WSHU: THE MARVELOUS STORY OF AN ABANDONED HOUSE
Over a century ago, James O’Rourke made the first base hit in the National League. He played major league ball until the age of 54 — all the while a practicing lawyer with his LL.B. from Yale University. Later, as president of the Connecticut League, he hired the first minor league African-American player in baseball history.
O’Rourke is a proud son of Bridgeport, Connecticut, a once-booming city which now is among the poorest in the nation. An unfinished urban planning project had the entire neighborhood surrounding O’Rourke’s house destroyed in the 1990s — but preservationists managed to keep it up. It sat prominently, alone, among acres of weeds, and was viewable both from Bridgeport’s Harbor Yard ballpark, completed in 1998, and from I-95, the super-highway which split the city into two parts in the mid-20th century.
This 2008 radio piece for WSHU won first prize in the enterprise category from the Connecticut Associated Press Broadcaster’s Association. I created a version with still pictures so people could have a visual experience of the house and the people who fought — unsuccessfully — for its existence. It was demolished in 2009.
The script is pasted below.
Next to I-95 in Bridgeport sits a single, abandoned house surrounded by vacant lots. It’s fenced off, and it’s left legions of drivers – and Bridgeporters – wondering what it’s doing there. WSHU’s Erik Campano got a rare look inside that house – and learned how from, one day to the next, it risks disappearing into history.
Announcer: And now the starting lineup here the 2007 Bridgeport Bl-uuuuuuuuuuuuef-iiiiiiiiiiiish!
Erik: From the upper deck of the stadium of Bridgeport’s minor league ballclub, fans have a great view of… the house…. a lone, white, boarded-up 3 storey Victorian, sitting among acres of weeds. [beat] Bridgeporers tell urban myths to explain why it’s there.
Vox pop #1: Someone says it’s haunted.
Vox pop #2: It’s, it really is creepy.
Vox pop #3: It belongs to a baseball player from a long time ago. Back in the 50s or something like that. No? Way back. Way back back. 30s? 20s? Uh-oh.
But very few Bridgeporters – or anyone, for that matter –have been in the house since it was abandoned in 1999.
Bielawa: Hello? Anybody here?
Erik: Mike Bielawa and Bernie Crowley entered the house recently. They head up an organization called “The First Hit”, dedicated to preserving the house, and the memory of the man who built it – an old baseball player named James O’Rourke.
Crowley: All the baseball history that came through these rooms
Erik: Crowley explains that O’Rourke got the very first hit in the National League, in 1876. And then helped build Bridgeport into a thriving port city.
Crowley: Hall of Famer. Who grew up here. Who chose, after his career, to come back here to Bridgeport. To become involved in community projects, to become involved in politics.
[glass crumbling under feet]
Bielawa: Broken glass underneath our feet and there’s a kind of ridge where it would be easy to twist an ankle. Crumbled plaster covers the floors, the dust releases rancid smells, and occasionally, strange sounds drown out the rumble of the highway.
Still, Crowley insists, the house could be preserved.
Crowley: You know, it’s architecturally sound.
[house atmo out]
Erik: The problem: it stands on land that Bridgeport has slated for a residential-commercial development called Steel Point. Eight years ago, the city demolished half a dozen blocks, but preservationists saved the house. The developer still wants it gone. Or, it could be moved –Crowley and Bielawa say the Mayor, John Fabrizi, proposed the site of the North End little league field – and that they had donors lined up and were all set.
Crowley: And we were told by Fabrizi – went back for another meeting – we were told by Fabrizi that that wasn’t a viable option. [Erik: And did he say why?] No.
Fabrizi: That’s news to me.
Erik: The Mayor says he still supports the North End plan.
Fabrizi: As long as the little league was supporting that, yes I would support it on behalf of the city of Bridgeport.
Erik: So maybe there is hope for the house yet. But everyone – Crowley, Bielawa, the Mayor – say that every day it stands abandoned, the house risks being burned down, ruined by vandals, or the weather, or eventually bulldozed by the developers.
Back at the stadium this past Friday night, Crowley and Bielawa were giving an award to the team’s owners — in O’Rourke’s name.
Announcer: O’Rourke was born in East Bridgeport in 1850, and grew up playing baseball in fields and pastures not far from where we are tonight. Crowley and Bielava say that even if the house cannot be preserved, they’re doing what they can to keep O’Rourke’s memory alive. And fans in the upper deck can still see that little piece of Bridgeport history standing among the weeds. And from that distance, it doesn’t quite look like it’s crumbling.
Erik Campano, WSHU news.
You can see pictures of the O’Rourke House – including the inside – at WSHU.ORG.