Before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1947 . . .
Before Luis Castro played for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1902 . . .
There was a team that had both an African-American and Hispanic player and a pitcher whose record was 59-12 that year alone.
That team was the Providence Grays whose major league existence was limited to 1877-1885 in the National League. During that period, the team won two pennants and won the first post-season matchup between the American League and National League by sweeping the New York Mets 3-0.
Rhode Island was a hotbed of baseball in the 1870s with several notable amateur clubs along with Brown University’s powerhouse collegiate team. In 1875, the semi-pro “Rhode Islands” were formed. After successful seasons (along with excellent paid attendance) in 1875, 1876, and 1877, the team drew the attention of the recently formed National League. When the League elected to drop the Hartford franchise after the 1877 season, Providence was awarded a franchise to replace the Connecticut club. . . .
While the team practiced at the Dexter Training Ground in the spring of 1878, preparations were made to provide them with “the best baseball plant in the country”. Construction on the Messer Street Grounds began on April 1 and took exactly one month to complete; the final nail was hammered a mere five minutes before the opening game got underway on May 1.[
In a break with tradition, the National League’s newest addition adopted gray flannel instead of white for their home uniform and the team became known as the ‘Grays’.
The Grays won the 1879 National League crown behind the arm of Hall of Fame pitcher John Montgomery Ward whose record was 47–19 with 239 strikeouts and a 2.15 ERA. The Grays and Boston Red Stockings each had equal road records, but the Grays were nearly unbeatable at home (.809 win percentage) and that differential gave them their five-game edge over their Boston rival.
The team also has a claim to being the first Major League Baseball team to field an African-American baseball player, William Edward White, a Brown University student who played one game for the Grays on June 21, 1879. Peter Morris of the Society for American Baseball Research has researched this issue and found that White was born to a white man and his “mulatto” servant.
By the retroactive application of genetic rules, William Edward White is the first known black man to play major-league baseball. Within his society, however, he was not. He played baseball and lived his life as a white man. If White, who was also of white blood, said he was white and he was not challenged, he was white in his time and circumstances.
John R. Husman, June 21, 1879: The cameo of William Edward White, Society for American Baseball Research.
It would be another Hall of Fame pitcher who carried the Grays to their next championship.
The 1884 team was led by ace pitcher Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn (sometimes spelled Radbourne), who won a record 60 (59, according to some sources) games that year and led the Grays to the pennant. When the team’s other star pitcher, Charlie Sweeney, defected to the rival Union Association league in July, it looked like the Grays’ season was doomed, but “Old Hoss” offered to pitch the rest of the team’s games. The Grays went on a 20-game winning streak and topped the league ahead of their ferocious New England rivals, the Boston Red Stockings.
At the close of the season, Providence officials accepted New York Metropolitans (AA) (75-32) manager Jim Mutrie’s challenge to a three-game postseason match. All of the games took place at the Polo Grounds in New York and were played under American Association rules, which forbade overhand pitching.
Game 1: Providence 6, New York 0 (10/23/1884)
Radbourn would pitch all three games for Providence. In the opening game, he threw a two-hitter shutout, striking out nine, as the Grays cruised 6-0.
Game 2: Providence 3, New York 1 (10/24/1884)
Radbourn would only allow three hits in Game 2, as Providence won 3-1 on third baseman Jerry Denny’s three-run home run in the fifth inning. It is the first home run in World Series history. The game was called after seven innings due to darkness.
Game 3: Providence 12, New York 2 (10/25/1884)
Radbourn pitched for the third time in three days as Providence cruised to a sweep 12-2.
The crowd for the third game comprised only 300 people due to bitter cold. The Grays did not want to play due to the weather but were given the option of choosing the umpire if they would play. The Grays accepted and strategically chose Keefe, the Mets best pitcher. Radbourn, pitching his third complete game in three days, led the Grays to a 12–2 rout. For the series, Radbourn allowed 11 hits and no earned runs in 22 innings.
Local newspaper The New York Clipper called the series “The Championship of the United States.” Several newspapers such as The Sporting Life penned the Grays as “World Champions”, and the new title stuck.
Although post-season games prior to 1903 were considered exhibitions, the 1884 World Series is recognized today as the first inter-league postseason championship.
This would be Providence’s last appearance in a National League final. Due to financial problems, the team folded in 1885.
Ironically, 102 years later to the day another New England team stood ready to celebrate a World Series victory over the New York Mets that was a mere one strike away, but were denied by the baseball gods.
Other memorable highlights of the Grays’ short existence include:
- a no-hitter by Radbourn on July 25, 1883;
- the second perfect game in MLB history, pitched by John Montgomery Ward on June 17, 1880; and
- pitcher Charlie Sweeney striking out 19 batters in a nine-inning game on June 7, 1884, a record that would stand until broken by Roger Clemens 102 years later.
The Grays also hold the record for the largest score in a shutout victory, with a 28-0 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on the 21st of August, 1883.
|1879||59-25||.702||Won National League Pennant|
|1884||84-28||.750||Won National League Pennant|
The Grays would not be Providence’s last major league championship. That honor would fall to the Providence Steamrollers who won the 1928 NFL title.