March 17, 2010

Augusta Millionaires captured capital city's attention

BY BILL STEWART Staff Writer

BY BILL STEWART

Staff Writer

Sometime after the game ended, long after the thousands of fans vacated Capitol Park in downtown Augusta, Ted Lepcio, Harry Agganis and a few of their hardball teammates slipped into a starless Maine night.

It was late. They were late. So the Millionaires walked at a brisk pace to Winthrop, where the 14 beds at caretaker Ma Hersom's awaited.

"You know what was frightening, we had to hitchhike back to Winthrop," said Lepcio, who played 10 seasons in the major leagues, seven with the Boston Red Sox.

"We tried to get rides, sometimes we did. Those cars used to whizz by. It was black up there, too. We were walking past the (Augusta) country club, and these cars are flying by, and I said to Harry, 'This is crazy, we're going to get killed.'

"That was the life."

It's summer 1949. Perry Como and Frankie Laine dominate the music charts, the Soviet Union explodes its first atomic bomb and the New York Yankees are well on their way to winning their 12th World Series.

Locally, the Augusta Millionaires are kings once again.

"It was the time of our lives," said Lepcio, 78, a two-time captain for the Millionaires. "We loved Augusta."

It was a mutual love.

Although the Millionaires debuted in the early 1920s, it wasn't until their renaissance in 1948 when the heyday of semipro baseball in Augusta arrived. As many as 5,000 fans would pack Capitol Park on game days to watch a team of men, boys really, play baseball.

When the club folded in 1953, so too, did semipro baseball in the city.

The Millionaires were comprised of top-flight collegiate players who hoped Augusta was a springboard to the Major Leagues. For some, like Lepcio and Agganis, their standout play earned them contracts with the Red Sox. For most, however, the dream died here, along the banks of the Kennebec River.

The Millionaires competed as an independent team before joining the Down East League, which featured outfits from Farmington, Portland, Auburn, and Kennebunk, among others.

They lived together, played ball together and hung out together. But most of all, they played ball.

Here is their story, told in part by those who left an indelible imprint on Augusta sports history.

Welcome back

The original Millionaires debuted in 1923 and at one time featured five players who would later play in the majors, including battery mates Don Brennan (pitcher) and catcher Clyde Sukeforth, according to Maine sports historian Mike Burns. Sukeforth went on to become a player, scout and coach in the big leagues.

Sukeforth, who was born in Washington, Maine, and died in 2000, was best known for scouting and then signing Jackie Robinson, the first black player in baseball's modern era.

Brennan, a member of the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame, was born in Augusta and played five seasons in the Major Leagues (1933-37).

When the 1920s Millionaires -- who played at Williams Field, site of the old Cony High School -- folded, it would be two decades before the team returned.

In the mid-to-late 1940s, Augusta Athletic Association President Lewis Sheaffer spearheaded a movement to re-introduce the Millionaires. He estimated it would cost $30,000 to renovate Capitol Park, including $16,000 for lights. The city welcomed the resurrection and work began in the fall 1947.

Additional seating was built, the field was re-seeded and a fence was erected around the park.

In the summer 1948, the Millionaires' return was complete.

"We had a great team," said Andy Lano, 80, of Falmouth, who played third base on the 1948 team. "We had great teamwork. We had fun -- and we won. At one point we won 33 straight before we were beaten by a New York team who had Josh Gibson on their team."

(Continued on page 2)

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