Since 1913, Eldredge Park has been the home field for the Orleans Firebirds of the Cape Cod Baseball League. Once called “the most beautiful park in America,” by the venerable baseball scribe, Peter Gammons, Eldredge Park’s diamond then faced Nauset Regional High School, whose matronly, red-framed structure provided the backdrop beyond right-center field.
From 1948-2008, the Orleans franchise in the CCBL was known as the Cardinals. 56 summers ago, the 1963 Orleans squad was managed by Dave Gavitt, a former Cardinals infielder from Dartmouth who had begun coaching basketball at his alma mater a few after graduation. Six years after I first met him, Coach Gavitt would become a Hall of Fame coach for the Providence College Friars. He would eventually serve as a revered Big East Commissioner and, later on, as the CEO for the Boston Celtics.
At the time, Dave Gavitt was a sprite, 26-year-old college assistant with a young family who clearly loved to bring out the best of his young charges. Throughout that magical summer, I was one of the bat boys for the Orleans nine. It turned out to be one of the defining moments of my childhood.
On my first day as a batboy, Coach Gavitt called me over and said, “Listen, kid, when you’re not just retrieving our bats after each out or hit, you’re also going to be chasing any foul balls for us. We have a tight budget, and the more balls you can fetch, the better that will be for both the Cardinals and the Cape Cod Baseball League!”
When I reassured the Orleans skipper that I would do my very best, Coach Gavitt exclaimed, “That’s good. And remember, I want you to hustle after each foul ball as if you’re life depended on it.”
“Yes, sir!” I replied.
Of course, there is no one on the planet more literal than a nine-year-old lad, so when a baseball was subsequently hit down the left field line foul, I immediately sprinted as fast as a Chatham gale at the height of a prodigious nor’easter. There was pronounced laughter coming from our dugout as I raced toward the white sphere, which had neatly settled against an ancient oak near the foul line.
“I think that young boy there is showing us how to hustle,” one of the players whispered to Gavitt.
For the rest of the game, I ended up gallivanting down both foul lines, behind home plate, and even across Route 28, where I pored over a clump of beach plum bushes in order to locate an offending baseball. As I continued to sprint after each foul ball, my sun-bleached platinum blonde hair began sticking up like a corn stalk. By the fifth inning, Mr. Al Shorter, a loquacious septuagenarian, who described himself as “an old bird dog for the Red Sox,” began shouting out, “There goes Dennis the Menace!” each and every time I sprinted to retrieve a ball.
When a popup fell behind the seat and plopped onto the bench where Mr. Shorter had been sitting, he picked up the ball, refused to give it to the other batboy, and then gestured to me, “Only Dennis gets this ball.”
Of course, my new identity was based on the legendary cartoon character, Dennis Mitchell. In 1959, CBS TV had introduced the character into a hit television series starring Jay North as Dennis; an energetic, trouble-prone, mischievous, but well-meaning boy, who often tangled first with his peace-and-quiet-loving neighbor, George Wilson, a retired salesman, and later with George’s brother John, a writer. Virtually everyone in Eldredge Park knew that “Dennis the Menace” had blonde hair, blue eyes, and a pronounced cowlick – just like me.
By the second game that summer, every time a ball was struck in foul territory at Eldridge, a gaggle of versed fans sitting around Mr. Shorter would hoot, “There goes Dennis!” as I flew to reclaim the ball.
“Heck of a job, Dennis!” Al Shorter would clamor when I returned to the dugout.
I knew I had been officially re-baptized when I approached veteran umpire John Tambollo with two retrieved balls. “Hey, thanks, Dennis!” the CCBL official spat out without any irony whatsoever. When one of our star players cracked one of his baseball bats, I retrieved the bat and informed him that his bat was not playable. “Keep it, tape it up and use it in pickup games, Dennis,” he responded.
As I became more adept at the job, I was eventually asked to parade around with a large Orleans Cardinals baseball helmet in the top of the sixth inning in order to collect dimes, quarters, and half-dollars from the attendants at the game. Because Cape League games were free of charge – these were amateurs, after all – the organization had to collect donations in order to pay for the equipment, the umpires, and the continued maintenance of the field. Back then, approximately 500 loyal fans attended most Cardinal home games. It would take me two innings to get around to everyone, but I made sure that everyone pitched in to help support the team and the league.
When I approached Al Shorter and his comrades, a wave of applause engulfed home plate. “Here’s our hustling Dennis!” Al would trumpet as his friends began to reach for their wallets. As each patron pitched their change into my batting helmet, a cacophony of hosanna’s was heaped down on me at all sides by the elderly patrons who sat around Al.
“Heck of a job today, Dennis!”
“Thataway to hustle, Dennis!”
“We’re proud of you, Dennis!”
“We’re gonna add another dollar just for your hustle, Dennis!”
When I returned to the dugout, Coach Gavitt would smugly say to me, “Wouldn’t you know that our batboy might have more fans than any of the players!”
After each game, Dave Gavitt would look at the pile of coins and dollar bills that I had collected and picked out four quarters for my day’s work. When the Cardinals lost to Cotuit for the league title over Labor Day Weekend, Coach Gavitt approached me, shook my hand warmly, and asserted that I had “certainly earned my keep.” He then took out a five dollar bill and declared, “Thanks, Dennis, for a great summer!”
I ended up serving as the Orleans Cardinals bat boy for another five seasons. In 1966, 19-year-old Carlton Fisk served as our catcher while his older brother, Calvin, was our first baseman. A summer later, Thurman Munson was behind the plate for our bitter rivals, the Chatham Red Sox. By that season, my blonde hair had begun to turn brown as preadolescence began to creep in. Even after I no longer worked for the Orleans town team, I would saunter down behind home plate in search of my old buddy, Mr. Al Shorter. Like a dependable radar detector, Al would shout out to anyone who would listen to him, “Well, folks, look who is approaching us! Yes, it’s none other than the best bat boy in the history of the Cape League – Dennis the Menace!”
However, when I showed up one summer and saw an empty spot where Al usually sat, I began to ask the fans around home plate for his whereabouts. “He died a few months ago,” one of his friends blinked.
We both had tears in our eyes.
Nevertheless, partially thanks to my indescribable experience in the Cape Cod Baseball League, I ended up playing competitive baseball throughout high school and made the 25-man varsity squad at Jacksonville University as a freshman. On January 29, 1974, a day after my 19th birthday, I attended a Providence College-Jacksonville University basketball game at the Jacksonville Coliseum. The Friars of Providence, who then featured future NBA stars Marvin Barnes and Kevin Stacom, were the number 8 team in the nation when they played the Dolphins that evening.
Their head coach was none other than Dave Gavitt.
As the clock wound down to zero – PC ended up victorious, 106-90 – I sprinted out onto the Coliseum floor and made a beeline for the former Cardinals manager.
“Coach!” I yelled, “It’s a long way from Eldredge Park!”
Gavitt’s piercing blue eyes bore right into me. He suddenly broke into an expansive grin and began to chuckle. “Well, what do you know! How much change do you have for me after this game, Dennis?”
We both giggled, and Coach Gavitt patted my back as we walked off the court together. For the next few minutes, we chatted amicably outside the Providence locker room. As he turned to head into a postgame press conference, Coach Gavitt exclaimed, “My summers in Orleans were the best, largely because of the incredible people of the Cape, and my players who were like family to me. You know, Shaun, you’ll always be Dennis the Menace to me!”
32 summers later, I was invited by the Orleans Cardinals to throw out the first pitch in an August 2005 contest against their longstanding rivals, Chatham. When I drew near the emerald field that had framed Tonset Road and Route 28 for more than ten decades, my bronzed face suddenly turned bone-white. Instead of a scattering of a few hundred passionate Cape Cod Baseball League supporters as we had back in the 1960’s, a sea of humanity encompassed Eldredge Park. In the next day’s Cape Cod Standard Times, the estimated attendance was listed as 5,800.
My youngest son, Max, realized immediately that I was about to throw the most significant pitch in my then-50-years on the planet.
“Don’t choke, Dad!” he quipped.
“Thanks for the reassurance, Max,” I retorted as I ambled out to the pitcher’s mound.
On the same baseball diamond that had seen such former Orleans luminaries as Todd Helton, Nomar Garciaparra, Frank Thomas, and Mark Teixeira play for the Cardinals over the years, I was now standing on the mound with literally thousands of fans watching me intently. Since 1964, the Town of Orleans had reconfigured and refurbished the old ballpark. The diamond was now entrenched where right field had been. I smiled as I remembered the countless fly balls I had once caught out there during batting practice four decades previously. The famed slope in right field was now covered with a sea of fans who graced the first base side of the field. As one writer commented that year, “Eldredge Park is nothing less than a Norman Rockwell painting come to life.”
As I glanced around, I quickly noticed that sitting behind the backstop was an elderly Orleans supporter wearing a distinct O cap. For a moment, I imagined that the ghost of Al Shorter had magically appeared so that he could root on his boy.
After the PA announcer had introduced me, a groundswell of applause swarmed over the field as I stood all alone on the rubber. My hands literally began to quake. Truthfully, I hadn’t been this nervous on the mound since I pitched in college. Then and there, I decided to use my regular pitching windup and throw a slider, figuring that the more I concentrated on the break of the ball, the better. When the sphere broke seamlessly for a hard strike 60 feet away, I exhaled gratefully and greeted the impossibly young Cardinals catcher, who gave me the ball and stammered, “Hey, nice throw, Sir. Congratulations!”
When I plodded off the mound, Max greeted me with a mixture of relief and delight. A few minutes later, the Al Shorter clone who had watched me from behind home plate tentatively approached me, shook my hand, and drawled, “Hi, Shaun, my name’s Jim Mayo, and I am a native of Orleans. I’ve attended games here at Eldredge Park since the 1950s when I was your son’s age.”
Mr. Mayo and I ended up reminiscing about the old days for a spell. As we conversed, he glanced at my decidedly brown hair and queried, “Did you ever have blonde hair as a boy? I remember a Cardinals batboy who used to sprint after every foul ball like there was no tomorrow?”
“I did,” I answered, and we both chuckled. “Actually, you might remember me by the nickname that Al Shorter bestowed upon me.”
“Oh my goodness,” Jim Mayo responded, “you’re Dennis the Menace!”
“I am,” I replied.