The Early Days of Baseball on Delmarva

by Dana Kester-McCabe

From the late 1800's on baseball was an obsession on Delmarva.

It has long been debated whether the rules and the creation of the first baseball diamond were by Alexander Doubleday in Cooperstown, New York. Regardless of which theory or legend you prefer, all over the U.S. baseball leagues sprung up in big cities and little towns alike.

The appetite for baseball seemed unquenchable even though these leagues had a lot of problems. They often lasted just a few years and then disbanded to be replaced by new ones. Most were run by part timers with regular jobs and their budgets were always on a shoestring. Here on the Eastern Shore teams were made up of mostly farm and cannery workers, the two largest industries here at the time. Records show that games were being played in Talbot County in 1866, and that within a year Easton, St. Michael's, and Trappe had all organized teams. It was said that Chestertown had also caught baseball fever by this time.

The post Civil War boom economy which led to rail lines being completed here on Delmarva made travel easier for teams to play in a wider circuit of towns. It also made it possible for fans to follow along and cheer for their hometown heroes. Players were treated like celebrities in every town they visited. They were given parades and special meals in their honor with speeches and music. For overnight trips they were often hosted in private homes because they could not afford to stay in hotels. In the earliest days even if they were considered professionals, a player considered it high pay if they got $5 a game. Nonetheless competition to join a team became very stiff. Coaches began requiring written resumes. By 1908 the Cambridge Canners had to go through hundreds of applications to fill a fifteen slot roster.

From the late 1800's on baseball was an obsession on Delmarva. World War I interrupted the usual summer fun but once it was over professional baseball became a serious business. Here and around the country leagues prior to this only lasted two to three seasons. They struggled with finances and in some towns games turned into brawls. Gambling also attended the sport mostly unchecked. But love for the game was baked in especially here on Delmarva and the Eastern Shore League was formed in 1922. They managed to stay in business for six years with six teams from all three states on the peninsula represented. From Maryland there were the Cambridge Canners, the Crisfield Crabbers, the Pocomoke City Salamanders, and the Salisbury Indians. Delaware had the Laurel Blue Hens. And from Virginia came the Parksley Spuds.

June 12, 1922 was opening day for their first season. Six thousand people attended the first game. Delmarva fans felt like they were in baseball heaven. Unfortunately with emotions running so high, spectators got out of hand the first season in a game between Crisfield and Parksley. They attacked an umpire for a questionable call sending him to the hospital with a cracked skull. The season was also marred by the practice of brining in ringers mid season from outside the area to improve a team's playoff chances. This was banned in the rules the next year. The new regulation and notice from the "Big Leagues" led to athletes from other regions applying for regular positions on the teams. Delmarva's star players started to get called up to the "big show" - the major leagues in the region's larger cities.

Famed right fielder and Hall-of-Famer George Selkirk came all the way from Ontario, Canada to play for the Cambridge Canners in 1927. In 1935 he took the place of Babe Ruth playing right field for the New York Yankees. From there he went on to a great career as a two time All-Star and played in five World Series for the Yankees.

There are many players who grew up here on Delmarva and who deserve a mention in this story but there are three Hall-of-Famers in particular who stand out. The first is Frank "Homerun" Baker. He was born and raised in Trappe, Maryland. No matter where he played in the outfield or infield he never really stood out as an outstanding asset for his team. His talent was hitting. He went up to the major league in 1908 and hit a grand slam the first time he stepped up to the plate. He helped the Philadelphia A's win World Series titles in 1910, 1911, and 1913. Rival Yankees manager Hal Chase said that he was a "dangerous man at all times".

Throughout Frank's baseball career he was known to be a shy man who never had bad word for anyone. After retiring from active play he came back to Trappe to live and to scout area teams for the Philadelphia A's. That's when he found the next standout player in our story.

Jimmie Foxx got his start right out of high school when he was recruited to play for the Easton Farmers. His father Dell, was well known to baseball fans on Delmarva. He could have gone on to bigger things but stayed on the Eastern Shore to help his family when his own father died suddenly. Jimmie played catcher for the Dover Senators in 1923. His team lost the local pennant to the Parksley Spuds but they invited him to join them. In the 1924 season playoff in a five state series they won the championship with his help.

Frank Baker spotted this talented young man and recruited Jimmie to play for the Phillies where he became one of the greatest first basemen of all time. In 1925 Foxx was only 17 when he went to Fort Myers for his first spring training season. He went on to play for the Boston Red Sox, and Chicago Cubs. He won three MVP awards and was featured on the cover of Time magazine. He earned the nicknames of Suddlersville Slugger and Gentleman Jim. Babe Ruth chose him for his traveling All Star Team which made a tour of Canada, Japan, and Hawaii.

Jimmie generally had a good relationship with his fans. He once visited a young boy who admired him, who was in the hospital sick with Tuberculosis. This may sound like a pretty standard thing that celebrities do but in those days TB was a big deal and considered to be very contagious. Jimmie tried to follow in the footsteps of idols like Babe Ruth. But keeping up with their high living got the best of him. Jimmie never was able to handle his money or his liquor.

And, like so many other giant talents before and after him he waited too long to hang up his hat. This made it hard for him to find work. Not long before his premature death at the age of 56, convinced his fame was no longer of any value, he gave away all his awards and memorabilia to Gil Dunn, a fan who had a small shrine to him in his Sudlersville pharmacy. This trove is now available for baseball lovers to view at the Sudlersville Train Station Museum. The town also has a statue of Jimmie. And his fame was apparently valuable to Hollywood. The character that Tom Hanks plays in the film "A League of Their Own" about the women's baseball league during World War II, is based in part on stories about Jimmie Foxx.

[Weeping] "Are you crying?" "No." "Are you crying?" "No." "There's no crying... There's no crying in baseball!"

Crying maybe be frowned upon in baseball. But people do get very emotional about this sport.

Obsession for the game led most towns to erect and maintain beautiful ball fields - for white players and fans. Until the mid Twentieth Century baseball like everything else here was segregated. The Black Community had to come up with their own ball fields and because they had less money these were usually empty lots or what they called "clean places" with few amenities. The Eastern Shore Negro League was not formally recognized until 1932. But the devotion to the game was just as strong for Blacks as it was for Whites. And you can't keep real talent down. And that brings us to another Hall-of-Famer. The story of baseball on Delmarva would not be complete without talking about William "Judy" Johnson.

Judy was born in Snow Hill, Maryland. At about the age of ten his family moved to Wilmington, Delaware to find better job opportunities. His father became the Athletic Director of the Negro Settlement House there. He was a boxing coach. But Judy had a passion for baseball from a very early age. He began playing professionally for the Negro League in 1918. He was a power hitter with a consistently high batting average. And he was an excellent third baseman known to approach that position scientifically with "intelligence and grace."

By the 1920's many white minor league rookies were starting at $150 a week. Black players were still making about $5 a game. So Judy gladly became a player/manager for the extra money. When Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947 Judy had retired from active play and had been coaching in the Negro League for some time. Famed Phillies coach Connie Mack invited him to scout for the team. He is credited with recruiting Dick Allen, and his future son-in-law Bill Bruton. He is in the National Baseball hall of Fame, and the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame. His home in Marshallton, Delaware is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today on any given day or evening from May through September you can catch a live game of baseball here on Delmarva: from boys and girls T-Ball, to Little League, to high school and college ball, to the minor league Delmarva Shorebirds and the Wilmington Blue Hens. And though it is not considered the same game don't discount baseball's close cousins slow and fast pitch softball which both women and men play. Hitting a ball and running the bases is part of the fabric of our country. To watch a game on a small field, where you can hear the players and coaches talking, is very different and in my opinion better than watching on TV or in a large stadium. Though some teams may play dirty, and umps can make bad calls, it always feels good to root for your home team. But when your team loses buck up, and remember: "There's no crying in baseball!"


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