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Baseball’s Eastern Shore League

Apr 04, 2011 03:52PM ● Published by Anonymous

The clock doesn't matter in baseball. Time stands still or moves backwards. Theoretically, one game could go on forever. Some seem to. – Herb Caen, columnist

Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good too. – Yogi Berra, baseball legend

Baseball’s Eastern Shore League

Generations of Americans have grown up with baseball in their blood. Long before the first recorded game, citizens of our young union embraced this most democratic of sports. The Eastern Shore’s love affair with the “national pastime” has not been as well recorded as in some other regions of the country; but in the early part of the 20th century, organized baseball came to the Shore and created an excitement like nothing ever before or, perhaps, since.

Eastern Shore Baseball’s Family Tree

Until standards were established in 1846, baseball was played all over the country under various rules and levels of organization. The Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first all-professional team in 1869, and two years later the first professional league was founded. From coast to coast, leagues formed and disbanded. Scandals plagued the sport. Reports of cheating players and violent fans created a perception that the sport was an unacceptable occupation for respectable gentlemen, yet the game’s popularity grew. With the National League’s organization in 1876, followed by the American League's in 1900, modern major league baseball was born.

During this time, Eastern Shore baseball was amateur at best, played by farm boys when there wasn’t work to do. Across the Chesapeake Bay, the Baltimore Orioles won three straight National League pennants—in 1894, 1895, and 1896—before losing their team to consolidation in 1903. Though it would be 52 years before the major leagues returned to Maryland, in the early 1900s Eastern Shore ballplayers were starting to attract national attention.

Dorchester County’s Homer “Doc” Smoot was the first major league player from the Eastern Shore. Born in 1878 in Galestown, Smoot played baseball and football for Washington College before signing with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1902. Soon-to-be legend Frank “Home Run” Baker, from Trappe, followed Smoot into the big leagues in 1908. Baker hit a grand slam in his first at bat in his first full-season game. A third baseman, he helped the Philadelphia Athletics win three World Series—in 1910, 1911, and 1913. In the 1911 series, Baker hit two game-winning home runs, securing his nickname, fame, and, ultimately, his 1955 induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. New York Yankees manager Hal Chase said of Baker: “[He] is a dangerous man at all times, and I don’t care what they pitch him.”

World War I interrupted baseball, just as it interrupted everything else in America. After the war, Americans were happy to be back from the battlefields and hustled to get back on the baseball diamond. The major leagues organized regional systems that they supported to develop talent. In 1921, the year of the Chicago White Sox scandal and first radio broadcast of the World Series, an agreement was signed that allowed major league teams to own a minor league franchise. The Salisbury Chamber of Commerce initiated the formation of the Class D Eastern Shore League that same year.

1922–1927

In its first year, six teams comprised the Eastern Shore League: the Cambridge Canners, Crisfield Crabbers, Pocomoke City Salamanders, Salisbury Indians, Laurel (Delaware) Blue Hens, and Parksley (Virginia) Spuds.

Six thousand fans showed up for the Eastern Shore League’s inaugural, opening-day games on June 12, 1922. The Wicomico News summarized the anticipation: “For weeks, sports lovers have anxiously been awaiting this gala day, when professional baseball was scheduled to make its debut upon the Eastern Shore’s sandy stage, and the opening event will be indelibly printed upon [our] memories.” But the celebration in Crisfield was marred by violence as an enraged fan at the game between Parksley and Crisfield attacked an umpire, striking him twice in the head. With the second blow, “Blood spurted out in a stream from the wound and the victim was rushed to the Crisfield Hospital where a hasty examination indicated that there might be a fractured skull,” according to The Wicomico News.

The Spuds beat the Canners in the league’s first championship, only to be defeated by the Blue Ridge League’s Martinsburg Blue Sox in the Five-State Championship.

Outlining the league’s first season, a Salisbury sportswriter proclaimed: “As far as can be ascertained, the Eastern Shore Baseball League closed on Labor Day what has been styled a most successful season. Interest in the project has not subsided one whit. Already preparations are being made for the spring of 1923.”

Despite the hype, the maiden season ended in the red financially and was corrupted by “cramming,” a tactic that involved changing players to upgrade a team’s talent near the end of the season. By bringing new players into late-season play, the Canners went from sixth place to second. Going into its second season, the league introduced a rule prohibiting teams from adding new players after August 1, and expanded by admitting teams from both Dover and Milford, Delaware.

In 1924, after a stellar major league career, Baker returned to Talbot County as player/manager for the Easton Farmers. As the story goes, an old friend of Baker’s from Sudlersville requested that his son, Jimmie, be given a tryout. The young, power-hitting first baseman seized the opportunity and impressed Baker, who recommended young Jimmie to both of his former teams, the Yankees and Philadelphia Athletics. Jimmie “Double X” Foxx joined the Athletics in 1925 at 17 years old and soon developed a reputation as one of the league’s top sluggers. He played for 20 years and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1951. Foxx hit 30 or more home runs in 12 consecutive seasons, a record broken only by Barry Bonds in 2004. In 1925, Smoot returned to the Shore to manage the Salisbury Indians for a year.

Despite star power and general enthusiasm, the league’s financial troubles continued. Having yet to turn a sufficient profit, the directors voted to disband in 1927.

Meanwhile, Snow Hill native William Julius (Judy) Johnson was at the top of his game. A third baseman in the Negro Leagues, he was known for his clutch hitting and play-making ability. In those days of segregated baseball, Johnson would have been a standout in any league. After the major league color barrier was broken, he went on to become one of baseball’s best scouts and entered the Hall of Fame in 1975.

Baseball, like the rest of America, would soon go through a period of change. A 1930 nighttime game in Des Moines, Iowa, played under the world’s first permanent lights, drew 12,000 fans to see a team that usually sold 600 tickets. Regional Depression-era leagues recognized the potential of night games, a twist that saved the cash-strapped minor leagues. The majors caught on and night games revolutionized the world of sports. Joe DiMaggio, the first rookie to make the All-Star team, came onto the national scene in 1936 and electrified fans.

While there was no minor league action on the Shore during this time, local baseball survived with town teams supported by local businesses. Baseball’s exciting resurgence into the national culture and fierce local rivalries encouraged a group of Shoremen to start a new league.

1937–1941

By 1937, the Eastern Shore League was back in action. Major league affiliations were reestablished or started fresh. Four teams—the Salisbury Senators, Crisfield Giants/Crabbers, Cambridge Cardinals, and Pocomoke City Dodgers—represented towns in the original league. The Easton Browns and Dover Orioles reentered and were joined by two new teams: the Centreville Red Sox and Federalsburg Athletics.

Hailing the return of baseball, Easton’s Star-Democrat reported: “The Eastern Shore League got off to an auspicious start this year. Large crowds have turned out for the games, especially those played at night. Three clubs now are equipped for night baseball—Dover, Salisbury, and Cambridge—and within a week, Pocomoke and Federalsburg expect to have lighting systems installed.”

In June of 1937, after a 21–5 start, a headline screamed: “Salisbury Is Penalized For Breaking Rules. Club Is Now At The Bottom Of The List.” For fielding an ineligible first baseman, the league rescinded all of Salisbury’s wins. The squad went from 21–5 to 0–26—first place to last place—but manager Jake Flowers vowed his team would take the pennant. The team came back to do just that. Sporting News named Flowers Minor League Manager of the Year, and the official website of Minor League Baseball ranks the 1937 Salisbury Indians number eight on its list of the all-time top 100 teams.

By 1941, however, attendance was down for every team. Dover and Pocomoke seceded. Milford led the league by 15 games, but there was no excitement, no pennant race. Money problems persisted. Early in the season, the Star-Democrat warned: “Today the attendance is very low and might cause the franchise to go elsewhere if it doesn’t improve.”

Baseball shut down once again in 1942, this time for World War II. When the war ended, the majors were reluctant to get back into business with small-town America. However, local supporters were anxious to try again. Much effort was spent on convincing Brooklyn Dodgers president Branch Rickey to invest over $6,000 in a new ballpark for Cambridge. Other major league teams followed Rickey’s gamble and the minor league system was back in business.

1946–1949

Everything was changing again. The first televised game was played in 1946. One year later, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, becoming major league baseball’s first African American player.

According to the Star-Democrat of May 10, 1946, “The Eastern Shore League opened its first season since the beginning of the war yesterday afternoon as hundreds of spectators jammed the stands at Federal Park to witness the opening tilt between Easton and Salisbury.”

The Centreville Orioles were champs that year with an 18-game lead going into the playoffs, yet produced no pro players. An ominous tone was set when the team disolved prior to the next season and was replaced by the Rehoboth Beach (Delaware) Pirates. Seaford won it all that year, followed by Milford in 1948—the year Babe Ruth died. Milford and Dover dropped out of the league before the start of the 1949 season. Attendance was abysmal and retaining major league support became increasingly difficult.

Notable players during those years include Robert “Ducky” Detweiler, who played in the second installment of the Shore League before working his way to the majors. A Pennsylvania native, Detweiler returned to his adopted hometown of Federalsburg following his big league career. He was the Eastern Shore League’s 1947 MVP, hitting 29 homers with 133 RBI.

Future Maryland Governor Harry Hughes was a hotshot pitcher for the Easton Yankees. Injuries forced him into a career in politics.

Don Zimmer, a colorful and husky shortstop, the first player ever photographed in a Mets uniform, came to the Eastern Shore League six days out of high school. In his fourth game as a Cambridge Dodger, he committed six errors. “I made Eastern Shore League history,” he wrote in his book, Zim: A Baseball Life. “It was the last year of the league’s existence and I probably did as much as anyone to hasten its shutdown.”

The year of the first $100,000-per-year baseball player: 1949. The Eastern Shore League was once again down to six teams—Easton, Federalsburg, Salisbury, Rehoboth, Seaford, and Cambridge—and suffering financially. Proposed strategies to save the league amounted to little, causing the end of the 1949 season to see “the fastest Class D League in the country” (as it was often referred) cease operations for the third and final time. In 1953, the St. Louis Browns moved to Maryland and became the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles made their major league debut in 1954, heralding a new era for Maryland baseball. The old one was gone forever.

Sidebar:

In society’s rush into the space age, many details of the old league’s past would have been lost if not for the efforts of journalists like longtime Salisbury Times sports editor Ed “Nick” Nichols and William Mowbray, who wrote the league’s definitive history, The Eastern Shore Baseball League.

The Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame Museum at the Delmarva Shorebirds stadium in Salisbury is a great place to find mementos and souvenirs of the Eastern Shore’s rich baseball history. It’s a place where that history is celebrated. Exhibits include hundreds of photographs, uniforms, bats, balls, gloves, letters, programs, tickets, trophies, and other precious baseball memorabilia.

 

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