Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 19, 2018

Reprise: Another Mill Town Is Abandoned

A NOTE TO READERS: Originally published in February 2015, today’s post is part baseball history, part commentary on the business of the Great Game, and part elegy for the fading old mill towns of New England. It is reposted now because last Friday the Pawtucket Red Sox, Boston’s top minor league affiliate, announced definitive plans to relocate to Worcester, Massachusetts in time for the 2021 season, following construction of a new stadium in New England’s second largest city. The demise of baseball at ancient McCoy Stadium, where Saturday’s game between the PawSox and Durham Bulls was played in front of a standing room only crowd, took longer than anticipated by the closing paragraphs below. Negotiations between the team’s ownership and the city of Providence and state of Rhode Island over location and financing for a new stadium in the state’s capital city bogged down and eventually failed. That opened the door for Worcester, a result that is even worse for local fans than the originally expected outcome. Their team’s new home will be not a few miles away, but more than forty, and one more New England mill town will be left with nothing more than memories.

As is the case with discussion about many of New England’s small cities, when locals talk of Pawtucket it is often in the past tense. From Lewiston to Lawrence, from Franklin to Fall River, the most vibrant days of the old mill towns lie in the last century. Most began as way stations along the fall line of the region’s rivers, provisioning early travelers who had to portage around the tumbling waters of the Androscoggin or the Merrimack, the Pemigewasett or the Quequechan. Pawtucket was no exception, having been built at the falls of the Blackstone River just north of where it becomes tidal before emptying into Narragansett Bay.

In time New Englanders learned how to harness the power of the rushing rivers, and an age of industrialization was born. Massive mills were built at water’s edge, and towns that had begun as little more than a couple of houses and a general store quickly morphed into growing cities. In Rhode Island Pawtucket was no different. There Samuel Slater built the first fully mechanized cotton-spinning mill in America not long after Rhode Island became the last of the colonies to ratify the fledgling country’s new constitution.

Over the next century, as the community grew in importance in the textile trade, other industry followed. The first third of the 20th century were boom times for Pawtucket, with the city’s population nearly doubling between 1900 and 1930. But the Great Depression tore the heart out of the region’s flourishing textile industry. Many mills were shuttered, and those employers who managed to survive did so by moving south to avail themselves of cheaper labor.

Today Pawtucket’s population has declined more than 12% from its peak. Toy company Hasbro, the largest employer in what has become a gritty working-class bedroom community to neighboring Providence, accepted a $1.6 million state tax credit in 2012 with a promise to create more jobs and then promptly laid off 125 workers. But if the city has seen better days, it has also had a distinct claim to fame for the last 45 years; a gathering spot for locals and a certain draw for fans of the Great Game from across the region. Since 1970 the city’s McCoy Stadium, named after a former mayor and built on swampland shortly before World War II, has been home to the AAA minor league affiliate of the big league residents of Fenway Park, less than an hour to the north.

The Pawtucket Red Sox, or PawSox as they are known throughout New England, have won four International League titles over the years and seven other times have topped the Northern Division in one of the three leagues across the country that offer baseball just one step removed from the majors. With recent success that has mirrored that of their parent club, two of those league championships have come in the last three years. When the International League begins a new season of play in April, it will do so with the PawSox as defending champion.

Generations of residents have made their way to old McCoy Stadium to watch a lot of baseball over the years. The 1,740 who happened to be in attendance watched more than in any other professional game on a cold evening in April 1981. Pawtucket was hosting an early season contest against the Rochester Red Wings, then an affiliate of the Orioles. The visitors broke a scoreless tie with a run in the top of the 7th, but Russ Laribee plated Chico Walker in the last of the 9th to send the game to extra innings.

Home plate umpire Dennis Craig had a rule book in his pocket, but it didn’t have the notation that at that time the International League had a 12:50 a.m. curfew, at which point the game should have been suspended. Instead the two teams played on, and on, and on. In the top of the 21st Rochester again took the lead, but Pawtucket’s third baseman, a young Wade Boggs, tied it up again with an RBI hit in the bottom of the frame. History does not record whether his teammates and the remaining fans cheered him or jeered him for the effort.

Sometime after 3:00 a.m. the league president was reached by telephone. Word came back that the game should be stopped and at 4:07, more than eight hours after the first pitch, play was suspended at the end of the 32nd inning. The 19 diehards remaining in the stands were all given season passes. More than two months later, during the Red Wings’ next visit to Pawtucket, it took just 18 minutes to resolve professional baseball’s longest game. The home squad’s Dave Koza drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 33rd, giving the PawSox a 3-2 victory.

Boggs had four hits in the game, but when his father called to congratulate him on the feat had to explain that he had twelve at bats to accomplish the task. The future Hall of Famer was one of 25 participants who would go on to play in the majors. Rochester’s third baseman was a kid named Ripken. Word has it he went on to play a game or two for the Orioles before his career was through.

The longest game was played early in the ownership of Ben Modor, a retired businessman who bought the franchise in 1977 when it was in danger of moving. Modor characterized the aging McCoy field as “a dump” when he first saw it, and made the long-term investments needed to upgrade and improve the facility. Along the way he kept ticket prices low, with parking costing nothing at all. He opened the outfield to overnight camping for local Boys and Girls Clubs. He added between-innings entertainments and made a night at a game a family-friendly outing, the quintessential minor league baseball experience.

Modor passed away in 2010, and this week his widow announced the sale of the PawSox to a group of investors headed by Red Sox president Larry Lucchino. They immediately announced plans to relocate the team to Providence, where the franchise will be renamed the Rhode Island Red Sox. Reports say that the new owners are eyeing downtown land near two Interstate highways as their preferred site for a new stadium.

It will only be a move of a few miles, and one might ask what difference it makes. For some fans it may result in nothing more than a left turn instead of a right one on the trip to the ballpark. Perhaps the family atmosphere will be retained, though ticket prices will inevitably reflect the price of construction, and odds are the parking will no longer be free. But beyond the impact on those attending games, there will be a greater loss to Pawtucket. The city will lose an important source of identity and a part of its character; losses that cannot be replaced. Soon, like so much else about New England’s old mill towns, talk of the PawSox will only be in the past tense.

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Responses

  1. From a Rhode Islander, you got it right!

    • Thanks Don!


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