By Bill Skiff
In the 1940s and ‘50s, Vermont high school sports programs were not as finely classified as they are today. Instead of four divisions based mostly on school size, we had two: North and South. The North went from Rutland to the Canadian border and the South from Rutland to the Massachusetts border. Any school was eligible for the state baseball championship. We played until one team won it all and became the state champion. Thus it happened in June of 1949: the farm boys played the city fellers in Vermont’s state semi-final baseball game.
When it became known that the game scheduled at Centennial Field was between Cambridge High and Burlington High, many area people were surprised at the match up. Some even felt sorry for that little school up north that had to play the big boys of Burlington.
On the day of the game, the Burlington Free Press ran a special article on the front page of the sports section featuring the upcoming game. Midway into the article it stated, “The Burlington team will make sure the Farm Boys of Cambridge will be home in time to do chores.” Our team’s collective reaction—“Okay city fellers, we are coming down to play—and the cows have informed us they don’t care what time they get milked tonight.”
We arrived at Centennial Field in three cars. We had 11 players. Nine of us had team shirts and pants. The tenth player had a team shirt and the eleventh had the pants. We had no team socks, just our own ankle ones. Each of us had his own version of a baseball hat, except Larry, our pitcher. He didn’t like to wear one because it kept falling off when he threw his fastball.
We stood in awe as the Burlington team pulled into Centennial Field on a Vermont Transit Bus with their banners attached to both sides. We watched 26 players step off the bus, all wearing full uniforms.
The dugouts were impressive. We stood in them, pounding our gloves while spitting—just as we had seen the men from the Northern league teams do. When it came time for infield practice, none of us wanted to leave the dugout—we were so used to sitting on a plank between two logs that being in a dugout was a real treat.
We won the coin toss and became the home team. Burlington was not happy with that. We figured the score was already 1-0.
Burlington batted first. The lead off batter hit a screaming ground ball just to the right of second base. I raced over, stuck out my glove and prayed. The ball took a hop, and stuck in my glove. I turned and threw him out. The next batter struck out. The third batter hit a towering fly ball toward left field that looked like it was going to land in the UVM football stadium. Our left fielder turned and started running with his back to the ball. At the last minute, he stuck out his glove. The ball landed in it and stayed. Three outs!
As we headed for our dugout, I looked over at Orie Jay, the Burlington coach. He was scratching his head and maybe thinking, “These farm boys can play ball after all.”
The game was exciting, and mid-way through it was tied 2-2. Our pitcher, Larry, kept giving the batters an inside fastball, then a curve and finally his drop. The batters were having so much trouble with his pitches that Orie Jay came out of the dugout and said Larry had to put on a hat because he was out of uniform. Larry hated hats and when it fell off during his first fastball he never put it on again. The umpire did not enforce the rule.
Larry also picked a runner off at third base, no easy feat for a right hand pitcher. Again, Orie Jay came screaming out of the dugout claiming Larry had balked. The umpire disagreed. Now the whole Burlington team knew they were in a ball game.
After eight and a half innings, and long after time to do chores, the score was Burlington 4, Cambridge 2.
When we came up to bat in the bottom of the ninth, we were confident we could tie the score: the top of our batting order was coming up. With one out, and a runner on first and third, things looked good. Our next batter hit a line drive toward second base. The runner on first started for second and the runner on third broke for home. Then it happened—the second baseman charged over, leaped into the air…and caught the ball. He turned and threw back to first for the force out.
Instead of the score becoming 4 to 3 with one out and a man on second, it was three outs, Burlington wins 4-2.
Burlington went on to beat Rutland in the finals 22-0. When it was over, Orie Jay called my dad, our coach, to tell him we were the best team they played all year.
Although we didn’t win, it was a great day for Cambridge—even the cows gave more milk.
Bill Skiff grew up on a farm between Cambridge and Jeffersonville. After a career in education, he now lives in Williston, where he is a justice of the peace and Fourth of July frog-jumping official. In “Places I’ve Played,” he shares his experiences of growing up in Vermont. Comments are welcome at [email protected]