Cape Cod beach read: ‘The Last Best League’

Excerpted from “The Last Best League: One Summer, One Season, One Dream,” by Jim Collins, with permission from Perseus Books.

Five or six of the early-arriving Chatham A’s players squeezed into Scott Thoms’s Yukon to go four-wheeling on North Beach. They curved north along winding roads through scrubby pitch-pine woods and past trim, well-tended houses. The steep rooflines, silvery wood shingles, and small-paned windows gave the houses an old charm. To pitcher Thomas Pauly, here from Florida, they seemed like New England, or at least the New England he’d seen in the movies. They made the place feel exotic. The truck turned left on Route 28 where the dark blue water of Pleasant Bay suddenly opened in front of them.

Pleasant Bay, an intricate, fingery inner harbor, spread around islands and fed marshes, estuaries, and saltwater ponds. For centuries the bay had been shielded by an eleven-mile-long arm of sand known on most maps as Nauset but referred to by locals as North Beach. Chatham’s location at the elbow of the Cape made its shorefront especially vulnerable. North Beach protected much of Chatham’s sixty miles of shoreline from the full-on brunt of waves and weather from Nantucket Sound to the south and, from the north and east, where the serious weather rolled in, from the bold Atlantic Ocean.

Storm winds, tides, and surf, though, continually redrew the sand. Occasionally water broke through the bar, creating or closing inlets into Pleasant Bay. These scars healed over with subsequent tides and yet more shifting sand. In 1987 pounding surf from a winter nor’easter opened a cut in the bar opposite Chatham’s old brick lighthouse and Coast Guard station. The slice, only eighteen feet across and a foot deep at the beginning, grew wider and deeper with each passing day. In two weeks the cut had extended to five hundred feet; by spring the break was three-quarters of a mile long and no longer looked like a cut. It looked like ocean, and North Beach had effectively become two beaches, North and South.

Jim Collins.

In October of 1991 the “perfect” unnamed hurricane made famous by Sebastian Junger’s book battered the barrier beaches and the inner shoreline with eighty-mile-an-hour winds and ten-foot waves. After it was over, a hundred houses on shore had been damaged and fourteen cottages on North Beach had been sent sailing. The break had widened to two miles. In the aftermath, sand collected and curled back to the mainland from the southern end of the break, and South Beach was no longer an island, but a peninsula connected to shore by a natural landbridge. In the decade since, sand had continued to pile up, restoring much of the beach that had washed away below the Chatham light. But the break itself stayed wide open to the Atlantic.

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Scott Thoms turned onto the sand at Nauset, where North Beach joined the mainland in Orleans. Traveling south he kept the truck to the outside of the bar, the ocean side, but the A’s players had a clear view over the sand to the wealthy summer homes and opulent estates that stretched along the Chatham shore of Pleasant Bay. The players eyed the cottages and rambling, turn-of-the-century grand hotel of the Chatham Bars Inn, where suites went for as much as sixteen hundred bucks a night during the high season. The sun dipped closer to the horizon, backlighting fishing boats on their moorings and sailboats skimming along on the stiff breeze. Lacy whitecaps edged the dark blue water. The players drove along on the thinnest of edges. They were boys, out four-wheeling, on moving sand that seemed solid and forever. The slanting, golden light put a shine on everything. At the moment, before the summer proved otherwise, they all belonged here, in this place, in this league.