 1: James Henry O'Rourke. September 1,1850 - January 8, 1919. "Orator Jim" O'Rourke, son of Irish immigrants, was a professional baseball player, scholar, and civil rights activist. The Bridgeport native had the first base hit in National League history on April 22, 1876. He played for eight different major league teams during 23 seasons; while a player for the New York Giants, the team paid for Jim to attend Yale Law School, from which he received his law degree in 1887. Noted for his command of language, Jim used his eloquence to entertain teammates and confound opponents. In 1895, Jim helped to organize the Connecticut State League. He owned, managed and played catcher for several local teams, and hired Harry Herbert, Bridgeport's first African-American resident to play professional baseball. In 1898, Jim built a minor league stadium, Newfield Park, on his family's farmland in the city's East End; the site is still in use as a city park. At age 54, Jim caught a complete game for the New York Giants. He played in his final professional game in New Haven at age 62. His brother and son also played major league baseball. James H. O'Rourke was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1945.
Inscribed on plinth, side 2: "Baseball is for all creeds and nationalities."
Inscribed on plinth, side 3: "We have been given the best of support by the people of Bridgeport. They want baseball and I intend to give it to them."
Inscribed on plinth, side 4: Dedicated on this 27th day of August, 2010 by Mayor Bill Finch. Sculptor: Susan Clinard, Clinard Sculpture Studio. Principal Donor: Steelpointe Harbor and the Christoph Family. Major Donors: O'Keefe Controls Company, Conan Family. Special Thanks to The First Hit, Inc. Bernard J. Crowley, Baseball Historian. Michael J. Bielawa, Baseball Historian Poet. Paul Conan Jr., great, great grandson of James. Statue foundation provided by G. Pic and Sons Construction.
An open bronze book near his feet also bears the previous quote attributed to O'Rourke, "Baseball is for all creeds and nationalities." The open book is supported by representations of a volume of Shakespearian poetry as well as Blackstone's Commentaries (an authoritative exploration of English Common Law).
Date(s): 2010 Artist: Susan Clinard
The Irish experience has had a profound impact on Connecticut's past, and its narrative spans all periods of the state's history and touches every one of its eight counties and 169 towns.