Many sports have come and mostly gone from the Island — roque, polo, whaleboat racing, fox hunts, tricycling, and sulky racing among them. But one sport has outlasted them all: baseball.
There were a lot of Island baseball teams in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Tisbury and Edgartown each had teams, and even the Martha’s Vineyard Herald, the Cottage City newspaper, had its own ball team.
Walter Renear, sheriff of Dukes County, was pitcher and first baseman for the Herald team. Ed “Iceberg” Smith of Tisbury, who went on to become a Coast Guard admiral, and then director of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, played for Vineyard Haven. So, later, did storekeeper Morton “Duffy” Vincent, nicknamed after Red Sox fielder George “Duffy” Lewis. Sylvester Luce was the star pitcher for Edgartown team; he would go on to play briefly in the minor leagues with the New Bedford Whalers.
Tashmoo Park was one popular baseball field, located on town property on West Spring Street in Vineyard Haven, at the edge of the original Vineyard Haven Water Co. property. Today the site of a Tisbury Water Works substation, for decades it served as a popular spot for both Tisbury School picnics and community ball games.
Ocean Park was another early ball field, although in 1892 the Boston Globe reported, “The park commissioners have decided that no base ball shall be played on Ocean Park, but just why this edict, the youth and many of the elders of Cottage City are at loss to understand, as the park is in no sense improved, and spreads out an open field covered with a coarse grass where the sand has not held its own against vegetation of every name and description.” Despite the edict, baseball continued to be played in Ocean Park for some years afterward, but it was soon eclipsed in popularity by a nearby field: Waban Park, now Alley Park.
Although the Vineyard Haven, Edgartown, and Herald teams wore custom jerseys, and their game scores were occasionally published in off-Island newspapers, these clubs represented little more than weekend pick-up games by local amateurs. On an entirely different level were the games at Waban Park, where the team known as the “Cottage Citys” or often “the Cottage City nine” (and later just “Oak Bluffs”) played. This was a serious, professional team, built from some of the best college players in New England, almost entirely off-Islanders. The players came from Yale, Harvard, Smith, Brown, Princeton, Wesleyan, Cornell, and other top schools, and competed against some of the best teams in New England.
Fred Hall, pitcher for the Boston Beacons, was an early member of the Cottage Citys. Superstar hall-of-famer George Wright, known as the “King of Shortstops” and a one time member of the Boston Red Stockings, played with them for a couple of seasons. Another major leaguer, Al Hubbard, did as well. Clarence Barnes, “the well-known Yale baseball player,” fielded for the Cottage Citys during the early 1900s. (Barnes later became state attorney general, and ultimately retired to the Vineyard, where several generations of his descendants continue to reside.)
One memorable game in 1915 pitted members of the Fifth Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Militia against the Oak Bluffs team. “The soldiers marched into the game in companies,” reported the Boston Globe. Oak Bluffs won, 4 to 1, but the event became pretty weird when a mule brigade led by Capt. Jack Caldwell invaded Waban Park during the game in an “impromptu Wild West exhibition.” (A few days earlier in Katama, the Fifth Regiment’s machine gun company had practiced firing thousands of rounds at some 2,500 balloons, representing an enemy force entrenched behind the sand dunes.) “The animal’s tails were tied with red and yellow ribbons,” noted the Globe, “[and] their bridles decked with bright paper plumes.” Baseball forgotten for the moment, a mule race was then organized with 20 participants. Although his mule balked in the home stretch, Private J.W. Parmenter of M Company was first under the wire, winning first place.
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, was released June 1.