In A League All Its Own
For decades, one of the Cape’s most memorable summer attractions has been its own amateur baseball league. An organization made up of ten teams and boasting some of the best college players in the country, the Cape Cod Baseball League (CCBL) has long been, as Boston Red Sox talent scout Bill Enos has said, the best-organized non-professional league around.
In its present form, the CCBL claims over a century’s worth of tradition: nearly one thousand former players who have made it into the Major Leagues (150 presently playing), high attendance, and even a short list of alumni in Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, New York.
As much as any natural or manmade attraction that Cape Cod has to offer, the CCBL draws and delights thousands of natives and vacationers alike who visit any one of ten natural grass diamonds each summer. But a well-liked as baseball on the Cape may now be, it has not always been this popular or even this secure. With a loose history dating back to the American Civil War, the CCBL has gone through some lows a well as highs, a merger, a takeover, and even its share of controversy.
Whether or not Abner Doubleday is accepted as the father of modern baseball is less controversial when one considers that the Civil War was the true progenitor of America’s favorite game. When not engaged in actual combat, readiness drills, or marches, Civil War soldier often found themselves with little to do other than to pass time playing baseball.
After the war, it was some of those same soldiers who took home this entertaining pastime to places all over the unified nation, including Cape Cod. The earliest-known, yet unverified, date of an organized game played on the Cape is in the summer of 1865. The first recorded date of a game, however, is August 13, 1867, when the Barnstable Patriot reported that a team of nine from Sandwich, calling themselves the “Nichols Club” played host to a visiting Cummaquid squad.
The Nichols Club of Sandwich was named after a retired sea captain-Edward Nichols. The generous Captain Nichols loaned, at no charge, a parcel of land on which the fledgling team of Sandwich ball players practiced. To show their appreciation, the players named their team after him.
Soon after this Sandwich game, the Patriot reported another game played at the October 1867 Agricultural Fair between the same Cummaquid club of West Barnstable and the Mattakeesetts of Yarmouth. According to the report, Cummaquid won the contest 30 to 13 and brought home the prize of a silver-mounted carved black walnut bat.
Although consistent records are not available after the 1867 game, each year the Cape’s greatly anticipated baseball championship seems to have been decided at the County Agricultural Fair.
Not wanting to be left out, the other Cape Cod towns began organizing their own teams, and the era of “Town Teams” began. Records indicate that baseball was being played on the Cape from the 1870s onwards. In fact, the game became so popular with some, that players from Sandwich were said to have competed in mid-winter on the ice of Old Mill Pond with every player on skates.
As town teams became more popular, semi-professional players from around the country began to enter the local line-up. This development improved overall team play, but the growing semi-professional status of team became a mixed blessing. Greater competition between teams for better quality players created more financial demands. Teams like the Hyannis Club found themselves charging admission for the first time. This same team became the first to sell nonrefundable season’s tickets. The price was $2 per person-woman free.
Despite the cost, baseball on the Cape flourished. With the game reaching an unmatched zenith of popularity by 1923, Several Cape town histories indicate that local organizer from several participating towns decided to form what they officially called the “Cape Cod Baseball League.”
Initially just four teams made up the newly formed league: Hyannis , Chatham, Falmouth, and Osterville. The League’s officers were William Lovell of Hyannis, J. Hubert Shepard of Chatham, Harry B. Albro of Falmouth, and Arthur R. Ayer of Osterville.
Despite the measure of stability created b this regional initiative, the CCBL was not without competition. Aside from its four-team league, two rival leagues, calling themselves the Barnstable County Twilight League and the Lower Cape League, assured Cape spectators that CCBL contests were not the only games in town.
Notwithstanding the Great Depression of the late 1920s and ’30s, CCBL game and those of the other leagues drew, large crowds, garnering enough community support not only to survive but even to prosper, to a degree.
Popular and stable, the CCBL became increasingly more attractive to quality colleges and semi-professional players from around the country. It also drew, professional scouts from the Major Leagues. Just prior to World War II, most players and souts came to recognize CCBL as a veritable training ground for Major League Baseball. But financial problems coming late in the Depression began to take their toll, and with World War II looming on the horizon, the CCBL was forced to disband in 1940.
Since most young men had either been drafted or had volunteered for service in the War, local newspaper reports of minor league baseball during this period became nonexistent. Any mention of baseball referred only to high school level contests.
This drought continued thorough to the War’s end when in 1946 the Cape Cod Athletic Association took steps to revive the once-popular CCBL. Teams from the former Cape Cod Baseball League were combined with other teams from the Barnstable County Twilight League and the Lower Cape League to form what was then called the Cape Cod League (CCL).
The CCL ushered in anther stage of the “Town Team” era with only local player making up the individual team rosters. This new town-team era lasted through the late 1940s, ‘5Os, and into the ’60s, when its less-than-exemplary play translated into lack of support. Nearly sunk once again, the League was miraculously saved by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). The NCAA renamed it the Cape Cod Baseball League (CCBL), infused it with financial and technical support, and once again opened up team rosters to quality college players.
Since the NCAA’s takeover, the League has prospered, helping again to make it one of the nation’s premier minor league baseball organizations.
Although quality imported players helped to established, popularize, and even save the League, the CCBL has not been without its own brand of home-grown superstar. Cape Codder and eventual big-leaguer “Deacon” Danny MacFayden is generally regarded as the CCBL’s most famous native-born alumnus. Born in 1905 in North Truro, MacFayden played for both the Osterville and Falmouth clubs before reaching the Boston Red Sox in 1926. He had a six-year career with the Sox, posting a 16-12 record in 1931, until he was traded-as all good Sox players of the Harry Frazee era were-to the Yankees the following year, where he rubbed elbows with dynasty-maker and former Red Sox star Babe Ruth.
MacFayden was not the only Massachusetts-born major leaguer to benefit from playing minor league ball in the CCBL. Two other players from the 1920s and ’30s who recognized the League’s vitality were Blondy Ryan of Lynn and Lenny Merullo of East Boston. Ryan, who later played for the Chicago White Sox, was a shortstop for Orleans of the Lower Cape League in 1928 and for Osterville of the CCBL in 1929. Merullo, another Shortstop, played for Barnstable in 1935 and eventually made it to the Chicago Club in 1941.
Around this time the League had its first night game, displaying a progressive approach to the game, an attribute which continues to make it one of the most well-known of all the minor leagues today. The game was played at Falmouth Heights on July 19, 1939, between Falmouth and Barnstable under portable lights, which were said to have provided sub-par illumination for the disgruntled players as well as the estimated 1200 who watched. Reports say that shadows, and excessive darkness caused balls to be dropped and even lost.
An oft-told tale regarding this pioneering contest say that a line drive, knocked down by a Barnstable infielder, was lost in the shadows, causing the Barnstable scorekeeper to ask his ornery manager, Pete Herman, how the hit should be recorded. Unsure of himself, Herman retorted, “Make note of the fact that he got through the play alive.”
With a rich anecdotal tradition and an array of interesting characters, it’s not surprising that the CCBL also has had its share of controversy. Two noteworthy squabbles involve the League’s promoted year of origination and its claims of Hall of Fame alumni.
For years, the League has promoted 1885 as its starting date and points to a publicity poster now hanging in Cooperstown advertising a July 4th game between Barnstable and Sandwich as proof of the League’s true age.
In 1985 the League even held a “Centennial Old-Timers Reunion Game” at Eldredge Park in Orleans to kick off its season-long 100th anniversary festivities. But while the League now considers 1994 to be its 109th season, convincing evidence points to 1923 as its true year of inception.
West Barn table historian James Ellis, who has researched the Cape Cod Baseball League’s history perhaps more than anyone, has disagreed publicly, with the League’s assertion. His research indicates, as do some Cape town histories, that the 1885 game was al least the twelfth such annual contest and, like most other local historians, Ellis cannot understand why CCBL literature continue to promote such an obvious error.
A second inconsistency uncovered by Ellis concerns the League’s claims of two Cooperstown inductees. While the CCBL can boast of such past phenoms and perhaps future Hall of Famers as Carlton Fisk, Jeff Reardon, and Will Clark, Ellis found it odd that the League erroneously and officially still call two non-CCBL Hall of Famers as once their own.
The League asserts that “Pie” Traynor, perhaps the greatest third baseman of all time, and Mickey Cochrane, thought by some to be one of the finest catchers ever to play, once played in the Cape Cod Baseball League. An exhaustive search by Ellis, however, refutes the CCBL’s claims to both players.
A product of Framingham, Massachusetts, Traynor played professional baseball with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the twenties and thirties. For most of his career, he was a third baseman of exceptional skill, but when he came to Pittsburgh in the early 1920s, he began as a shortstop, a position he excelled at while playing for the Falmouth team of 1919.
Traynor was an exceptional athlete, displaying such sought-after skills as speed, strength, and stamina, and he made it to Cooperstown in flying colors. But his connection to Cape Cod Baseball League is tenuous at best, and the reason is simple: because the League was not officially organized until 1923, Traynor cannot accurately be called one of its former members.
The Mickey Cochrane story is a much stranger one. Cochrane was also a Massachusetts resident, hailing from nearby Bridgewater. He was another all-round, exceptional athlete, starring in five sports while at Boston University. A thorough search by Ellis found that Cochrane used the alias “Frank King” while playing semi-professional ball during summer vacations from Boston University to circumvent the illegality of being a paid collegiate amateur.
Ellis found that Cochrane, a much-pursued catcher, played for a Dover team of the Eastern Short League in 1923. He found no Cochrane or “Frank King” who ever played for any CCBL team during the years Cochrane was an active player. The closest Ellis has come to placing the Hall of Fame catcher even geographically near to the CCBL is evidence that refers to a player named King who played infield for a Middleboro club in 1920.
Could this be the basis of legend? Ellis asks.
His questions are legitimate. Given the years of success the League has enjoyed, is it necessary for it to cling to such inconsistencies?
The controversies may continue. So will the Cape Cod Baseball League. And whether one believes the League is 70 or 109 years old or whether or not it can claim Pie Traynor and Mickey Cochrane as alumni seems superfluous for an organization so rich and storied, and so clearly in a league all it own.
The writer would like to give special thanks to the Nickerson Room at the Cape Cod Community College, historian James Ellis, and CCBL president Judy Scarafile.
Adam Lambert is a freelance writer living and writing in West Hyannisport.
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