Major League Baseball has crowned 139 “champions” since 1876, of which 137 represented cities that still have a big league franchise. The sole exceptions thrilled fans of Providence, Rhode Island, more than 130 years ago.
Inasmuch as Providence hasn’t fielded even a minor league club since 1949, it may be odd to think of Rhode Island’s state capital as a big league powerhouse. Yet between the Major League franchise’s creation in 1878 and its disintegration less than a decade later, the team known as the “Grays”—for its distinctive home uniforms—became a powerful force in the National League. Providence won 438 games and lost just 278 during that period—a better record than any contemporary except Chicago. The Grays claimed both the 1879 and 1884 National League pennants and added the first recognized “World Series” title in 1884 by sweeping the American Association champion New York Metropolitans three games to none.
Although in existence for a mere eight seasons, the Grays’ lineup featured four Hall of Famers—John M. Ward, George Wright, Jim O’Rourke, and Hoss Radbourn. The Grays can also lay claim to having produced the first nonwhite Major League Baseball player—William Edward White—a Brown University student who suited up for one game in June of 1879.
The Providence team had been organized a year earlier, partly to take advantage of the tumultuous circumstances facing the National League, the only recognized Major League at the time. Formed in 1876 as an eight-team circuit, only three of the franchises—in Chicago, Boston, and Cincinnati—had survived through the December 1877 ownership meeting. Sensing a moneymaking opportunity, a group of Providence businessmen led by Henry Root, C. T. Gardner, and Henry Winship combined their resources and applied for a franchise. At 104,857 persons, Providence ranked only 20th in population at the time. Yet NL owners, desperate to find stable franchises, accepted the city’s application, which appeared especially attractive since it was not backed by the resources of a single individual. Providence lacked a suitable ballpark, so the owners hastily set about building one. Work on what came to be known as the Messer Street Grounds was completed literally on the morning of the opening game of the 1878 season.
From the first, Providence was an on-field success. Tom York, appointed the team’s first manager, was a veteran of the recently disbanded Hartford franchise with connections throughout the league. In those days before reserve clauses, York recruited the 1877 franchises heavily, signing eight regulars from six different cities. Easily York’s best signing, however, was an 18-year-old midseason pickup from the recently disbanded Binghamton team of an organization known as the League Alliance. Ward, that pickup, would star for the Grays both on the mound and in the field.
With a 33–27 record, the Grays finished third in 1878. But Root seized a chance to add Wright, the game’s best shortstop, to his 1879 roster by promising Wright the field captaincy as well, so while York remained on the roster, he lost his leadership role. Wright in turn added O’Rourke, a veteran outfielder who batted .348. Fellow veterans Paul Hines and Joe Start hit .357 and .319, and Ward won 47 of 70 starts as the Grays took the pennant by five games over defending champion Boston Beaneaters.
Although things looked promising on the field, they were less so in the franchise’s board room. The club’s fan base was rabid, but thin, attendance rarely topping 2,000 per game for the 42-game home schedule. The Grays finished second for each of the next three seasons, never with a winning percentage below .559, yet never making a profit worth mentioning. In the early 1880s, Winship supplanted Root as controlling partner, and Harry Wright succeeded brother George as manager.
The club also landed its two most famous stars, pitchers Radbourn and Charley Sweeney. Their feud is sufficiently documented elsewhere to not require extensive retelling here. Suffice it to say that the two men hated each other, that Sweeney jumped the club in June of 1884, and that Radbourn pitched virtually every game the remainder of that season, winning 59 times and leading the Grays to the pennant by 10½ games. Radbourn’s record showed a 1.38 ERA over 678 innings of work, and it will be a long time indeed before anybody matches that workload. He was the winning pitcher in all three World Series victories over the Metropolitans.
All of this on-field success should have solidified the Grays as a National League dynasty. Fan support, however, remained sparse. In June of 1884, the ownership group members openly debated folding the franchise and reinvesting what remained of their proceeds in a harness racing track. They were talked out of it by league president Abraham Mills, who pleaded that such an action at a time when the league was enmeshed in a war with the upstart Union Association would be calamitous to the entire baseball structure. Instead, the group brought Root back to take charge of operations from Winship and looked ahead with hope to 1885.
On the field, that season, too, began with promise. The Grays won 44 of their first 68 games, and, in early August, stood third behind only Chicago and New York. The box office was another matter entirely. Attendance at Messer Park frequently fell below a thousand, the decline fueled by rumors that Radbourn was unhappy with his contract and that the team might yet be folded. Both rumors, by the way, were true. Dispirited, the Grays promptly lost 19 of their next 21 games, eventually finishing 53–57. The owners, never having really committed to the club’s future in any sense beyond its transitory ability to make them money, reacted to the decline in gate interest by promising to sell Radbourn to Boston for the 1886 season, packaging the franchise’s remaining parts as part of the deal, and moving on to the next commercial opportunity. In 1885, this was hardly a surprising strategy; owners of the league’s Buffalo Bisons were simultaneously engaged in exactly the same business first step, cutting their deal with Detroit.
Radbourn delivered another 300 innings for his new team in 1886, but won just 27 of his 58 starts, and the Beaneaters finished fifth. A new Grays franchise, under different ownership and with locally recruited talent, was created for that season, playing in the Eastern League. But it lasted just one year. Playing alternately as the Clamdiggers, Grays, Rubes, Bears, and Chiefs, Providence fielded minor league teams intermittently between 1896 and 1949. The city probably has a combination of circumstances—old facilities, the arrival of home air conditioning, and the rise of television—to blame for its loss of professional ball, a common trend in those days. In fact, all of Rhode Island lost pro ball in 1949—Providence in June, Fall River a month later, and Pawtucket at season’s end.
Today, the only tangible sign that Providence once ruled the professional baseball world is a small plaque erected in the cafeteria of what used to be the Bridgham Middle School on the site of the former ballpark. But almost nobody can see the plaque today; the Providence school district closed the building in 2012.
 Technically, the Grays featured six. Tim Murnane, a second baseman on the 1878 team, later became a popular baseball writer for the Boston Globe, leading to his induction into the Hall’s writer’s wing. Harry Wright, a Hall of Fame outfielder with Boston in the 1870s, managed the Grays through the 1882 and 1883 seasons, although he did not take the field for Providence.
 The Beaneaters subsequently released most of the former Grays or sold them to other NL teams; only Radbourn and backup catcher Con Daily played for Boston in 1886.
 This iteration of the Grays did produce one Hall of Famer. Tommy McCarthy, who went on to star for Boston in the 1890s, was a 22-year-old outfielder.
 Pro ball in Pawtucket would be resurrected in 1966 with the AA Indians, the franchise that became the Pawtucket Red Sox two seasons later, and which continues to this day.
 “Baseball’s First World Champions: The Providence Grays” by Thomas Carson in Base Paths: The Best of the Minneapolis Review of Baseball, Volume I, 1981–1987.