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The Lost World of Providence Sports

Meet the pro football, basketball and baseball teams that called Providence home from the 1880s through the 1940s

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When it comes to professional sports, Boston’s really got a monopoly on the region. Granted they’ve thrown the rest of New England a bone by sharing the Patriots and the Revolution – soccer you guys! – and sure, we’ve got the Providence Bruins, PawSox and some damn good college teams for seeing a game close to home, but it hasn’t always been that way.

Providence had teams of its very own in three of the Big Four professional sports. There’s just nothing left to show for it now except for, of all things, a couple of New Harvest coffee varieties. In fact, had it not been for the Pawtucket coffee roaster I’d have never known that there was a wide world of professional sports buried not too deep in PVD’s history. And in true Rhode Island fashion, those teams all had colorful histories full of trailblazing firsts and wacky records, some that still hold today. So settle in, sports fans, and take a look back at the weird world of Providence sports.

Football – Providence Steam Roller (1916-1933)
First, let’s get this right out of the way: Co-founder, co-owner and former Providence Journal sports editor Charles B. Coppen hated when people called them the Steam Rollers. In his mind they were one singular unstoppable force of athletic prowess, mowing over opponents like, well, a steamroller. In fact it was while eating a hot dog during the team’s fourth game, a 52-0 shutout against New Bedford, that he overheard an impressed spectator refer to the Providence squad – then the Professionals – as such. He promptly changed the name.

Today their memory lives on as a Bold Blend coffee from New Harvest and little else. Their home fields, Kinsley Park and the Cycledrome – also a New Harvest blend – haven’t existed in any recognizable form for 70 years, which is a shame because the Steam Roller hold some pretty impressive distinctions.

First New England Team to Win an NFL championship
In 1928, 73 years before Belichick and Brady turned the Pats into a dynasty – or an evil empire if you ask anyone outside of New England – the Steam Roller took home New England’s first NFL title. Champions were decided based on winning percentage, most likely because there didn’t seem to be much consistency in scheduling. The Frankford Yellow Jackets actually won 11 games out of 16 that season versus 8 wins in 11 for Providence, but since their winning percentage came out to .786 behind the Steam Roller’s .889 our boys got the title. Sure. Why not?

This was also the last time a currently non-active NFL team would win the title. A 2016 time traveler might recognize a very early New York Giants and Green Bay Packers in the 1928 season.

Two NFL Firsts
In 1929, the Steam Roller kind of lost some steam, but that didn’t stop them from locking down two NFL firsts – one a landmark in how the game was played, the other suicidal by today’s standards.

Let’s start with crazy. Between November 5 and November 10, 1929, the Steam Roller played four games. In six days. Alternating between traveling to Staten Island, back to Providence, then to Frankford (damn you Yellow Jackets!) then back home again. I don’t care what improvements we’ve made in the field of performance enhancing drugs in the last seven decades, there’s no way you could talk a modern squad into that. Oh yeah, at best they tied one game out of the four.

During that gumption-fueled marathon, Providence hosted the first NFL game to be played under lights. A home game against the Chicago Cardinals was originally scheduled for November 3, but a storm had left the Cycledrome field unplayable. Not wanting to lose a game’s pay, the teams agreed to reschedule the match to the evening of November 6 under the newly installed floodlights at Kinsley Park. Just in case, the ball was painted white. Six-thousand people showed up to watch.

Basketball – Providence Steamrollers (1946-1949)
One of the original Eastern Division teams for the Basketball Association of America’s inaugural 1946-47 season, the Providence Steamrollers (one word, plural, makes perfect sense) called the Rhode Island Auditorium their home court. Back then, basketball shorts were short and the program for a February matchup against the Washington Capitols promised immediate enrollment into flight school under the GI Bill, higher social standing in your ‘47 Studebaker (“First by far with a post-war car!”) and the highly anticipated March 3 arrival of those Swiss cut-ups Frick and Frack.

Unfortunately the Steamrollers only lasted for three unimpressive seasons before folding, making it the last professional sports franchise in one of the Big Four leagues to call Rhode Island home. But even though they only lasted three short seasons, they managed to leave their mark on what would soon become the NBA. To this day the Providence Steamrollers hold two league records; one of them is hilarious while the other is just kind of pathetic.

Oldest Player in NBA History
During their second season, Nat Hickey, who was brought on as a replacement coach, decided to put himself into the game on January 28, 1948. Coach Hickey would turn 46 two days later. He scored two whole points off of a couple of free throws, nabbed himself five personal fouls and whiffed all six of his attempted shots. To this day no one older has laced up.

Worst. Record. Ever.
The same season Old Man Hickey proved the adage “Do as I say, not as I do,” the Steamrollers went on to wrap things up with a stinker of a 6-42 record, ending in fourth for the Eastern Division behind a primordial, third place 20-28 Boston Celtics. Though the Charlotte Bobcats would go on to secure the league’s worst winning percentage (.106) in the 2011-2012 season, they still managed to win seven games that year. On the flip side, they lost 59. Meowch.

Baseball – Providence Grays
There were a handful of major and minor league teams called the Grays (see sidebar) between 1878 and 1949. The older, Major League Grays (1878-1885) played at Messer Street Grounds on the West Side and took home two championships, including the very first World Series, which predates and has nothing to do with the modern World Series (ugh, baseball amiright?). Additionally, Grays pitcher Charlie Sweeney struck out 19 batters in a single game, a record that stood until Roger Clemens beat it 102 years later. The Grays still hold the MLB record for most devastating shutout thanks to a 28-0 victory over the Phillies in August of 1883. It’s also believed that they were the first team to field an African-American player, William Edward White, who played one game on June 21, 1879.

The Minor League Grays (no relation) had several iterations and their only real claim to fame was the inclusion of a left-handed pitcher in 1914 named Babe Ruth.