History of the Cape Cod Baseball League: The Sons of Summer
Unlike Brooklyn Dodgers fans, whose connection to their “Boys of Summer” is wistful, baseball fans on Cape Cod have a very vibrant, active relationship with their “summer sons,” the rotating cast of young men who compete in the prestigious Cape Cod Baseball League (CCBL) every year.
“My wife, Stacee, calls the players who stay with us our ‘summer sons,’” says Chris Rogers, a local fireman/EMT and Cotuit native who has housed players for the past several years. “The players become like your own kids for the summer. You get excited and stressed for them during games.
“Stacee often tears up when the players go home at the end of the season,” adds Rogers, a righty who pitched for Stetson University and struck out future Red Sox star Kevin Youkilis on three straight pitches while throwing for the Cotuit Kettleers during the 2000 season. “Even though it’s tough to see the kids leave, we thoroughly enjoy being a host family. It’s become a nice lifestyle for us.”
For generations, baseball has been woven into the fabric of Cape Cod summer life, and the CCBL has been a major part of this tapestry since 1923, when the league was formally founded. Even though the CCBL’s reputation extends well beyond the peninsula, the history of the “Cape League”—as it’s more commonly known to fans and participants—is a little less well known.
A Chowder-Like Mix
The Cape League’s history, honestly, is a chowder-like mix of newspaper box scores, facts and lore, which only adds to its aura. Some answers are easier to come by than others. For example:
Q: Did legendary Detroit Tigers catcher Mickey Cochrane really play in the Cape League?
A: According to Cape Cod historian James. H. Ellis, the Cochrane –Cape League connection is virtually non-existent. A Bridgewater native, Cochrane may have played under an assumed name for a Middleboro club that played teams on the Cape. Ellis felt that this may be the missing Cochrane-Cape League link.
Q: Even though Pirates’ Hall of Fame third baseman Harold “Pie” Traynor did play for teams in Falmouth and Oak Bluffs, did he play in the Cape League?
A: Technically, this should be a “no” because Traynor played in 1919, before the league organized four years later. But let’s not split hairs. Traynor played amateur baseball on Cape Cod—in Falmouth for one of the league’s founding towns—and went on to become one of the greatest third basemen in big-league history.
Q: Did Chatham Harbor’s infamous fog actually ruin a no-hit bid for current Cardinals’ relief pitcher Andrew Miller?
A: Yes. In 2004, the six-foot, seven-inch lefty, who pitched for the University of North Carolina, was working on a no-hitter for the Chatham A’s, with all 12 outs coming via the K (strikeout). The fog rolled in over Veterans Field that night and never left. Because the game was called after four innings, short of the required five to be considered an official outing, the game officially never happened.
Although searching for Cape League truth can be as frustrating as fielding a fly in the fickle fog at Veterans Field, one fact about the league is inescapable. The CCBL experience isn’t just about the baseball.
“There’s something magical about summer baseball on the Cape,” says Boston Globe journalist Christopher Price, author of “Baseball by the Beach: A History of America’s National Pastime on Cape Cod”. “But what makes it so magical are the relationships that develop in and around the Cape League, between players, host families, volunteers and fans.
“The league has enabled people to come together under the auspices of baseball, and build deep and abiding relationships,” adds Price, whose grandparents met at a Barnstable game in the 1930s. “The game connects generations over time. That’s a legacy that any sport would be proud of.”
1923-39: ‘Recognized and Organized League’ Born on Cape Cod
The Cape League officially dates its origins back to 1885, primarily due to a poster from the National Baseball Hall of Fame that promotes a “base ball match” between host Sandwich and Barnstable on July 4, 1885. However, there is strong historical evidence that an early version of base ball—the Massachusetts Game—actually pre-dates the Civil War, and that the first nine-man team, the Nichols Club of Sandwich, was organized in the 1865-66 timeframe.
Then there are those who date the origins of the Cape League to 1923, when Falmouth, Chatham and the Barnstable villages of Hyannis and Osterville formed the first organized Cape Cod Baseball League. “Cape Cod is fortunate in having a national pastime played in a recognized and organized league,” noted a 1936 Hyannis Patriot article. “It’s a great game.”
Regardless of which side of the argument one takes, baseball has a very rich, deep and colorful history on the Cape.
In addition to high-quality baseball, one of the hallmarks of the Cape League’s early years was instability, with teams dropping in and out of the league on a regular basis. Osterville dominated the 1920s, winning four of the first six league titles before disbanding. “The village was a baseball hotbed throughout the ’20s and ’30s,” Price wrote in “Baseball by the Beach”.
Falmouth, which owns the second-most championships in league history (14), won this era’s marathon, though, winning two titles in the ’20s and adding five more in the ’30s.
1946-1963: The Post-War Baseball Boom
By the late ’30s, the financial damage wrought by the Great Depression eventually caught up with—and impacted—municipal finances on the Cape. This factor, combined with the distant drumbeat of war in Europe, diminished the public’s appetite for financing baseball and the Cape League shut down from 1940 through 1945.
When the league was born anew in 1946, fans did flock back to the Cape for a summer of sun, fun and baseball, as did a growing number of college players. The league was divided into Upper Cape and Lower Cape divisions, with the top teams in each division meeting in the postseason to decide the league’s championship.
One of the most transformative moves made during this era was by the Sagamore Clouters, who decided to surreptitiously recruit the best college baseball players in the nation. Because of this decision, the Clouters were amongst the league’s elite during the 1950s. Eclipsed only by Orleans, which captured five championships, Sagamore earned four titles during the rock-and-roll decade.
Price, in “Baseball by the Beach”, reports legendary Cotuit General Manager Arnold Mycock as saying, “The other teams began to see that if they wanted to compete, they would have to sign college players.”
NCAA Sanctioning + Wooden Bats = Grand Slam for League
Prior to being sanctioned as an official collegiate summer baseball league by the National Collegiate Baseball Federation—the forerunner of the NCAA—the Cape League had traditionally relied on a mix of locals, college players, military veterans and semi-pro players to fill its rosters.
As the league’s teams began to recruit more collegiate stars to the shores of Cape Cod, league leadership understood that courting NCAA approval was the key to the summer circuit’s survival. When the Cape League was officially sanctioned by the NCAA on March 9, 1965, it was recognized as an elite college league and received grant money to help finance league operations.
In addition to the “blessing” of the NCAA, another key turning point during this era was the decision to embrace wooden bats in the mid-1980s. In a cost-cutting move in 1974, the league switched to the more affordable aluminum bats used in the college game.
This “heavy metal” experiment lasted only a decade. In 1985, the Cape League made the decision to revert to wooden bats, a decision championed by former Harwich Mariners Manager and then-Cape League Commissioner Fred Ebbett.
“This move greatly enhanced the value of the league to the professional baseball scouting community, and from this point the Cape League really took off and became a much more prominent league,” says Matt Hyde, Northeast Area Scouting Supervisor for the New York Yankees. “From the mid-1980s through now, the league’s history is unrivaled in terms of the number of top prospects and future professionals who have played in it. . . . [The Cape League] is by far the top collegiate summer league in the country.”
The numbers don’t lie. According to the latest, pre-pandemic statistics, the Cape League has produced more than 1,400 Major League Baseball players during its existence, and in recent years approximately one in six big leaguers boast Cape League experience. On average, more than 300 current major leaguers are Cape League alumni.
Including Pie Traynor, Cape League alumni in the National Baseball Hall of Fame include catcher Carlton Fisk (Orleans), first baseman Frank Thomas (Orleans), second baseman Craig Biggio (Yarmouth-Dennis) and first baseman Jeff Bagwell (Chatham).
In addition, Judy Walden Scarafile, the former Cape League president, is prominently featured in the hall’s “Diamond Dreams: Women in Baseball” exhibit, which traces women’s roles in baseball from the 1800s to the present.
Scarafile oversaw an unprecedented period of growth and financial stability during her tenure, which lasted from 1991 through 2015. “The Cape League is not just a great breeding ground for players, but also executives and coaches,” says Bruce Murphy, who has served as Cotuit’s general manager since 1999.
“If you play college baseball and you want to have a shot at the major leagues, then the Cape is the place to play summer ball,” says current Cape League President Chuck Sturtevant. “The college coaches we work with tell their players that the Cape League is their stage, and it’s up to them what they make of the opportunity.”
Joe O’Shea is a contributing writer for Cape Cod Life Publications.