PLAY BALL! From the Cape Cod Baseball League to the Hall of Fame
‘SELDOM ANY SPLENDID STORY IS wholly true, thought Samuel Johnson. The official version of the Cape Cod Baseball League’s history points up what the English literary figure had in mind, but facts of the league’s past may well be more interesting than folklore.
The Cape League has boasted of “a long and proud history dating back to 1885. Publicity reads, “Hall of Famers such as Pie Traynor, Mickey Cochrane, and Red Rolfe played here before embarking on illustrious professional careers. Appearing year after year in brochures and team booklets, the version is at least careless, if not misleading. A league publicist, undoubtedly a Yankee partisan, once incorrectly described Rolfe as a Hall of Famer. He was good, earning a .289 lifetime batting average. Still, he is not a Hall of Fame member Rolfe, out of Penacook, New Hampshire, was Orleans’ 1930 shortstop.
This official version is misleading because it suggests the league was formed in 1885. Contemporary evidence shows the Cape Cod Baseball League was organized in 1923. The story behind this discrepancy is intriguing, but, first, what about Traynor and Cochrane?
Traynor a Framingham native, did play for the 1919 Falmouth team-several years before the Cape League was established. As he did for the Pittsburgh Pirates a year later Traynor played shortstop at Falmouth. One of the team’s best hitters, he displayed his all-around skill in the Labor Day field events and won the “circling the bases’ event in a time of 15 seconds, the 100-yard dash, and the ‘throwing the ball for distance’ competition.
The Cochrane connection is more difficult to verify Mickey Cochrane, generally regarded as the greatest catcher of all-time, as Traynor is considered the greatest third baseman, was a native of Bridgewater. He starred in five sports at Boston University and played semi-professional ball in the summer under the name of Frank King. In fact, when he went to Dover of the Eastern Shore League in 1923, he still signed as Frank King.
An exhaustive search fails to uncover a King (or a Cochrane} playing for any Cape team. However a King (first name unknown) played shortstop for Middleboro in 1920. Cochrane, in fact, was an infielder at the time. Could this be the basis of the legend?
All of this is not too important. The Cape Cod Baseball League has so distinguished itself in the past two decades, distortion of historical facts is unnecessary In 1980, 33 major league players earlier performed in the Cape League, New England favorite and All-Star catcher Carlton Fisk, among them. Fisk played for Orleans in 1966. His constant rival, the late Thurman Munson of the Yankees, was with Chatham in 1967
Remarkably the last two American League Cy Young award winners are Cape graduates. Steve Stone, last year’s best American League pitcher toiled for Chatham in 1968. His Baltimore Oriole teammate, Mike Flanagan, the 1979 Cy Young winner in the American League, was with Falmouth in 1972.
To fully understand and appreciate the Cape Cod Baseball League, one must go back to the beginnings, back before 1923. That the league somehow originated in 1885 has been accepted as fact, although nobody ever declared that to be true. An 1885 poster in the National Baseball Hall of Fame advertising a July Fourth game between Barnstable and Sandwich, but from contemporary accounts, the 1885 game was at least the twelfth annual contest; available records show Cape teams were playing as early as 1867.
The earliest report describes a game in Sandwich on August 13, 1867 between the Nichols Club and visiting Cummaquid. On Election Day November 7 1867 according to the Barnstable Patriot, the Cummaquids of Barnstable beat the Mastetuketts of West Barnstable, and in the 1870s Sandwich clubs played baseball on the ice of the old Mill Pond, every player on skates.
The earliest established nine on the Cape appears to be the Nichols Base Ball Club of Sandwich, formed in June 1866. The team stemmed from the group that had gathered for the ‘first game’ the previous November.
None of the farmers in Sandwich would rent a field to the team. Captain Edward Nichols, a retired sea captain, stepped forward and said the team was welcome to use his lot without charge. In return, the club was named in his honor.
‘For some years it was a wide awake institution, reported one newspaper.
Appearance of baseball at this time was related to the Civil War. Returning veterans spread the comparatively new game, popularized in the Army camps of 1861-65, throughout the country. One veteran commenting in 1867 in the Patriot liked the game even though the pitcher sent em in hot. Hot balls in time of war are good. But I don’t like em too hot for fun. Another local commentator of the period thought, ‘It is the most radical play I know of, this baseball. Sawing cordwood is moonlight rambles beside base ball. Nonetheless, baseball fever was raging on the Cape.
Many towns and villages fielded clubs. The Cummaquid Club of Barnstable and the Mattakeesetts of Yarmouth formally organized in September 1867 They played one another at the annual Cattle Show and Fair that October. ‘The prize was a beautiful silver-mounted carved black walnut bat costing $15 reported the Patriot Cummaquid won 30 to 13.
By the 1880s baseball was well-entrenched on the Cape. In 1883 the Barnstable village team claimed the Southeastern Massachusetts championship after beating Middleboro, 24 to 8.
Semi-professional teams came on the scene before World War I, and financing soon became a dominant concern. In 1917 the Hyannis club sold season tickets. The price was $2 transferable, ladies admitted free. In 1918 Falmouth, unable to afford a team outright, combined with Oak Bluffs to field a team. When in Falmouth, it was “strictly a Falmouth team, noted the Enterprise, ‘and the players wear our uniform in Oak Bluffs they are the Vineyard team.
Teams from Boston, Bridgewater, Brockton, Canton, Fairhaven, Hull, Middleboro, New Bedford, Plymouth, Taunton, and Weymouth were regular opponents of Cape semi-pro clubs. All of this cost money some $170 per game by 1921 when the Agricultural Society limited its County Fair baseball tournament to Cape teams ‘to generate more local interest. ‘ The Cape baseball championship would be determined each year at the Fair. Falmouth won the first time. In 1922 Osterville was the champion. But an abbreviated series was not enough of a measure.
After 55 years, a Cape League was logical and desirable. In 1923 the Cape Cod Baseball League was established with William Lovell of Hyannis, President; J Hubert Shepard of Chatham, Harry B. Albro then of Falmouth, and Arthur R. Ayer of Osterville, other officers.
Four teams-Chatham, Falmouth, Hyannis, and Osterville comprised the league. Made up mainly of college and semi-professional players, a number of former minor leaguers, particularly from the New England League, found their way to the new circuit. Falmouth won the first league championship; the first year was considered a success.
Before the 1924 season, Barnstable town meeting, for the first time, appropriated money for its two teams. The Patriot, supporting the funding because baseball ‘helped our hotel keepers and merchants, said some of the visitors attracted by league play “have expressed a wish to buy land and build”.
During the 20s and 30s other players besides Rolfe used the Cape League as stepping stone to the majors. Some were regional favorites. Blondy Ryan, a Lynn native, and Lenny Merullo from East Boston come to mind. Ryan played shortstop for Orleans in 1928 and Osterville in 1929. A year later he was in the Chicago White Sox infield. Merullo, another shortstop, played for Barnstable in 1935. By 1941 he was with the Chicago Cubs.
Forgettable players also made the jump. One, Haskell Billings, began 1927 pitching for Falmouth. Mid-season, he was twirling for the Detroit Tigers.
A great favorite was Danny MacFayden, described as the only native Cape Codder to make the big leagues. Born in North Truro, and known locally as ‘Old Reliable, he helped pitch Osterville to the 1924 Cape League championship. The next year he played for Falmouth. And in 1926 he was on the Boston Red Sox staff. MacFayden closed his career with the 1943 Boston Braves.
Towns were in the league one year out the next. In addition to the original four entries from Barnstable, Bourne, ChathamHarwich, Harwich, Orleans, Provincetown, and Wareham participated, but did not limit themselves to league play city clubs commonly were engaged. Falmouth, in 1929, even took on the Boston Braves, losing an 8 to 7 exhibition. The Enterprise earlier had commented, ‘The caliber of ball in the league is being recognized by all the Boston experts as about as good as can be found outside the big show.
Cape baseball peaked in the late thirties. It’s unlikely the game ever will regain the widespread popularity of the period. A Barnstable County Twilight League and a Lower Cape League were formed of local players. Hyannis even had a special ‘road team as well as an Industrial League. A number of independent teams existed. The sport was so popular that a small town like Brewster had two teams at once.
Financial troubles plagued the Cape League; Barnstable could not afford a team in 1938. Orleans stepped in. In 1939 Orleans was out and Barnstable returned. Midseason, Hyannis restaurateurs saved the league from collapse. Admission ($.25) was charged. Barnstable town meeting repeatedly refused to fund the town’s entry.
On July 19, 1939 a novel approach was tried. The first Cape League night game was played under portable lights in Falmouth Heights. Barnstable played Falmouth before 1,200 fans (643 paid admissions) The lights were poor. Balls were lost in both darkness and glare. The Barnstable scorekeeper asked Manager Pete Herman how to record a drive knocked down by an infielder but lost in the shadows. Herman replied, Make note of the fact that he got through the play alive.
But the league did not survive. Barnstable in 1940 again refused to appropriate funds for baseball. The league disbanded, its energies diverted to war mobilization.
Early in 1946 the Cape Cod Athletic Association ‘revived’ the Cape Cod Baseball League; in reality however the revived league descended from the County Twilight League and the Lower Cape League. The new league prohibited paid players and required all players to be “bonafide residents of Cape Cod”. Teams from Bourne to Eastham participated. The Massachusetts Maritime Academy, Otis Air Force Base, and the Cape Verdean Club also entered teams.
By the early 1960s interest waned and rules were amended; the league became a summer collegiate circuit. Sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association and assisted financially by the major leagues, the Cape Cod Baseball League now is recognized as one of the top amateur leagues in the country Chatham, Cotuit, Falmouth, Harwich, Hyannis, Orleans, Wareham, and Yarmouth-Dennis currently are members. Bill Enos, Boston Red Sox scout claims, ‘It’s the best organized nonprofessional league I’ve seen.
With such a colorful heritage and solid reputation, gilding the lily is unnecessary.
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