The Eastern Shore Leagueby Frank Jackson
April 26, 2012
The Delmarva Shorebirds, currently a Class A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, are in the Northern Division of the Class A Sally League. When the team started play in 1996, it marked the return of professional baseball to Salisbury, Md., after an absence of 43 years. Sitting smack dab in the middle of the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware plus the Eastern Shores of Maryland and Virginia—hence Delmarva) at the intersection of two major highways (U.S. 13 and U.S. 50), Salisbury is the most logical place on the peninsula to locate a team.
The Shorebirds are an affiliate of the Orioles, but previous to the St. Louis Browns’ move to Baltimore in 1954, major league allegiances were primarily to Washington and Philadelphia. Today the Shorebirds have all of Delmarva to themselves, yet there was a time when the peninsula had not just a team of its own but a league of its own.
If the Eastern seaboard megalopolis is a trunk line, the Delmarva Peninsula is a siding at worst, or a spur line at best. It is roughly 180 miles long, north to south, and 60 miles across at its widest point. Despite its remote location, it has been occupied by European settlers since the 17th century. Though not far as the crow flies from the nation’s capital, geography all but guaranteed that the area would remain provincial until bridges were built across the Chesapeake Bay, a daunting undertaking given the volume of ship traffic and old-time engineering capabilities.
When the Bay Bridge finally joined the Western and Eastern Shores of Maryland in 1952, the 4.3 mile span was the world’s longest continuous over-water steel structure. At the southern tip of the peninsula, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, which opened in 1964, connected the peninsula to the Hampton Roads area (Norfolk, Portsmouth, Virginia Beach, Newport News, Hampton, et al.) of Virginia. This 17.6 mile project remains the world’s largest bridge-tunnel complex.
So it took a lot of work to transform Delmarva from a bucolic area—where provincial but self-sufficient people made their living off the sea and the land—to something more in keeping with mainstream America (for better or worse). Ironically, the area’s relative isolation coincided with the golden era of baseball in that vicinity. Indeed, one could make a case that such isolation was responsible for the Eastern Shore League’s very existence. Traveling beyond the peninsula was simply too inconvenient. Although the prospect of road trips via ferry boat may sound intriguing, it was hardly practical. Travel by bus or train meant heading north of the peninsula, at least as far north as Wilmington, Delaware, to make rail or highway connections . Given these constraints, it made more sense for the peninsula to simply grow its own league.
The first version of the Eastern Shore League was from 1922-1928. The final season ended prematurely after a collapse in farm prices (and hence farm income) that preceded the Great Depression. The second version was from 1937-1941; and the third was from 1946-1949. As is often the case in the low minors, making ends meet was a challenge. Predictably, franchises went out of business or moved. Some years there were post-season playoffs, some years there were not. The number of teams fluctuated between six and eight, but the State of Maryland remained dominant, with Salisbury and Cambridge fielding teams during all 16 years of Eastern Shore League history, and Easton right behind them with 14 seasons.
Though the first incarnation of the league included teams in all three states on the peninsula, the second and third featured teams from just Maryland and Delaware, which occupied the lion’s share of the peninsula’s real estate. Virginia, with less land, fewer (and smaller) towns, and situated at the remote southern tip of the peninsula, was left out during the '30s and '40s. From 1937-1940, however, they had the option of rooting for Pocomoke City, which lies just a few miles north of the Virginia border.
While some towns, such as Dover and Salisbury, were certainly large enough to host minor league baseball, others were so small as to invite amazement that professional baseball could find a home there—even at the Class D level. For the most part, ballplayers fond of night life were out of luck. For those who enjoyed fishing and hunting, however, off days could be rewarding.
Although the odds of advancing to the big leagues from Class D were long, some players did make that leap—sometimes as players, sometimes as coaches, sometimes as managers, or sometimes two or three of the above. The early '20s, however, were the golden years for talent.
Mickey Cochrane (playing under the assumed name of Frank King) developed his skills as a catcher while playing for the Dover Senators in 1923. The following year Red Ruffing was on the mound for the Senators, while Jimmie Foxx—an Eastern Shore native from Sudlersville, Md.—played for the nearby Easton Farmers.
Though only 16 years old, the high school prodigy (he made his big league debut a year later) was signed by manager Frank “Home Run” Baker, who hailed from the Eastern Shore town of Trappe, Md. The 38-year-old Baker played part-time and even managed to hit .294 in 92 at bats. His former University of Maryland teammate, Buck Herzog,, who served three tours of duty with John McGraw’s Giants, skippered the Easton Farmers (and also played on occasion) for part of 1925 and all of 1926. Born in Baltimore, Herzog grew up in the Eastern Shore town of Ridgely, but eventually returned to the Western Shore, where he served as baseball coach at the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Another notable name from 1925 was 43-year-old Justin “Nig” Clarke, who achieved minor league immortality with another class D outfit, the Corsicana Oil Citys [sic], for whom he hit eight home runs in one memorable Texas League game played on June 15, 1902. Hailing from another small Texas town (Waxahachie) not too far from Corsicana, Paul Richards played for the 1926 and 1927 Crisfield Crabbers. Also in 1927, George Selkirk turned up on the Cambridge Canners’ roster, while Roy Parmelee played for the Northampton Red Sox in their inaugural year.
The 1930s also witnessed a sprinkling of players who would make their marks in the big leagues in later years. In 1937, 19-year-old Ken Raffensberger. from nearby York, Pa., set a league record for innings pitched with 298—achieved in a 96-game season! One of his teammates, Danny Murtaugh, also played in the big leagues but is better known for managing the Pittsburgh Pirates during their championship seasons of 1960 and 1971.
Charlie Metro, another future big league player/coach/manager, as well as a scout, played for the Easton Browns in 1937. In 1938, Sid Gordon led the league in batting average (.352) and hits (145) while playing for the Milford Giants. That same year, a fellow by the name of Mickey Vernon turned up on the Easton Browns roster. The following year, the Federalsburg A’s had a trio of future major leaguers: Gene Hermanski, Ron Northey and Elmer Valo.
The pre-World War II teams of the 1940s include two notable entries: the 1940 Pocomoke City Chicks featured not only Hermanski but also Carl Furillo, while the 1941 edition of the Centreville Red Sox included pitcher Mel Parnell and manager Eddie Popowski, who never played in the big leagues but enjoyed a 65-year career in the Red Sox organization in one capacity or another till his death at age 88 in 2001.
Also worth mentioning is Jocko Thompson, who set a league ERA record of 1.56 while pitching for Centreville. The following season he was promoted to Class B ball (the Greensboro Red Sox of the Piedmont League), but his development was interrupted by World War II, which caused him to miss the 1942-1945 baseball seasons. Nevertheless, he persevered and made the big leagues with the Phillies at age 31 in 1948.
The post-war teams also had their share of future big leaguers in waiting. The 1947 Cambridge Dodgers pitching staff included Carroll Beringer, who later became a coach for the Dodgers and Phillies, and Chris Van Cuyk, who set a league record with nine shutouts and went on to pitch for the Dodgers during the early 1950s. Meanwhile Ray Jablonski, holding down third base for the Milford Red Sox, launched a lengthy playing career, including numerous minor and major league stops, that lasted till 1964. Jablonski returned to the Sox in 1948 when he set a league record for hits (172) and was joined by Frank Malzone and Norm Zauchin, who set some league records of his own with 33 home runs, 44 doubles, 82 extra base hits, 323 total bases, and 138 RBI’s. That year the league also featured Joe Pignatano and Don Zimmer, who played for the 1949 Cambridge Dodgers.
Also worthy of note are two players who re-routed their baseball skills to umpiring and reached the major leagues via that route: Ed Sudol, who initiated a 12-year minor league playing career with the 1940 Pocomoke City Chicks and the Cambridge Canners, and Larry Napp, who played for the Pocomoke City Red Sox in 1938.
There were notable events during the three incarnations of the league. Perhaps the most unlikely success story is that of the Parksley Spuds. The sheer size— or lack of same—of Parksley, Va., would mitigate against placing a professional franchise there. The 1920 census shows a population of only 607 and even throughout the Roaring '20s it never eclipsed four figures. This would hardly seem a sufficient population base for a professional baseball team—even at the lowest level.
The same census showed that surrounding Accomack County had 34,795 people, but given the difficulties of travel, the lack of night games, and the long working days of the overwhelmingly rural population, it is hard to imagine fans in the stands outnumbering players on the field. Yet the Parksley team was not a one-year experiment. The town not only fielded teams every year during the league’s 1920s era, they finished first in 1922, 1924 and 1927.
The 1920s also witnessed a notable postseason challenge for league champions. The Baltimore Sun newspaper hosted a best-of-seven Five-State Championship or “Little World Series” between the champions of the Eastern Shore League and the champions of the Blue Ridge League, another Class D outfit.
For the record: in 1922, the Martinsburg (W. Va.) Blue Sox, led by League MVP Reggie Rawlings and Lewis Robert (better known as Hack) Wilson, who led the league in home runs (30 in 84 games) and slugging percentage (.717), swept Parksley in four games; in 1923, Dover prevailed over Martinsburg, four games to two; in 1924, Parksley defeated Martinsburg four games to two; in 1925, the Hagerstown (Md.) Hubs won out over Cambridge, four games to three; in 1926, Hagerstown bested Crisfield, four games to two; and in 1927, Parksley won another series, defeating the Chambersburg (Pa.) Maroons, four games to two.
Perhaps the most remarkable team in the history of the league was the 1937 Salisbury Indians (despite the nickname, they were affiliated with the Washington Senators).
In that era, Class D teams were not permitted to have more than three players who had played above that classification. Unfortunately, the Indians had not only three players who had played above Class D, they had one who had signed up for a Class C team but never played. On June 19, Eastern Shore League President J. Thomas Kibler ruled that Salisbury had to forfeit all of its games—including 21 victories—played to that point in the season.
Appeals to higher “courts”— including the one presided over by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis—were fruitless. Despite this merciless handicap, the Indians finished with a record of 59-37, good for first place, 3½ games ahead of the Easton Browns. Without the 21 forfeits, their record would have been a jaw-dropping 80-16. They also defeated the Cambridge Cardinals and the Centreville Colts in the postseason playoffs for the league championship.
For good measure, they defeated the Class A Trenton Senators of the New York-Pennsylvania League in an exhibition game, 7-2. Rookie manager Jake Flowers, The Sporting News Minor League Manager of the Year, had finished his major league playing career (mostly with Brooklyn) the previous season. He got his start with the Cambridge Canners, his hometown team, in 1922 when he led the league in home runs with 14 and runs with 50.
In more recent years, the Delmarva Shorebirds haven’t had a season anywhere near the juggernaut year of the 1937 Salisbury team, but they are a godsend to Salisbury baseball fans, who had to endure 44 years without professional baseball. Even so, to a large degree today, Salisbury (and the rest of the Eastern Shore) is simply a place Washingtonians have to drive through in order to get to Ocean City, Md. or other beach resorts. If the visitors stop to see a game at Arthur W. Perdue Stadium, the Shorebirds’ home, they could visit the Eastern Shore Baseball Hall of Fame and learn more about a region where professional baseball was a long way from the nation’s capital in every respect save air miles.
EASTERN SHORE LEAGUE FRANCHISES
DELAWARE Cities Teams Years Dover Senators 1923-1924, 1926-1927 Dobbins 1925 Orioles 1937-1940 Phillies 1946-1948 Laurel Blue Hens 1922-1923 Milford Sandpipers 1923 Giants 1938-1941 Red Sox 1946-1948 Rehoboth Beach Pirates 1947-1948 Sea Hawks 1949 Seaford Eagles 1946-1949
Cities Teams Years Cambridge Canners 1922-1928 Cardinals 1940-1941 Dodgers 1937-1939, 1946-1949 Centreville (Queen Anne Co.) Colts 1937-1939 Red Sox 1940-1941 Orioles 1946 Crisfield Crabbers 1922-1928, 1937 Easton Farmers 1924-1928 Browns 1937 Cubs 1938 Yankees 1939-1941, 1946-1949 Federalsburg A’s 1937-1941, 1946-1948 Feds 1949 Pocomoke City Salamanders 1922-1923 Red Sox 1937-1939 Chicks 1940 Salisbury Indians 1922-1928, 1937-1938 Senators 1939
Cities Teams Years Parksley Spuds 1922-1928 Cape Charles Red Sox 1927-1928 (Northampton Co.)
Franchises ranked according to number of seasons:
Dover 12 (including partial season of 1927)
Pocomoke City 6
Rehoboth Beach 3
Northampton 2 (including partial season of 1927)
Franchises ranked according to number of championships:
3 Parksley (1922, 1924, 1927)
Salisbury (1937, 1938, 1940)
2 Cambridge (1925, 1939)
1 Centreville (1946)
Rehoboth Beach (1949)
References and Resources
Filichia, Peter. Professional Franchises: From the Abbeville Athletics to the Zanesville Indians. New York: Facts on File, 1993
http://www.baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Eastern Shore League
Frank Jackson has published previous baseball articles in National Pastime and Elysian Fields Quarterly. He was weaned on baseball at Connie Mack Stadium.