Cape Cod League A Talent Showcase

This article was written by James H. Ellis

This article was published in 1986 Baseball Research Journal

The Cape Cod Baseball League, one of the top summer collegiate circuits, celebrated its first 100 years in 1985. This brought to mind David Q. Voigt’s suspicion of centennials. Writing on the origins of the Boston Red Stockings in the December 1970 issue of The New England Quarterly, Voigt noted that many baseball centennials had “questionable historical” foundations. “They function,” he declared, “as rites of intensification for restoring baseball’s longevity and visibility.” But “to the historian of sports with a trained suspicion of myth,” Voigt felt, “such celebrations are a challenge to set the record straight.” Interestingly, setting the Cape League record straight produces, a result that may well be more notable than the folklore.

For years the Cape League and its teams have pointed to “a long and proud history dating back to 1885.” Continuing, the publicity exclaims, “Hall of Famers such as Pie Traynor, Mickey Cochrane and Red Rolfe played here before embarking on illustrious professional careers.”

This statement appears year after year in league publicity. But 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, and the error is perpetuated. Agreed, he was good, compiling a .289 lifetime batting average. Still, he is not a Hall of Fame member. Rolfe, out of Penacook, N. H., played in the league in 1930 as the Orleans team’s shortstop.

The official centennial version can be viewed as misleading because it suggests the league was formed in 1885. Contemporary evidence shows that the Cape Cod Baseball League was organized in 1923. The story behind this discrepancy is intriguing and worth reviewing. But, first, what about Traynor and Cochrane?

Traynor, a native of Framingham, Mass., did play on the Cape in 1919 for the Falmouth team. Yet this was several years before the Cape League was established. Just as he did for the Pittsburgh Pirates a year later, Traynor played shortstop while at Falmouth. One of the team’s best hitters, he displayed his all-around skill in the Labor Day field events that preceded the game at the Heights with the visiting Fall River, Mass., Mohicans. Traynor won the “circling the bases” event in a time of 15 seconds. He also won the 100-yard dash and the “throwing the ball for distance” competition.

The Cochrane connection is more difficult to verify. Cochrane, widely considered among the great catchers of all time, was a native of Bridgewater, Mass. 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, no longer concerned with his amateur status, he still signed as Frank King. If he failed, he thought, he could resume using his real name and get a fresh start elsewhere.

An exhaustive search of game accounts of the period failed to uncover a King (or a Cochrane) playing for any Cape team. However, a King (first name unreported) played shortstop for Middleboro, Mass., in 1920 against Cape teams like Falmouth. Cochrane, in fact, was an infielder at the time. Could this be the basis of the legend?

All of this is interesting, but not too important. The Cape Cod Baseball League has made such a distinguished record in the past two decades that distortion of history is unnecessary.

To illustrate, in 1985, there were 55 major league players who earlier performed in the Cape League. The list runs from Bill Almon of the Pittsburgh Pirates to Chris Welsh of the Texas Rangers. Among the veteran stars is White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk. He played for Orleans in 1966. Baseball’s top lefthanded pitcher in 1985, John

Tudor of the St. Louis Cardinals, was with Falmouth in 1974. Jeff Reardon, the outstanding Montreal Expos reliever, played for Cotuit from 1974 to 1976. Another1985 star, Ron Darling of the New York Mets, was with Cotuit in 1980. And the list will grow. In 1985, more than 60 additional former Cape players signed their first professional contracts.

The general record of recent years ought to be enough to establish the Cape League’s reputation. But to fully understand and appreciate the Cape Cod Baseball League, one must go back to the beginnings, back before 1923.

The suggestion that the league somehow originated in 1885 is more or less accepted as fact. Although nobody ever declared that the league was established in 1885, this is the impression to be gained. What seems to have happened is that an 1885 poster in the National Baseball Museum in Cooperstown came to light. The poster advertised a July Fourth game between Barnstable and Sandwich. From this early but incomplete evidence, it somehow seemed reasonable to trace the league’s traditions to that point.

The hunch was fallacious. The 1885 game, by   contemporary news accounts, was at least the twelfth annual Fourth of July contest for the Bamstable squad.

Furthermore, available records show that Cape town and village baseball teams were playing one another with great intensity as early as 1867. The earliest game report uncovered in the process of researching this account describes a game in Sandwich on August 13, 1867, between the Nichols Club and the visiting Cummaquid team. There is a reasonable suspicion that the first inter town games actually were played in 1866, but this is not confirmed.

A reminiscence in a 1926 edition of the Sandwich Independent asserts that the first baseball game in Sandwich “or even on the Cape” was played opposite the Casino on School Street in November 1865. Absolute statements like this seldom merit outright acceptance, but it is likely that baseball first appeared on the Cape about 1865.

Today it seems odd to play baseball in November. In the early days it was not. On Election Day, November 7, 1867, for example, according to the Barnstable Patriot, the Cummaquids of Bamstable beat the Masketuketts of West Bamstable. As a matter of fact, in the 1870s, Sandwich clubs played baseball on the ice of 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. The club was named after Captain Edward Nichols, a retired sea captain. None of the farmers in Sandwich would rent a field to the team. Captain Nichols 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. The game was popularized in the Army camps of 1861-65. Returning veterans spread the comparatively new game throughout the country. For a period, baseball was something of a spectacle. One veteran commenting in 1867 in the Barnstable Patriot said he liked the game even though the pitcher “sent `em in hot,” adding, “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 base ball. Sawing cord wood 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 formally organized in September 1867. The Mattakeesetts of Yarmouth organized in about the same month. Right away their fans thought they compared “favorably with many of the older clubs in the State.” The pair played one another at the annual Cattle Show and Fair in October. “The prize played for on this occasion was a beautiful silver mounted carved black walnut bat costing $15,” reported the Patriot. Cummaquid won, 30-13.

By the 1880s baseball was well entrenched on the Cape, and local teams were holding their own in wider competition. In 1883, for instance, the Barnstable village team claimed the championship of Southeastern Massachusetts after beating Middleboro in the last game of the season, 24-8. There were signs that the game was being taken seriously. The 1885 Barnstable team retained three starters from the Harvard College nine.

Semi Professional teams came on the scene before World War I. As might be expected, financing soon became a dominant concern. In 1919 the Hyannis club addressed the problem by selling season tickets. The price according to news accounts was “$2 transferable, and ladies will be admitted to the grandstand free.” In 1918 Falmouth was unable to afford a team outright. The Board of Trade baseball committee decided to combine with Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard Island and field a team together. When the players were in Falmouth, it was “strictly a Falmouth team,” noted the Enterprise, and the players “wear our uniform. The days they are in Oak Bluffs they are the Vineyard team. . .”

During the period the Cape semi pro teams played clubs representing the larger communities of eastern Massachusetts. Teams from Boston, Bridgewater, Brockton, Canton, Fairhaven, Hull, Middleboro, New Bedford, Plymouth, Taunton and Weymouth were regular opponents. All of this cost money, some $170 per game by 1921.

Then, in 1921, the Agricultural Society decided to limit its County Fair baseball tournament to Cape teams to obtain “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 a brief series was not enough of a measure.

After 55 years conditions had evolved to the point that a Cape league was logical and desirable. Baseball had a large and faithful following on the Cape. A formal league, featuring natural town rivalries, would draw on this interest. Increased fan support would generate more income, including town appropriations. At the same time some economy would follow. Travel costs could be reduced.

With the time right, in 1923 the Cape Cod Baseball League was established. William Lovell of Hyannis was voted president. Other officers were J. Hubert Shepard of Chatham, Harry B. Albro of Falmouth and Arthur R. Ayer of Osterville.

Four teams – Chatham, Falmouth, Hyannis and Osterville – constituted the league. The teams were “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 in the other towns as well. Before the 1924 season, Barnstable town meeting for the first time appropriated money for its two teams (Hyannis and Osterville). The Patriot supported the funding because baseball “helped our hotel keepers and merchants.” As a sign of things to come, the paper said some of the visitors attracted by league play “have expressed a wish to buy land and build. . . .”

During the 1920s and 1930s, as today, a number of players besides Rolfe used the Cape League as a stepping-stone to the majors. Some were regional favorites. Blondy Ryan, a Lynn native, comes to mind. Ryan played shortstop for Orleans in 1928 and Osterville in 1929. A year later he was in the Chicago White Sox infield.

There also were forgettable players who made the jump. One was Haskell Billings. He began 1927 pitching for Falmouth. Part way through the season he was pitching for the Detroit Tigers.

A great favorite was Danny MacFayden. The only Cape Cod native ever to make the big leagues, MacFayden was born in North Truro although he grew up in Somerville, Mass. Known locally as “Old Reliable,” he helped pitch Osterville to the 1924 Cape League championship. The next year he was on the Falmouth team. And in 1926 he was on the Boston Red Sox staff. MacFayden closed his career with the 1943 Boston Braves.

The league varied during its first two decades. Towns were in one year and out the next. In addition to the original four, entries from Barnstable village, Bourne, Chatham-Harwich, Harwich, Orleans, Provincetown and Wareham participated. Teams did not limit themselves to league play, however. City clubs commonly were engaged. In 1929 Falmouth even took on the Boston Braves, losing an 8-7 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 1930s. There is little likelihood the game ever will regain the wide-spread popularity of the period. In addition to the Cape League, there was a Barnstable County Twilight League and a Lower Cape League. Both were comparable town team leagues made up 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.

While baseball in general had a substantial following, the Cape League annually had financial troubles. Barnstable could not afford a team in 1938. Orleans stepped in. In 1939 Orleans was out and Barnstable returned. Halfway into the season Hyannis area restaurateurs saved the league from collapse by donating daily meals for a dozen or so Barnstable players. Admission of 25 cents was charged, and this helped pay salaries and defray expenses. Despite the appeal of the sport and the league’s tenuous condition, Barnstable town meeting repeatedly declined to vote funds for 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 counted as paid admissions. The lights were poor. Balls were lost in darkness as well as in the glare.

The Barnstable scorekeeper asked manager Pete Herman how to record a drive which was knocked down by an infielder but lost in the shadows. Herman replied, “Make a 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. Twilight League competition seemed to fulfill fan interest. And energies were being diverted to war mobilization.

After a six-year hiatus, the Cape Cod Athletic Association “revived” the Cape Cod Baseball League early in 1946. In reality, the revived league was the descendant of the County Twilight League and the Lower Cape League. The old town team leagues came back, joined together and assumed the Cape League’s name. The new league prohibited paid players and required all players to be “bona fide residents of Cape Cod.” For several years the league, consisting of Upper Cape and Lower Cape divisions, enjoyed some of the popularity of old. 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 began to lose its local image. College players from other areas returned to the forefront. Finally, in 1963, the break was completed. The league became a summer collegiate circuit. Sanctioned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the Cape Cod Baseball League quickly developed to the point that former New York Times sportswriter Steve Cady said it was “generally regarded as the country’s best summer test for amateurs.” A local writer recently termed the league “a national gem.”

The major leagues recognize its value, supporting the league with a $60,000 annual grant. In 1985, part of the funding was earmarked for wood bats. The ever present big league scouts believe wood is a better indicator of hitting potential than the less expensive and widely used aluminum bats.

An indicator of the level of play took place in June 1984. Stars of the Cape League lost, 5-4, in the ninth inning to the touring U.S. Olympic baseball squad.

Chatham, Cotuit, Falmouth, Harwich, Hyannis, Orleans, Wareham and Yarmouth-Dennis currently are members of the league. Each team plays 42 games – a total of 168 for the league. The longest trip is 45 miles. A day contest and a night game and half of the teams can be covered easily on one date. This adds to the league’s attractiveness to the scouts, among others. Yet the attraction is deeper. As Bill Enos, Boston Red Sox area scout, puts it, the Cape League is “the best organized non-professional league I’ve seen.”

With such a colorful heritage and solid reputation, it would seem it was unnecessary to gild the lily with a questionable centennial.