Diamond dignitaries

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WILTON – When castoff Little Leaguers needed a team, a coach and a forum to learn what was then the unquestioned national pastime, Kenneth “Bud” Cook was their hero.

“I took the overflow that couldn’t make the one team in Farmington,” Cook said of his favorite mid-life avocation. “That’s all they had. But there were other kids that wanted to play ball, and they had no way of doing it.”

When town teams across Franklin and Androscoggin counties found themselves in a pinch and needed a hired gun to hurl nine innings and give opposing hitters indigestion, Don Oakes was their man.

“I’d sit here and wait for the telephone to ring sometimes. ‘We’ve got a game tomorrow, and we need a pitcher.’ I was ready to go at any time,” Oakes said. “That’s probably why I can’t pick up my arm much anymore.”

Baseball was the only game in town here in the foothills during the 1950s and 1960s. For their lasting contributions to the sport that meant so much to so many, Cook and Oakes are among 11 diamond dignitaries headed into the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame later this month.

Cook, 79, and Oakes, 71, will be introduced at the Portland Sea Dogs game on Saturday, July 28. Their induction dinner is the following day at noon.

“I certainly wasn’t the best baseball player you ever saw, and I wasn’t the worst. I just loved to play,” Cook said. “This isn’t like the National Hall of Fame. You don’t have to be the best baseball player in the world. It’s a lot about what you’ve done for baseball. It’s a combination of everything.”

Little league’s big man

Cook learned the finer points of the game he loves in community sandlot games in Dryden. His family and friends took their turns swinging a Jim Bottomley signature bat, held together by screws and electrical tape.

After serving in the military and attending Southeast Missouri State University on the G.I. Bill, Cook returned to his hometown to find a more formal youth baseball structure. With only one team based in Farmington, competition for a spot on the Braves was fierce. Kids who didn’t make the cut retreated to pickup games in the back forty while their friends barnstormed the region.

That didn’t sit well with Cook, a car salesman with a flexible schedule and a passion.

“We called ourselves the Farmington Pirates,” Cook said of the upstart second team. “Everybody would take us to school every time we went to play them, and it went on like that for a couple years.”

Time hasn’t blurred memories of the Pirates’ breakthrough victory against their big brethren.

It was a night game and the headline attraction of a busy community event. Cook recalls U.S. Senator Margaret Chase Smith attending the game, wearing her trademark red rose.

“They expected to beat us 190-0, naturally. We had a good crowd, and we wailed ’em,” Cook said. “From there on, I can’t tell you how many games we won, but we won a slew of ’em.”

Cook accompanied the team on trips across the southern half of the state, taking on anyone who would schedule the Pirates. The coach said he never heard a discouraging word from parents, all of whom dutifully packed picnic lunches or arranged post-game cookouts for the team.

As the boys developed into men, Cook stayed faithful to his place in the dugout. Cook was assisting Farmington High School coach ‘Red’ Dean one spring afternoon when Dean directed him to look out on the field and talk about what he saw.

When Cook didn’t comprehend the riddle, Dean pointed out that seven of Farmington’s starters were Cook’s Little League alumni.

In 1972, with many of those former players now having children of their own, Cook reunited part of the group in a one-year resurrection of the Farmington Flyers semipro powerhouse. The Flyers went 32-0 in the Pine Tree League, winning their final game in Rumford with eight players.

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Pitcher’s got a rubber arm

Oakes was the consummate, crafty left-hander, one who dealt junk without apology and threw frequently without hesitation.

“For about eight or 10 different (semipro) teams,” he said. “I couldn’t stay home. I used to play five games in a week and pitch three. The other two days, I didn’t know what to do. Isn’t that awful?”

Town teams courted Oakes when he was only 15, playing four sports as a freshman at Jay High School. He pitched a 10-inning, complete-game shutout on a Sunday that year.

The next day, without telling coach Cliff Weymouth about his weekend exploits, Oakes tried to take the hill in a state high school tournament game at Norway.

“At that age, you don’t think you can hurt yourself, right? I couldn’t get the ball over the plate,” Oakes said. “Cliff probably weighed 120 pounds, but he came out there, reamed me and took me off the field. He was right to do it. And I realized it, but it was too late. You live and you learn.”

Football was Oakes’ most successful sport in high school, and the one that dominates the yellowed newspaper clippings in his scrapbook. When Oakes told his seven children that he was being inducted into the state’s baseball hall of fame, many of them didn’t know he played baseball.

Play, he did, in such a way that mystified the opposition. “Can’t you throw a straight ball?” they would ask.

Oakes pitched for teams in Wilton, Rumford, North Jay, Chisholm-Livermore, Monmouth and Randolph.

“I remember 200 or 300 people coming to games in North Jay, and you wouldn’t figure there were that many people in the whole town,” Oakes said.

Those were the days

The number of fans, players and teams dwindled as entertainment options evolved in the second half of the century. Cook recalls 2,000 spectators routinely attending games in Farmington and Wilton when he was a child.

By the time he coached the Flyers in 1972, “if we had 200 or 300, we were exceptionally lucky,” he said.

Although there has been a recent flurry of Oxford and Franklin County players ushered into the Hall, both local inductees wonder when the pipeline will run dry.

“I’m right on the tail end. They can say what they want, but the teams started petering out,” Oakes said. “Now, when you’re out of high school, unless you go on to college, you’re all done with baseball.”

“We were poor folks, but sports didn’t cost us much,” Cook said. “And we had fun. We really had a lot of fun.”

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