PLAY BALL! From the Cape Cod Baseball League to the Hall of Fame
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.
You might also like:
Revisiting an iconic Cape Cod Baseball League Game, professional MLB players & well-known coaches reminisce about the way the Cape itself can influence the flow of a game.Read More
At a new exhibit at the Cahoon Museum of American Art, history is recorded through scrimshaw by the whalers who knew their quest better than anyone else.Read More