The 1878 Providence Grays (right) are shown here with the National League champion Boston Red Caps at Messer Street Grounds.
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.
Rookie Babe Ruth (back row, center) played with the minor league Providence Grays in 1914.