Oakes, Don (2007)
Growing up in North Jay, long before the advent of organized youth leagues, Don Oakes played “rag” ball, using a stuffed sock or mitten for a baseball to learn the finer points of the game. “We’d play in the streets,” says Don. “There wasn’t much traffic back then.”
Don, a left hander, acquired his first baseball glove at the age of 12 when Winston Kinney (“the only other leftie in North Jay”) retired from town team ball and gave his worn mitt to the grateful teenager.
Don was a natural athlete and played football, basketball and baseball for 4 years at Jay High School, graduating in 1955. In the days before pitch counts and mandatory rest, Don would often pitch 10 of the 15 games scheduled in a season and mix in an appearance with the North Jay town team on weekends just to stay sharp.
“I pitched a lot when I was in high school,” recalls Don. “My arm was sore all the time, but back in those days you threw anyways.”
Don often toiled for 2 or 3 town teams in the summer, starting with the North Jay nine at the age of 15 and later with Livermore and the Wilton Loggers. Don’s approach to playing was a harbinger of the free agent era. “If a team wanted me to pitch, I was there. I played when and where I wanted to, usually 4 or 5 games a week. I did it because I wanted to play.”
Don readily admits his passion for the game sometimes pushed aside his good judgment. One Sunday while still in high school, Don pitched the North Jay town team to a 10-inning 2-1 win only to take the mound with a sore arm the very next day to pitch in the high school play-offs. “I didn’t last too long and the coach was some steamed,” Don ruefully recalls.
Don credits much of his success early on to his catcher, Richard “Cud” Greenleaf, who understood the art of pitching, and developed into a terrific battery mate for the lanky southpaw.
Don’s signature pitch was his curveball which he readily admits he threw about half the time. “Can’t you throw anything straight,” Don remembers many frustrated hitters asking him. Don learned to vary his curve from a loopy drop to a sharper slider to keep hitters off balance. He often played 4 or 5 games a week, sometimes pitching in 3 of them, and most likely chalking up another W at the end of the day.
As the innings mounted, the game eventually took its toll on Don and the golden arm began to tarnish. He retired from active competition in his mid-thirties, content that he had given it his all whenever he took the mound. “It was all I ever wanted to do when I was younger,” Don said. “I couldn’t wait to get up the next morning, so I could go play baseball.”
Don retired from International Paper in 1999 and lives today in Wilton with his high-school sweetheart and wife of 51 years, Louise “Dolly” Oakes. Dolly and Don were blessed with 7 children, 19 grandchildren and 5 great-grandchildren, many of whom are in attendance today to witness the Maine Baseball Hall of Fame honoring a man whose motto in life is simple: “If you really want something, go get it.” Don Oakes rode that big curveball to a secure niche in Maine baseball history- and got it!