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One of the Only Female GMs in Baseball

Last season, Sue Horton ran the Orleans Firebirds. Welcome to the only place in baseball with a storied history of women in positions of power: the Cape Cod League.

Sue Horton

Everyone knows the world would be a better place if women ran the show. But what if women ran The Show?

That tantalizing prospect presented itself to me one beatific night at the close of the 127th season of the woman-centric Cape Cod Baseball League. It was an achingly beautiful evening at Eldredge Park, an emerald bowl nestled in a hollow an echo away from the vacation bustle of Orleans, Mass. The air was so clear the shadows on the outfield grass were as sharp as the crease on a soldier’s dress pants.

This is where baseball cognoscenti come to see the future of the game played against the scrim of the past; where the best seats in the house are beach chairs and blankets splayed on the grass behind first base; where the price of admission is the cost of a raffle ticket. This is where fireflies vie for attention with cartwheeling 5-year-olds and ballpark franks are cooked on charcoal grills hauled to the park by volunteers; where players swing exclusively wooden bats, some made 23½ miles down the road by the Barnstable Bat Company; where major league scouts cluster behind home plate hoping to spot the next Thurman Munson or Nomar Garciaparra; and where women, from league president Judy Walden Scarafile down to Mrs. Firebird, wife of the team mascot, have a loud voice in how the game is played in the most prestigious college summer league in the country.

I found Sue Horton, general manager of the 2011 Eastern Division champion Orleans Firebirds, sitting on a warped wooden bench to the right of home plate, one of the few actual seats in the park. Players call her Miss Sue.

Given that Major League baseball has survived, just barely, a century and a half of all-male stewardship, I asked her to remake The Show in her image. In Sue’s Show, there would be a whole lot less spitting and scratching and no one would suck. The Yankees wouldn’t suck at Fenway and Boston wouldn’t suck in New York.

A practical and observant woman, Sue rejected an outright ban on spitting and scratching as unenforceable, but conceded that imposing limitations on the urge to itch would address the increasing timelessness of America’s former national pastime, shaving a good half hour off of each game and teaching the youth of America to scratch themselves in private.

“Spitting?” she says. “You can’t control that. I understand the spitting thing.”

When Garciaparra played for Orleans in 1993 he participated in weekly youth clinics, as do many of the players. There’s a radical notion for Major League Baseball to consider. Two of the grandsons of the former league president Russ Ford attended a clinic with the future Sox shortstop. “When the kids came home Russ would ask, ‘What did you learn today?'” Sue says. “They said, ‘Nomar taught us how to spit.'”

Last year, at the induction of Lou Merloni into the Cape Cod Baseball League Hall of Fame (located in “The Dugout” on the lower level of the John F. Kennedy Hyannis Museum), Ford told Garciaparra the story. “And Nomar said, ‘Ya gotta know that,'” Sue says.

Sue advocates zero tolerance for Red Man and all other forms of smokeless tobacco, which is the policy of the Cape league. First offense: automatic ejection for player and manager, a one-game suspension for the offender, and a team fine of $250. Second offense: a two-game suspension with no appeal and a fine of $500. Third offense: expulsion from the league for the remainder of the season.

Maybe Major League Baseball should try this policy on for size: Any player with a telltale bulge in his cheek, brown drool on his sanitary socks, or a cylindrical protrusion in the hip pocket would be subject to immediate ejection. If a JUGS gun can gauge the speed of a 94 mph fastball, surely some techno wizard can devise a spit tracker to help enforce the ban. And each day’s worst offender would be required to count the next day’s acts of expectoration, like charting pitches. “And scrub the dugout floor,” Sue says.

In Sue World, all forms of aural pollution would be banned, including excessive interpolations of the national anthem. Let kids sing it, and let ’em sing during the seventh-inning stretch, too, as they do nightly in Orleans, belting out “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” at an enthusiastic if random pitch.

“The Macarena?”

“Banned.”

“Sweet Caroline?”

“Get rid of it. Ya gotta keep the Village People. But get rid of Neil Diamond. And none of that rap that pounds like a migraine. That stuff is blatantly sexist, as well as vulgar.”

Spoken like a visionary female GM.

Unlike Major League Baseball, the Cape League savors its youngest fans. Until this season, kids were welcome on the outfield grass between innings when the public address announcer urged, then beseeched, and finally ordered them to return to the sidelines until after the game. Why not allow a group of designated fans 10 years of age and younger onto major league diamonds after the game? Let them run the bases, slide into home, feel what it’s like to be a big leaguer. Maybe more of them would dream of becoming major leaguers.

During games at Eldredge Park, one uniformed Firebird roams the crowd signing autographs, posing for pictures, and selling raffle tickets. In a better big league world a designated signer would remain on the field after every home game (except getaway day), satisfying all comers as Cal Ripken Jr. did nightly for years in Baltimore. “Just rotate it through,” Sue says.

Speaking of building a fan base, all Orleans games begin at 7 p.m.; three Cape League teams with unlit fields start at 5 p.m. In the world according to Sue, every nine-inning game uninterrupted by rain, sleet, snow, or other act of God would finish on the day it begins including — especially — postseason games.

As for ballpark boozehounds, like the tatted-up beer Buddha who threw up in my hoodie at Fenway Park on Opening Day a couple of years back, cut ’em off, she says. Two brews and you’re done.

The heirs to baseball’s founding brewery barons who profit from displays of public drunkenness will hate the ban and claim it is impossible to legislate social behavior. To which Bob Korn, the sometime public address announcer for the Firebirds, offered this practical solution: Each time you buy a beer you get your hand stamped, like at the door to every hip dance club in America. While you’re at it, raise the price of every brew to $15 to discourage drinking and maintain the revenue stream. “If you need more than two beers to enjoy the afternoon …” Sue says.

“Afternoon?” I ask.

In Sue’s Show, every weekend game would be played in sunshine; matinee prices, too, as on Ladies’ Days of yore. Although hitters might not appreciate the late-afternoon shadows, Sue would prefer a 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. game time. “Too hot in midday for ladies of a certain age,” she says.

She is 63.

What about the generation of Hall of Fame sinners now taxing the Solomonic wisdom of sportswriters voting on admission to Cooperstown? An easy call, Sue says. The rules shall conform to the principles of jurisprudence where old-fashioned remorse is a mitigating factor at sentencing. Acknowledge the obvious, she says, or you’re an easy out. “If you don’t admit it, forget it,” she says.

“DH?”

“I like it. I’m an American League person. Ya gotta have David Ortiz. But the winner of the All-Star game getting home-field advantage? That’s horseshit.”

That’s when I knew for sure she was a real baseball guy. In baseball, horseshit is everything. Bullshit is for poseurs.

Among the no-bullshit women who have guided the Cape League through the years: Barbara Ellsworth, former president of Yarmouth/Dennis Red Sox, now director at large for CCBL; Mary Henderson, president of the Harwich Mariners; Christine Clark, president of the Falmouth Commodores; Claire Gradone, former president of the Brewster Whitecaps; and Martha Johnston, former president of the Cotuit Kettleers. The Firebirds’ team doc is also a woman.

Sue attributes the centrality of women to volunteerism. “I just think it’s because women are more likely to help out,” she says.

Not everyone, including Judy Scarafile, the first woman inducted into the Cape Cod Baseball League Hall of Fame, is enamored of the female influence. “It’s getting top-heavy,” she told me, without a trace of irony. “We need more men.”

Sue, on the other hand, sees an urgent need for a few good women at the top in major league baseball and proposes requiring at least one female hire in the front office of every franchise.

She became general manager of Orleans in 2000 when she shared the job with a gal pal. After one season, they decided it was a one-woman job. She wasn’t a baseball fan growing up; she was a cheerleader at Nauset High School. Her father watched the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports if he watched anything at all. But on weekends they visited Uncle Clarence, who lived at the highest point in Eastham (Est. 1651), the town just north of Orleans where Sue still makes her home. “He had good reception,” she says. “Everywhere else on the Outer Cape you got maybe two channels.”

There, hard by Uncle Clarence’s easy chair, she learned to love the Red Sox and to respect the game. Not that she could play. God help her, she still throws like a girl. “One night someone roped me into throwing out the first pitch,” she says. “An Eastham selectman gave me the ball and said, ‘Good luck.'”

Her first and last ceremonial heave made it two-thirds of the way to the plate. It was a valuable life lesson, one that male front-office personnel might take to heart. “I know to stay out of things I don’t understand,” she says.

She also stays out of the locker room — except during the offseason, when her duties sometimes include the removal of dead mice from last year’s jock straps. She has brought a feminine touch to other delicate matters. A few years back, one of her guys came to her with a request. “He said, ‘Miss Sue, you have a safety pin?’

“I said, ‘What’s the problem?'”

“He said, ‘My jock strap broke.'”

After a tactful pause, she replied, “‘I don’t think we want a safety pin, darling.’ I mean, ouch!

“I said, ‘I think we need a needle and thread.’ He said, ‘OK, I can do that.'”

This current major leaguer will not be named later.

Cape Cod baseball dates back to the time of the Civil War. A poster at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown touts a round-trip train ride from Hyannis to Sandwich on July 4, 1885 — the occasion of the 14th annual baseball game between Sandwich and Barnstable. According to an article by James H. Ellis, “Cape Cod League a Talent Showcase,” in the SABR Research Journals Archive, “The earliest established nine on the Cape appears to be the Nichols Base Ball Club of Sandwich, formed in June 1866. The team stemmed from the group that had gathered for the ‘first game’ the previous November” — hearty lads, Cape Codders were known to play on ice when no other surface was available. “The club was named after Captain Edward Nichols, a retired sea captain. None of the farmers in Sandwich would rent a field to the team. Captain Nichols stepped forward and said the team was welcome to use his lot without charge. In return, the club was named in his honor.”

By the 1880s, baseball was entrenched in the Cape’s sandy soil. Semipro teams, commonplace before World War I, were organized into the first Cape Cod League in 1923 — Orleans joined the four original teams five years later. By 1940, the league had foundered on financial shoals and disbanded.

A new iteration debuted in 1946, with town teams comprised of “bona fide residents of Cape Cod,” as well as teams representing Otis Air Force Base in Buzzards Bay and the now defunct Air Force Station in North Truro, where I spend my summers. The modern era of Cape Cod baseball dawned in 1963 when the league became a showcase for the collegiate elite. Long after the Blue Sox hung up their sanitary hose, the Air Force station remained operational, part of the Cold War Air Defense Command radar network.

A forlorn and rusted backstop still stands where the Blue Sox once played. A solitary splintered bench, not unlike the one where I found Sue at Eldredge Park, sits along the first-base line. I’d like to think it’s the same one shown in an early 20th-century photograph of parasol-bearing, crinoline-wearing female spectators attending a game by Truro’s Highland Light, the oldest lighthouse on Cape Cod.

Today the talent, the facilities, and the demands of the job are decidedly big league. General managing has become a full-time, decidedly nonprofit endeavor. After 12 years as top bird, Sue said it may be time to shed some load. Over the past two years, the Friends of the Orleans Firebirds have spent close to $350,000 (most from donations) to make the park worthy of future major leaguers. Last season, 236 Cape Cod alumni played in the majors, among them Ryan Braun (Brewster 2004), Jacoby Ellsbury (Falmouth 2004), Tim Lincecum (Harwich 2005), Evan Longoria (Chatham 2005), Buster Posey (Yarmouth/Dennis 2006-07), David Robertson (Yarmouth/Dennis 2006), Nick Swisher (Wareham 2000), Mark Teixeira (Orleans 2001), Chase Utley (Brewster 1998, Cotuit 1999), Jason Varitek (Hyannis 1991, 1993), Matt Wieters (Orleans 2006), Brian Wilson (Hyannis 2002), Kevin Youkilis (Bourne 2000), and Barry Zito (Wareham 1997-98). Pie Traynor and Red Rolfe played on Cape Cod, as did Carlton Fisk, though he denies it. During his brief Cardinals career, he caught Tom Yankus, a onetime Yankee farmhand who became an English teacher at Choate. “Carlton was here a week and left, and then his brother came,” Sue says. “Why he would deny it, I don’t know. I finally took him off the alumni list.”

We were still wrangling about spitting and scratching when Barbara Ellsworth, the octogenarian past president of the Sox, joined the conversation. She could do without pitchers who circle the mound between every delivery like dogs marking their territory. And, she says, “I would like to see pitchers stop worrying about how hard they throw. I don’t mind the speed gun here” — she nodded at the digital readout fixed to the side of a rickety press box — “I mind it on the scoreboard. Pitchers get whiplash looking at how hard they throw. And, all that lifting!”

Bats?

“Wood, wood, wood,” Sue said. “Get rid of aluminum. At every level. What an awful sound, that ping.”

“And no maple,” Mrs. E declared. “It’s dangerous.”

If ash was good enough for Mickey Mantle, it’s good enough for the likes of Adam “Big Donkey” Dunn, currently hitting a mighty .162 for the Chicago White Sox.

Over the years Mrs. E has hosted give or take 160 players. In her view, parents are a clear and present danger to their offspring. One year looking over the roster for the coming season, she told her manager, “You’ve talked to the fathers of three sons and all three have the second coming of Christ living at home. How is that possible?”

She snorts. “We oughta hire only orphans to play the game.” If that proves impossible, Mrs. E suggests an all-out ban on living vicariously through your children. “After five years in The Show, they can look up their parents,” she said.

By the end of the nine innings it took for Mrs. E’s Red Sox to vanquish Miss Sue’s Firebirds, baseball’s makeover was complete. (Mrs. E’s Sox eliminated my Birds in the first round of the playoffs.) Just to make sure the proposed improvements would stick, Mrs. E offered one last suggestion. “Fire all the men.”

Jane Leavy is the author of the New York Times best-sellers The Last Boy, Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood and Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy. She is a former staff writer for the Washington Post.


Previously from Jane Leavy:
Remembering Mike Flanagan
One Round

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