Greenwich Time | Robert Marchant | March 23, 2023
GREENWICH — The town of Greenwich has always been known for high achievers, and its contribution to the world of sports is no exception.
The Greenwich Historical Society is highlighting renowned athletes who made their mark in a wide range of sporting activities. The exhibit, “Sports! More Than Just a Game,” takes a look at some of the best-known Greenwich athletes through photos, memorabilia and visual displays, telling a larger tale about broader themes in American culture.
“We wanted to tell a social history — building a town, community, fandom, issues of gender and race, and great moments in history, how it all played out in the arena, ” said Maggie Dimock, the curator of exhibitions and collections at the historical society.
The exhibit, which will be accompanied by a number of lectures, demonstrations and a trivia competition, opened in early March and will run through Sept. 3.
Here is a list of some of the most noteworthy athletes from Greenwich — along with one that comes with an asterisk, Jackie Robinson, a champion who never lived in Greenwich, but aspired to.
George H.W. Bush
Though perhaps best-known for his political career, which included a term as President of the United States, Bush, who died in 2018, was also an accomplished athlete.
While a student at Yale University, Bush captained and played first base for the Bulldogs, losing twice to California in the championship game of the College World Series, in 1947 and 1948.
The historical society’s curators tried hard to get one of Bush’s most cherished possessions for the exhibit, the glove he played with at Yale. Unfortunately, after extensive communications with the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum at Texas A&M University, an arrangement could not be reached.
Bush kept his old glove in the Resolute desk in the Oval Office and brought it out to play catch when young family members, or baseball players, came to visit.
“He was better as a fielder than as a hitter,” Dimock noted, and somewhat unusually, he batted right and threw left. In his final year playing college ball, Bush hit earned a batting average of .264, a respectable stat. His father, Prescott Bush, also played baseball at Yale.
Hamill, a figure skater who won gold at the Olympics in 1976, was a true hometown hero. “She would practice at Binney Pond when it was frozen over,” notes Dimock.
Hamill was also a celebrity in part because of her intense determination, bright smile and distinctive look.
“She was such a cultural figure. That Dorothy Hamill haircut was something that every little girl in the 70s and 80s was sporting,” Dimock said with a laugh. “She was so iconic, she has that legacy. Artistry and athleticism, and such a fun story, about this local gal who made it big.”
Hamill revealed later in life that she struggled with depression as a young person, giving a personal account in a memoir of her skating career of how looks can be deceiving.
Helen Meany brought an Olympic gold medal home to Greenwich in 1928, after winning the diving competition at the Summer Olympics in Amsterdam, and a large crowd of local residents came to greet her at the Greenwich station.
Meany practiced swimming and diving in Long Island Sound near the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, assisted by a platform built by her father.
The Olympic champion was a diving coach at the Greenwich YWCA, and she continued to swim almost daily at Greenwich Point and the YWCA until her death in 1991 at 86. She died in her home in Old Greenwich. She was married to Haywood Gravis and used his surname in later life.
Meany was a memorable sportswoman in other ways, as well, Dimock said. “She had this persona about her,” the curator said, “She exuded style and glamor.” Meany also dated the champion swimmer and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller.
“Greenwich was his home here, and a lot of people remember him,” said Dimock, about the New York Mets star pitcher.
Seaver hosted charity events, played squash at Greenwich Country Club and coached youth sports. He was the kind of sporting legend who you might see standing in line at the hardware store, Dimock said.
Seaver, who took the Mets to the World Series in 1969, died at the age of 75 in 2020.
A man of many talents off the pitcher’s mound, Seaver was an art collector and admirer, a broadcaster as well as a respected winemaker.
The first player to make it to the National Basketball Association from the University of Connecticut, Worthy Patterson was a homegrown talent, attending Greenwich High School.
Patterson played in the professional league when Black players were still a rarity, and there was an unspoken rule that one player per team was the limit. He played with the St. Louis Hawks in the late 1950s.
The ball player from Greenwich also served as an officer in the U.S. Army and, after retiring from basketball, had a successful career as a music producer.
Patterson’s mother was a seamstress, “and he was one of those people who was always fastidiously put together,” Dimock said.
Patterson’s family lent his University of Connecticut letterman’s sweater to the exhibit. He died in 2022 at 91.
Steve Young got his start playing football with the North Mianus Cowboys, and he later quarterbacked the Greenwich High School Cardinals. He went on to lead San Francisco 49ers to many winning seasons and a Super Bowl championship.
Young returned to his old high school in 2016 to talk with students and give advice. “I hope you always lean into the challenges you face,” Young told the students,. “Don’t go around them. Go through them….No matter what you have holding you back or whatever little demons you have, never let them win.”
The Young family was eager to lend material for the exhibit, Dimock said, and were accessible and “down to earth.”
The famed Brooklyn Dodger infielder broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball as the first Black player to play in the 20th century when he suited up at Ebbets Field on April 15, 1947.
He and his wife, Rachel, wanted to raise a family in the country, and they were seeking a bucolic New England atmosphere. But the couple was turned away from numerous residences in Greenwich and neighboring Westchester County, N.Y., when homeowners and brokers discovered they were Black. Their unsuccessful quest for a nice home in the suburbs eventually made the papers.
A community initiative in Stamford led them to acquire a picturesque property in North Stamford, where the couple built a home and lived for many years. He died in 1972 at the age of 53. Robinson was also an excellent golfer and could often be found on the links in Stamford.
Robinson has become a symbol of courage since his death in Stamford. “Being that central figure, desegregating that most American of sports,” said Dimock, “It was huge.”