Play ball, Rhody-style

Nine innings’ worth of stuff you don’t know about Rhode Island and baseball
By IAN DONNIS  |  April 6, 2007
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Although the generally cold, damp weather justifies poet T.S. Eliot’s damnation of April as “the cruelest month,” baseball fans in New England view spring’s wispy introduction through a different lens. To them, this month is a season of rebirth and renewal, a link between past and present, a time when — Curt Schilling’s start for the Sox this week notwithstanding — hope springs eternal and dreams take flight.
 
This connection runs deep in Rhode Island, a historic base of support for the Red Sox (Narragansett Beer was a proud sponsor back in the day), and the longtime home of the team’s top minor league club. Any self-respecting local knows, of course, how the longest game in baseball history, a 33-inning epic spread over two days in 1981, took place in Pawtucket.
 
Like anthropologists, the more zealous baseball fans among us can recite how the surge of ethnic pride fired more than a half-century ago by Joe DiMaggio underlies Italian-American support for the Yankees in Rhode Island. How NESN color commentator Jerry Remy, even if he decamped for plusher digs, hails from nearby Somerset, Massachusetts. They might even know how state Treasurer Frank Caprio, while playing for Harvard, once squared off against Roger Clemens during a spring training exhibition game in Winter Haven. (C’mon, Frank, put in a word for a mid-season return by the Rocket.)
 
Rhode Island’s link with baseball is longer and richer, however, than even many enthusiasts might imagine. Think you got the bat-speed? Then read along in celebration of the new season.

1ST INNING: THE RI ROOTS OF THE GAME
The Red Sox occupy the central consciousness, of course, of most local fans — not a surprise considering the storied franchise’s up-and-down-and-up history, and how Fenway Park, the oldest park in Major League Baseball (MLB), will celebrate its 100th birthday in a mere five years.
 
Yet 100 years before Bucky-Fucking-Dent dealt a crushing blow to the New England psyche, the Providence Grays burst on the local scene in 1878, playing at the bygone Messer Street Grounds, in what is now the Armory District.
 
Although the team had a brief eight-year lifespan in the pre-MLB era, the Providence Grays, backed by some of the best players of the day, wracked up records and distinctions. As baseball historians have attested in recent years, for example, the team might have been the first professional squad to field a black player, Willi¬am Edward White of Brown University, who appeared for one game in 1879.
 
A year earlier, Grays’ outfielder Paul Hines was the first ballplayer to execute an unassisted triple play, making a running catch on a ball hit to short center field and then stepping on third to collect outs from two players who had passed the bag.
 
History remembers the Red Sox’ 1903 triumph over the Pittsburgh Pirates as the first World Series, although the Grays were the first team to win a national baseball championship. Powered by Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn — who won either 59 or 60 games — National League Providence went 84-28 in 1884, and then beat the New York Metropolitans of the American Association in a three-game post-season sweep.
 
The Grays disbanded after just one more season, a development that Len Levin, a Providence-based member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR), attributes to poor attendance. Although most fans, like Levin, prefer contemporary baseball, the new Providence Grays, an East Providence-based amateur team, which dresses and plays according to 19th-century rules, carries on the old-time tradition.

2ND INNING: AN ESCAPE FROM THE MILLS
While Woonsocket native Napoleon Lajoie — one of the best hitters to play in the National League — was an exceptional athlete, he epitomizes how scores of New Englanders turned to baseball not just for entertainment, but a better life during the Industrial Age.
 
Born to French-Canadian immigrants, Lajoie rose from humble roots, working as a child in a textile mill and as the driver of a horse-drawn delivery vehicle. He would go on to hit .426 for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1901 — a modern record — and was among the first eight players selected for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1937.
 
An article in the 2001 All-Star game program, describing Lajoie as a quiet, shy man, noted how he nonetheless became involved in most of the baseball controversies of his day. Earning the NL maximum $2400, Lajoie became the subject of a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling when he took a reported $4000 to join Connie Mack’s American League A’s.
 
Playing semi-pro ball at the time was “a terrific way and one of the few ways to escape” the bleak life of working in a mill, says Vermont-based baseball historian Glenn Stout. “In Rhode Island, and in southeastern Massachusetts, and in the mill towns, baseball was the game of choice,” Stout says. “It was just about the only game in town.”
 
Besides Lajoie, other players cutting their teeth in industrial mill leagues included such future luminaries as Hank Greenberg and Casey Stengel. And since skilled pitchers could earn as much as $200 for a single game, some players earned more in these leagues than they could have in the Major Leagues. Stout credits the flourishing regional leagues of the late 19th- and early 20th-Century with having transformed baseball into the national pastime.

3RD INNING: AN EARLY ERA OF BLACK BASEBALL
While the baseball world will soon take note of the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s groundbreaking 1947 debut with the Brooklyn Dodgers, black Rhode Islanders had been playing baseball for years by the time when Robinson broke the sport’s color-line.
 
In addition to how William E. White is thought to have briefly played for the Providence Grays, Providence-born pitcher William Whyte played with the Cuban Giants, the first professional black baseball team in the US, in its inaugural 1885 season and for six others.
 
According to Robert Cvornyek, a Rhode Island College history professor who curated a recent RIC exhibit on black baseball in the state, the sport occupied an important social and cultural space in Rhode Island’s African-American community during the period starting in the 1880s, particularly in Providence, Newport, and Woonsocket.
 
“Black athletic clubs, fraternal and civic organizations, and local neighborhoods sponsored semi-pro and amateur teams which regularly competed against each other and nearby white teams,” Cvornyek writes in an overview for the exhibit. “These athletic contests strengthened racial identity, fortified community, and showcased a distinctive form of cultural and artistic expression.”

4TH INNING: THE PAWSOX WEREN’T ALWAYS THE PAWSOX
While Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium conjures thoughts of cheap ticket prices and PawSox prospects who have gone on to star in Boston, it once sparked more nefarious connotations.
 
The stadium, originally dubbed “McCoy’s Folly,” because of how it was built on swampland before being completed in 1942, faced initial skepticism. This was due in part to how then-Pawtucket mayor Thomas P. McCoy, according to a 1991 article in Labor’s History, a labor leader-turned-Tammany Hall-style politician, had previously faced “sensational but accurate charges of mishandling of finances, corruption, graft, and favoritism.”
 
In the end, however, McCoy Stadium, restored professional baseball to Rhode Island (a minor league version of the Providence Grays had operated from 1891 to 1929, attracting participation in 1914 from a young prospect named Babe Ruth, who hit his first professional home run, in Toronto, while playing for the team), proving more successful than anyone might have imagined.
 
It took awhile, though. The Pawtucket Slaters, an affiliate of the Boston Braves, played for four seasons in the ’40s, and there was no baseball at McCoy until a minor league club of the Cleveland Indians operated for two years in the ’60s. The Red Sox didn’t strike a relationship with Pawtucket until 1970, first as a double-A team, and three years later as a triple-A squad.
 
While the close geographic connection might now seem second-nature, “it was thought that minor league clubs in a minor league facility would never ever thrive so close to the Major League club,” says Lou Schwechheimer, general manager and vice president of the PawSox. “It was unheard of at the time.”
 
A turning point for the better, after various ownership woes, came when Ben Mondor, now 82 and still a steady presence, bought the franchise in the mid-’70s. These days, the PawSox are the second-highest drawing professional sports team in New England, after the Red Sox, and widely regarded as a class act. “They run an incredible operation, and unlike a lot of minor league teams that feel they have to entertain you, they’re baseball first and foremost,” says Richard A. Johnson, curator of the Sports Museum of New England.

5TH INNING: HAIL, HAIL, HANK SOAR
While many baseball players have emerged from Rhode Island, few Ocean Staters can rival the record of Pawtucket native Hank Soar, who participated in three sports — baseball, football, and basketball — and sometimes in dramatic fashion.
 
A gridiron standout at Providence College, Soar went on to play basketball for the Providence Steamrollers, an early professional team, and then football for the Boston Shamrocks and the New York Giants in the 1930s and 1940s, receiving national attention when he caught a winning touchdown pass in the 1938 championship game against the Green Bay Packers.
 
Soar’s greatest impact, though, was as an umpire in Major League Baseball, where he worked five World Series (including 1956, when the Yankees’ Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in World Series’ history), three All-Star games, and a Nolan Ryan no-hitter.
 
Although Soar worked first base during Larsen’s gem, he “made the close ‘out’ call” on a ground ball hit in the second inning by the Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson, the pitcher wrote in The Perfect Yankee: The Incredible Story of the Greatest Miracle in Baseball History (Sagamore Publishing, 2001). No less a hitter than Ted Williams deemed Soar a discerning arbiter of the strike zone.
 
Soar, who concluded his 25-year umpiring career as a league supervisor, had considerable personality. In 1967, a Time magazine article on spitballs noted, “In one game at Boston, visiting hitters complained so often that Red Sox pitchers were doctoring the ball that Umpire Hank Soar called for it, examined it carefully, found it clean — and in a gesture of resignation spat on it himself before firing it back to the mound.”
 
The legacy of Soar, who died in Pawtucket at age 87 in 2001, lives on in a complex of lovingly maintained softball diamonds in his hometown, as well as a fund, endowed by the Rhode Island Foundation in 2004, to revive interest in baseball in the inner city.

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