The Historic Providence Grays Baseball Team is Here to Stay

Players are committed to some old rules while reinventing others to embrace the fun of the sport


If you’ve driven by a local field in the past couple of decades and seen a group dressed in bulky outfits playing baseball with no gloves, you may be wondering, “Did I wander into Kevin Costner’s Iowa cornfield from Field of Dreams?” The short answer is “no,” but if you didn’t stop, you missed an opportunity to step back in time with the Providence Grays.

The original Grays were awarded a National League franchise in 1878, and surprisingly won the pennant (meaning they were the champion of their league) the next year. In 1884 they took the pennant again and won the championship that most historians consider the first World Series. However, at the end of the 1885 season, they collapsed financially, later playing in the International League for 27 years.

According to current team president Jon Henson, the Grays reconstituted in 1998 as a historic baseball team when president emeritus Tim Norton had the idea to recreate the 1884 championship. Aside from just playing games, much of what the team does today is educate the public about the evolution of the rules, the history of the club, contributions made by former players, and constant recruitment efforts to bring new players into the sport.

The organization also illuminates history lessons, like the story of how the 1884 team’s success balanced precariously on the arm and temperament of Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn. Author and former Providence Journal editor Edward Achorn, who wrote Fifty-Nine in ‘84, sheds light on Radbourn’s fights with teammates and management, his hard drinking, and over-inflated ego, even uncovering from one of the pitcher’s relatives that Radbourn “drank a quart of whiskey a day to relieve pain.”

The current team captain, Brian Travers, is grateful there is no ego involved in today’s team, explaining that everyone plays for fun. He’s a stickler for the agreed-upon rules, usually playing one pitcher per game, except sometimes when playing 1884 rules – the year the game adopted overhand pitching. At that time, pitchers stood in a box 50 feet from home plate and there was no mound. However, he admits it resembles Little League when it comes to substitutions, as teams pretend injuries so everyone can get time on the field.

Henson also enjoys playing by differing rules; one of his favorites comes from 1864 when fly balls caught on one bounce were considered outs – though most players good-naturedly rib anyone allowing a ball to bounce rather than playing it on the fly. Current players also shape their own bats out of blanks, and fielders all play barehanded; it wasn’t until 1884 that Grays player Arthur Irwin originally popularized fielders wearing gloves.

Another difference from your great-great-great-grandfathers’ Grays team is that women are now allowed, even encouraged, to play, although not in the same fashion as the Suffragette League in the 1860s, which prompted newspaper editorials to decry women rounding the bases in hoop skirts. Today’s team marketing director Helen Sheldon is one of many women playing across the region. She’s also umpired games and loves the egalitarian nature of the league. “Baseball brings the world together,” says Sheldon. “It unifies us in the midst of many differences. It’s why I love it.”


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