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Sport and Rhode Island

Approximately 4 pages

Rhode Islanders have always had some sort of sporting event to attend and were usually ones that required much less grace than other forms of social recreation.

"Sport is organized activity in which physical effort is related to that of others in some relative measurement of outcomes with accepted regularities and forms.

As a consequence, sport would include relatively informal and spontaneous games without spectators or a larger context of recorded results and rankings. It would include the adapted forms which children play and skill-acquisition sessions without competition for which the measurement goal is delayed until a later event."

Kelly, John. p. 189

Sport, and more specifically, spectator sports are institutions that have been produced through the act of play. Play, even though it has connotations of youth, provides a form of battle without harmful repercussions. Especially with the urban lifestyle of America, the need for play is important. Children start by playing in the streets games like "stickball" or "yardball," the former a version of baseball, while the latter is a version of American football. These games are then followed by other outdoor activities as children grow and mature. This is the basis for sport, but the world of sports did not start out so innocently.

"In general, the sporting events of the period [the early nineteenth century] were professional affairs, put on, like any other form of public amusement, for profit. Proprietors of the resorts beginning to spring up on the outskirts of the new cities and owners of transportation facilities--stage-coaches, ferries, and, later, the railroads--were the pioneer sports promoters. Even before they erected grand stands and collected admission charges, they could make money by bringing large numbers of people together for any sort of race..."
Dulles, Foster Rhea. p. 138

One of the first sports developed was the horse race. The horse race was an obvious extension from the agricultural world of early America. However, New England on the whole usually did not participate in this sort of activity. There was, and is still, only one true horse racing track in Rhode Island. The Narragansett Park track, in Pawtucket, is the second oldest in New England. On the whole, trotting matches were a far more popular style of racing.

A trotting park was established in the Washington Park section of Providence by 1851. Another park, opened by a rival in 1867, was the Narragansett Trotting Park, not to be confused with the Narragansett Park in Pawtucket. This park has a long and winding history. The park had huge grandstands and even larger entrance gates and cost well over $100,000, . Cornelius Vanderbilt and J.P. Morgan were present on opening day. However within twenty years the park suffered financial collapse. The land was purchased by the Rhode Island Society for the Encouragement of Domestic Animals and soon began the Rhode Island State Fair. After the turn of the century, the park became an automobile speedway and even an airplane raceway, where airplanes would race around two poles placed in the oval shape of the lane.

But the trotting parks and raceways were not only what the people of the late 1800's saw as sport. They were beginning to have the opportunity to participate.

 "These spectator sports of the first half of the nineteenth century, harbingers of the tremendous development of this type of amusement in the later years, were at best but a poor substitute for games or athletic contests in which the spectator themselves might have actively participated. But again it must be remembered that city crowds a century ago had no ready means for getting out into the country--either by street car or automobile. Our whole modern organization of sports, together with parks and public playing-fields, was completely unknown... The habit of watching professional athletes fastened itself upon the city dweller a century ago because he had almost no other alternative for daytime recreation."
Dulles, Foster Rhea. p. 146

Suddenly, as the Civil War finished its last crashes, America woke to the sports world. People were told by the critics that they were becoming lazy and unhealthy.

"All this took place in the late 1860's and 1870's. Previously the country had virtually no organized sports as we know them to-day. Neither men nor women played outdoor games. Alarmed observers in mid-century had found the national health deteriorating because of a general lack of exercise more widespread than among the people of any other nation...No transformation in the recreational scene has been more startling than this sudden burgeoning of an interest in sports which almost overnight introduced millions of Americans to a phase of life shortly destined to become a major preoccupation among all classes."
Dulles, Foster Rhea. p. 183

It was the king of sports that first championed itself in Rhode Island. Baseball, the pioneer of organized sports arrived here in the late 1870's, with the formation of the Providence Grays. There were other "professional-ametuer" teams, but it was through their successes that local businessmen put their faith in a professional team. These businessmen were hesitant because they did not know how a professional team would draw spectators against the faithfulness to local teams.

"The town teams, however, were the most important baseball attractions after the Grays. There was no regular season, as each team accepted challenges according to their own assessments of the competition. Rather than contending for a league title, they played match games on special occasions or vied for some sort of prize. Valuable silver cups or cash were typical winnings. Exhibition games before, during, and after the National League season were scheduled against the Grays, and these games frequently drew larger crowds than the Grays could have expected by playing League also-rans, such as Indianapolis or Milwaukee..."
Society for American Baseball Reseach. Fourteenth Annual Convention Proceedings. Providence, RI: SABR, 1984 (Article from Richard Waldbauer, "A Social History of The Providence Grays")

But even without a strong fanbase, the club was a strong team. They won games throughout the 1870's and 1880's, climaxing in the first World Series in 1884, which they won easily. "In eight seasons, the Grays finished fourth once, third twice, second three times, and were pennant-winners twice. The teams had five future Hall-of-Famers...Today we would call them a dynasty."

The original team included infamous types like Tim Murnane, a future baseball writer, one of the earliest; and Dick Higham, a right fielder who became "the only umpire to be banned for conspiring with gamblers." Players were picked up from the Brown University team or were pulled from teams around the nation. One was enticed away from the Boston team leaving his fans there searching for ways to keep him. There were players that were just as arrogant as todays players, there were players just as versatile and agile.

Playing at Messer Park the Grays began to win games in streaks. Messer Park was located at the corner of Messer and Willow Streets in the Elmwood district of Providence. The stadium had a large wood frame grandstand and bleachers which sat over a thousand and park was located right on a trolley line.

"A streetcar company agreed to grade the field in exchange for the right to build a special spur to the Park. The ride from downtown on game days took about fifteen minutes. This gave businessmen time to close-up at 3 p.m., in order to reach the field by the 3:30 p.m. starting time. Many of the stockholders themselves were merchants, lawyers, brokers, and bankers with offices along lower Westminster St. Of course carriages could be parked around the outfield, and eventually a special bleacher section was built out there, for which admission was ten cents after the fourth inning. Regular game days were Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday; which adhered to the League ethic of providing weekend spectator recreation for the blue-collar masses, while the majority of dates were convenient for genteel businessmen and their ladies."
Society for American Baseball Reseach. Fourteenth Annual Convention Proceedings. Providence, RI: SABR, 1984 (Article from Richard Waldbauer, "A Social History of The Providence Grays")

By 1885, one short year after winning the first World Series, the team fell apart. Fans started to desert the team. The baseball club's president resigned and rumors flew all season about the players leaving. By the end of the year, the team was in ruins. Boston took most of the players, while others drifted to teams in other parts of the country. Still, for a brief and shining moment, Providence and the Grays were champions of the United States and launched what can now be considered the American pastime.

That pastime has not left Rhode Island completely. The Grays lingered on in various forms up through the 1930's. At one time George Herman "Babe" Ruth played for Providence. Providence at that time was serving as a farm league for the Red Sox of Boston. He was sent down to help the team win its respective pennant, which he did handily. There were other towns with major teams. Woonsocket, Newport, and Cranston have all had teams in various forms of the New England League, although Cranston's version was a post World War Two version. But the most well know of Rhode Island's cities to have a baseball team is Pawtucket.


Pawtucket started in 1892 with a team in the New England league. They then had a team in the Atlantic Association, the Colonial league, the second incarnation of the New England league, the Eastern League, and currently the International league. All of the various forms have a had a tough time with fan support and money.

"The 1892 team was disbanded in late July. In 1898, the whole league folded on July 5. In 1899, the city's team was expelled in August.

In 1908, Pawtucket (Atlantic Association) disbanded on May 20, and the whole league collapsed the following day. In mid-1915, faced with poor fan support, Pawtucket was forced to play all its games away from home, and the team was nicknamed the 'Rovers.'

The franchise did well in 1946-49; four of the eight teams in the league quit in 1949 after the first half, but Pawtucket was one of the four to survive the whole season.

After a 17-year gap, the city became the Cleveland Indians' Double-A farm club in the Eastern League (replacing Reading, PA). But after 1967, friction between management and the City Council resulted in the team moving to Waterbury, Conn. Two years later, the Boston Red Sox Pittsfield, Mass. team set up in Pawtucket, marking the beginning of a 15-year partnership between McCoy Stadium and Fenway Park."

Society for American Baseball Reseach. Fourteenth Annual Convention Proceedings. Providence, RI: SABR, 1984 (Article from James Murphy "Rhode Island Baseball Lore.")

Even today the Pawtucket PawSox are still going strong. McCoy Stadium was built in 1938-40 through Works Progress Administration projects. "The stadium is a reinforced concrete municipal stadium with cantilevered roof..." and is one of "the most important sports complexes in Rhode Island."

Aside from the "professional-ametuer" of the baseball teams in Rhode Island there were other recreational sites. One of the most overlooked sports is football. During the 1970s and 1980s there were various pushes for professional football teams, none actually materializing. However most miss recreational opportunities afforded by collegiate football.

"Among the early changes which transformed Rugby into our modern game were the reduction of the number of players from fifteen to eleven; their assignment to specific positions in line and backfield; new provisions for running with the ball, kicking, and passing; and the substitution of the modern 'scrimmage' for the old 'scrummage'--that confused huddle of the original game in which, instead of being passed back, the ball was indiscriminately kicked out after being put in play. When the new Intercollegiate Football Association gave its sanction to these new rules in 1881, there was little left of English Rugby in American colleges."
Dulles, Foster Rhea. p. 198

College football is interesting because of its tie to the upper class. The upper classes were the only ones that could afford a college education, let alone have time for one. Therefore in the beginning, they were often the only people that would take an interest in the teams and their winnings. By the turn of the century, however, the land grant colleges and a generally wider ability to pay for schooling permitted more students the opportunity to attend college, and began to create a larger fanbase.

Brown University was among those colleges investing in sports and especially football. In 1925, it moved its athletic facilities to the East Side of Providence and built Brown Stadium and Marvel Gymnasium. Brown Stadium was a large "athletic field flanked by concrete grandstands." The gym was a large Federalistic structure and served as the field house for the stadium.

By the 1920's college football had been regulated to the point that it is known today. Professional teams were being formed in some of the larger cities. Crowds would flock to stadiums on Sundays and colleges all over America constructed stadiums like the Brown Stadium. Suddenly the the game was not just for the upper class, it was one for the masses.


There one last game that was not necessarily for the general public, but was and always will be tied to the history of recreation in Rhode Island. Tennis and the Newport Casino are two images that are permanently linked. The National Register of Historic Places nomination form is the best source for understanding this connection.

 "The Newport Casino (1880-81) was America's answer to Wimbledon (1877). Indeed, from an historical perspective, since the rebuilding of Wimbledon in 1922, it is the premier historical site in lawn tennis worldwide. As a complex of buildings, it may also be considered one of the finest examples of the suburban and resort country clubs built with recreational facilities, which were a new feature of the sophisticated social life of the 1880's.

The Casino, completed in 1880, with an addition the next year, included not only [James Gordon] Bennett's club, the clubrooms of which were on the second floor of the main building, but also a ballroom, a theater, a restaurant, fountains, and grass courts on which to play...lawn tennis."

Charleton, James. National Register of Historic Places Nomination/Newport Casino. Unpublished. 1985

Tennis was developed in Great Britain and brought to America in 1874. There were national tennis tournaments held at some of the country clubs in New York, but after the formal organization of the game in 1881, the first formal championship was held at Newport. The choice of Newport is an obvious one. America's elite summered in Newport and the game was generally an upper class sort of game, with most of the players coming from Ivy League schools.

Newport Casino, itself, is an architectural masterpiece, designed by McKim, Mead, and White.

"The distinctive green-shingled Casino complex occupies a large roughly L-shaped plot, much of which is occupied by the expanses of its grass tennis courts, some of the few in the United States now available for public use. The complex is concealed behind the 2 1/2 story main facade, which fits into a continuous commercial streetscape on Bellevue Avenue.

The street front of the main building, facing west on Bellevue Avenue, contains restaurants and stores on the ground floor...The second story houses the various rooms of what was originally the gentleman's club. Two wings...that project to the rear at right angles are linked by a 1-story curved piazza..., the famed "Horseshoe Piazza," that encloses an open court. Behind the curved piazza are several acres of land on which grass tennis courts are laid out. A 2-story the back of the lot is linked by an ornate 2-story porch with a building enclosing a 2-story tennis court."

Charleton, James. National Register of Historic Places Nomination/Newport Casino. Unpublished. 1985

In the 1920's the major championships were moved back to New York, mostly due to space constraints. But throughout the history of the Casino there have been amateur championships held at the courts. The land is still in that use, but today the Casino is the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

Sports in America were slowly moving away from the upper class mentality after the turn of the century. College football, tennis, golf, and many others were losing their stronghold on the upper classes. Slowly sports, and recreation in general, were becoming more liberalized.

"Here was the truly democratic approach to this phase of recreation. These millions of urban workers--men, women, and children--were finally enjoying the organized sports that had been introduced by the fashionable world half a century and more earlier. Democracy was making good its right to play the games formerly limited to the small class that had the wealth and leisure to escape the city....Nobody really knows how many people played softball or tennis, went motor-boating or skiing. But the available evidence clearly shows that in the first forty years of the twentieth century there was a far greater increase in the number of those who played than in the number of those who watched, and there is every reason to believe that in the 1930's the public was spending far more of its leisure--and statistics prove that it was spending four times as much money--on amateur than on professional sports."
Dulles, Foster Rhea. p. 349

It was then with this movement that Rhode Island faced the storm of the century, the Hurricane of 1938, and faced the fury that was its own coming of age in recreation.

To Section Six--Recreation Comes of Age In Rhode Island