Tim Norton still remembers the first time he learned of vintage baseball. It was the winter of 1998, and he read a newspaper article about a team from Old Bethpage, NY, that played under 1880s rules, using the uniforms and equipment of the period.
"I saw that and was transported," says the novelist and University of Rhode Island creative writing instructor. "I knew that I had to start a team here."
As luck would have it, just days later a lecture was given at the Rhode Island Historical Society on the history of baseball in the state. It was there that Norton first heard of the Grays, the major league team that played in Providence from 1878-1885, and is considered by baseball historians to have won the first World Series, in 1884.
Norton credits these two events to serendipity, but also to the unique atmosphere of Providence. "This is really an incredible place to be," he says. "It's so small, and there are so many things going on that are inexpensive to get involved with, and there's just an amazing amount of talent here."
As if to prove the point, he explains what happened next: he contacted Bill Parillo, the late, famed, sportswriter for the Providence Journal, who ran a column in the newspaper about Norton's desire to field a re-creation of the Grays, including Norton's phone number. "My phone started ringing immediately, and within a week, I had a core group of players."
To a native New Yorker like myself, the idea of calling up your city's newspaper of record and enlisting their help in your pet project seems far-fetched, but Norton shrugs it off, explaining "in a state this small, it's really easy to make connections."
By the summer of 1998, the Grays were ready to play. Norton's original idea was to hold a one-time rematch of the 1884 World Series to honor Providence's baseball heritage. Eleven years later, the Grays are still around, now recognized as the longest-running vintage baseball team in New England and one of the most authentic in the country.
All Grays games are free. On a recent summer day, the team swept the Bridgeport Orators in a double-header, first in a 17-8 victory played by 1884 rules, then in 12-4 playing by 1862 rules. Both games are recognizable to modern baseball fans, but with more than enough differences to make things intriguing: The fielders wear no gloves; It takes six balls to walk a batter; Batters inform the umpire whether they prefer a low or high pitch.
The players are a diverse group who clearly have a lot of fun. They range in age from 26 to 47, and include a math professor, chemical engineer, software consultant, and a middle school science teacher. James Crider, the team's rookie, is a Newport chef who never played baseball before ("not even Little League," he says). What they have in common is a love of the game and a commitment to re-creating an authentic historical experience (At one point, outfielder Tom Hoffman excitedly grabs me to show off some of the club's equipment, including a catcher's mask that dates to the turn of the century).
They also share an obvious camaraderie, needling each other and recounting stories of games past. At one point, players burst out in laughter as Norton recalls when pitcher Scott Olson hit the game-winning home run at a tournament in Connecticut, only to be chased off the field by an elderly man whose pool cover was destroyed when the ball landed in his backyard.
When the game is over, the team heads to a restaurant together, but not before inviting me to join the Grays. In fact, Hoffman’s asks me to mention that the team is always looking for new players.
As Norton repeatedly points out, the Grays are a living history project. He relishes telling colorful stories about the original club, such as how the idea for a world series began as a tabloid spat between New York's Metropolitans and the Grays, or how pitcher Charlie Sweeney was kicked off the team in mid-way through 1884 season for playing drunk (the result: the team’s only other pitcher, Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn, pitched most of the remaining games, racking up an astounding 60 victories, a single-season record that still stands).
"Our team provides a living link to Providence's rich baseball heritage," says Norton. "We really want the fans to imagine that they are in the 19th century when they come to our games."
Those who are interested in doing so can find the Grays schedule online at http://www.providencegrays.org.