The Worcester Red Sox and the Problem of History

The Red Sox’s Triple-A team will no longer call Pawtucket and McCoy Stadium after the 2020 season. (via Waz8)

The first thing you notice upon taking your seat is not the odd angle at which the field sits beneath you, as if you were attending a public surgery in one of those 19th century operating theaters. Nor is it the lack of a discernible skyline behind the outfield berm, save for a few two-story warehouses popping their heads out of the surrounding suburban forest. The first thing you notice is that the seats are color coded. Green, the bottom few rows; red, its own section slightly above, and finally, a larger chunk of blue lining the top of the semi-circle enclosing the diamond.

It’s an odd aesthetic for a ballpark that dates to the 1940s, built in that strange interregnum during which the brick buildings that pepper the downtown area began to shift from prosperous hubs of textile manufacturing to tombs encasing an economic system never to return. You know better—but you still somehow expected the stadium to wear those 70-plus years like a birthmark, frozen from 1942 to be thawed in the second decade of the new millennium, rather than the cracked plastic, sun faded colors from the first few years of the Reagan administration.

This is what it is like to find your seat at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The park—built during the WPA era and standing today as one of the oldest in minor league baseball—holds the distinction of housing the Triple-A team for one of the game’s most storied major league franchises, an affiliation which dates back to the early 1970s. Prior to that, it served a similar role for the Boston Braves through the 1940s before sitting empty from 1950 until 1966. The seats, I assume, were neither plastic, nor color-coded, back then.

And yet with the news that the Pawtucket Red Sox will be packing up and moving 42 miles north to Worcester, Massachusetts in 2021, my thoughts went immediately to those 16 empty years before recalling the things one might be expected instead to remember: the longest game in the history of professional baseball, or the site’s role in the making of countless of the game’s greatest players. The 16-year gap marks precisely the moment at which history became properly “historical”—a slow transition out of the manufacturing that modernized a region into the post-industrial, postmodern wreckage of a particular kind of globalization that has been remaking (or unmaking) the world since the very moment the PawSox came into being.

Depending on your familiarity with the vagaries of America’s cultural affectations, McCoy’s seating strategy will either be readable to the point of banality or appear as that odd bricolage of regional and institutional practices quintessential to the minor leagues. The locals, however, know precisely where to go even within each color-coded section—just as they do at any ballpark, large or small, urban or rural. In a way, it’s like watching the kind of knowledge bees have coded into their DNA unfurl as they build their hives. You realize that it is precisely the unthought of finding one’s seat at a ballpark that maps out a community more than predicting which struggling reliever will be headed down I-95 next weekend, or which prospect everyone at the bar can agree will still be playing in September.

Ballparks like McCoy are designed on an aesthetic of utility rather than the postmodern nostalgia of the major-league stadiums that popped up in the wake of Camden and Safeco. It is not a simulacra of all the images in black and white from this book or that documentary film, where the invented colors from your head fill in the years between the photograph and your own time. It is properly historical. And yet for some reason, that very real temporal gap—our inability to experience 1942 directly in 2018—is simultaneously what enables one to ship the team up the highway without much thought to consequence, as well as what compels a city to mourn one of its most important cultural institutions, one that predates almost all of its current inhabitants. It is a parable, then, for the use and abuse of history in every other aspect of our lives.

The “PawSox” have left before. Well, not exactly: the first franchise housed in McCoy, a Boston Braves affiliate, was known as the Pawtucket Slaters, named after the first cotton mill on the American continent to use the fully-mechanized Arkwright system of cotton spinning in the late 18th century. The mill was notoriously “staffed” through a labor system designed to mimic the Protestant family order of the then-developing New England–to say nothing of the enslaved labor that brought them the materials they wove together. Children were its first “employees”; eventually young women came to make up a large part of the workforce. By no coincidence, Pawtucket women led the nation’s first factory strike in 1824 against inhumane working conditions.

But history is a cruel puppeteer: the Pawtucket Slaters came to embody the city’s contradictory historical memory, one marked by both a radical feminist labor tradition and the uncomfortable understanding that the mill very much made Pawtucket. So in a sense, the disbandment of the Slaters in 1949 was a marker in the river of time, diverting the stream away from its infinite progress forward, turned backwards, blind to what comes after. It was as if the city was closing the door on a memory of industrial organization born first of liberal labor laws, then through necessity with the onslaught of the depression, and finally with the shuttering of factories as the economy began to transition to service. The city could no longer afford to be what it once was. The Slaters had to go.

Today’s move, however, is a fraught affair. It is filled with stories of compromises, community activism, and local economists speciously switching sides on the ethics of the public financing of stadiums at the 11th hour. Very little more needs to be written about the logic of cities paying for stadiums that has not already been said. For my money, Deadspin’s Neil DeMause has the best writeup on this particular case, leaving little more for the rest of us to do than continue to yell every time a bond measure for a bullpen is announced in a city that can’t seem to fund drinking water for its public schools. But for the sake of context, the case looks something like this: grumblings about an outdated stadium, owners realizing 21st-first century sports economics is a changing landscape, nearby cities being chastised by their citizens for offering small amounts of public financing seemingly desired by said ownership, and finally, another city caught in the very same upper-East rustbelt decay sending wheelbarrows of money to earn themselves a shiny, brand new baseball team on a short contract.

But for every broken sink in McCoy Stadium—with its chipped paint and obstructing columns, its most recent 20-year-old suburban business-park renovations—sits real history, and not in the saccharine sense. Ironic, then, that its near-opposite can today be found a mere hour up I-95 in the city that casts a shadow over so much of the region. Fenway is a park that wholly aestheticized the documentary “realism” brick and green paint brings to a place where some version of history nevertheless happened. But Worcester? There sits an opportunity for one of the 10 wealthiest ownership groups in all of professional sports to have a killer new Sam Adams brewpub on the third base side, for free. The seats, in the mockup, do not appear to be color-coded.

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Like many towns peppered throughout New England, Worcester is sleepy, a shadow of what it once was. It shares a similar history with Pawtucket: that of a once-growing 19th-century economic machine rendered inert as the economy shifted away from domestic manufacturing after the Second World War, its particular sort of bustling one of a bygone time. But unlike Pawtucket, Worcester has seen something of a renaissance in the past few decades, led in part by the many colleges and universities surrounding the city. Its name—borrowed from the city’s colonial-era English counterpart—reflects this strange development. You try to pronounce it like the sauce, possibly paying close attention to those consonants bunched up towards the end of the word itself. Locals, however, will stop you mid-sentence: it’s wuh-ster, or maybe woo-ster, depending on who you ask.

Technically, it is larger than Providence—itself a potential landing spot for the PawSox. But its metro area pales in comparison with the one surrounding Rhode Island’s capital, literal feet away from Pawtucket. For many of the cities in the area, Boston stands as the kind of paradoxical older brother, one they loath for getting the lion’s share of the attention but who is unmistakably, stridently theirs, the hub through which so much of the local culture comes to be filtered. They are the New England Patriots. Providence has its own Bruins, too. For a while, the Pawtucket Red Sox were the Rhode Island Red Sox; the players still felt like Rhodys when they put on the uniform reading Boston after a good month down the highway.

But Worcester is not in Rhode Island. Today it hosts rows of beautiful brick buildings, a few of which are starting to house microbreweries, music venues, and locally-sourced ice cream shops. There is growing investment into the biotech industry, and the city has been named as a top-10 hub for startup activity. Rural Massachusetts farming brings some of the best agriculture in the region to an area that sits almost exactly equidistant from Boston as Pawtucket itself. Two cities, then, whose stories only truly began to diverge in the past 30 or so years.

Baseball is not new to Worcester, either. The city housed an early National League team, the aptly named “Worcesters,” for a few years in the early 1880s. The first perfect game in the history of the majors was thrown there in the team’s inaugural season in the bigs; only 22 more have happened since. But the city was quickly deemed too small to house a team in the growing business that was Major League Baseball, and the Worcesters disbanded in 1882.

Ever since, the city has hosted independent leagues, little leagues, and colleges, while Pawtucket got to call a team its own. In a way, it might be justice that the city is once again getting professional baseball, but its circumstance tells another story. It is almost as if the PawSox emerged at precisely the moment Pawtucket began to truly feel its post-industrial decline, a rejoinder to decay that inculcated a city against cultural rot, loss of memory, loss of place.

Instead, the gap between the Worcesters of the 19th century and the “WooSox” of today is one crossing multiple generations, casting a net back into the past to bring it into the present, giving new developers a story for why this building has to go here, and why it should look like that. The park the WooSox play in will be cleaner than McCoy, and it will be much more energy efficient. And yet in building these new things they will somehow tell you that this is the older place, with a deeper connection to the past, to the history of the game in the region that first made it popular. They will give it a Green Monster in order to train their outfielders how to read bounces, but also because they want their fans to experience a simulation of the old days. This will be an aesthetic history, one that elides another lived history, somewhere else.

I wonder which stories will emerge from their historical slumber in the walls of those Worcester Mills, today housing lofts for young professionals to be able commute to less affordable urban enclaves of employment. What books sitting in libraries will tell of Lee Richmond’s perfect game, describe where he lived. Who was in attendance that day, or who wrote the story up in the local newspaper.

I wonder about Pawtucket, and if the story we remember will be about baseball or that place next to Providence where Woody Allen shot that movie once. If we’ll recall that there’s a diner or two there. That the city lost something. That’s a gross oversimplification of the place and its people, but will anyone know it as an oversimplification in 40 years?

I’m standing next to the concrete walkway that zigzags upwards like an inverted slide at a waterpark, leading to the seating concourse near first base. I had moved to Providence for grad school from the West Coast a year earlier, and missed the opportunity to see the PawSox play the end of their 2014 season. It’s late May, and my wife surprised me with tickets for my birthday to see the team—really, just to get me out of my office—and I’m kicking myself for not going earlier. I don’t yet know that this shortstop on the Columbus Clippers was about to blossom into a perennial All-Star, but I do remember rolling my eyes at seeing Humberto Quintero play another game in person—scars of Mariners fandom don’t peel away easily.

I’m slightly confused as I look at the color-coded seating arrangement before realizing we have tickets down in the green section, a hearty 20-something dollars more than the seven-dollar general admission up above I will enjoy in the coming summers. The game is your typical late-spring minor league affair: little to write home about, a prospect flashing a bat, another whiffing it with his glove. The PawSox lose, but for once it’s kind of fun to watch a game utterly divorced of any emotional affect. You start to see the way the game effectively self-organized its rhythms throughout time, its innings rising and falling as waves; fly balls and grounders spatialize this very same song. You wonder why it organizes itself only on the field.

I don’t quite feel like I belong in the green section, but I quickly start to see regulars in their requisite spots, and I realize they know where to go, where to sit, what to look for. They’ve been doing this for a long time. I feel little connection to this team’s history outside of what I read on the internet and what my body tells me is my new inherited home, and yet I feel like it makes sense, one way or the other. It is a good day.

Later that night I read the owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox, Jim Skeffington, had died of a heart attack that very same day. He was planning to move the team one exit down the highway, to Providence.


Matt is a PhD student and Brown University, studying Modern Culture and Media, where he works on cinema, history, and political theory. His work formerly appeared at SB Nation's Lookout Landing. He currently writes at Short Relief for Baseball Prospectus.
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Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard
Nothing like stepping into yesterday. A few points need mentioning here: 1. Boston has always overshadowed Rhode Island and always will. In the mid 60’s and early 70’s Providence College basketball was the exception as the Friars (think Jimmy Walker, Ernie D and Marvin “Tire Iron” Barnes) were the dominant local hoops team. 2. Not mentioned in this article is the fact that from the late ’60’s to the early ’70’s, the Cleveland AA franchise played there. They were the Pawtucket Indians. My dad took me to a number of their games and remember a guy named Oscar Zamora pitching… Read more »
Paul G.
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Paul G.
If I remember correctly, Worcester was deemed too small to house a National League team when it was granted a franchise. There was a rule in the charter that the city had to be of a minimum size and Worcester was under the limit. However, the NL was so desperate to have Lee Richmond in the league, not to mention they were generally desperate to keep the league at 8 teams after repeatedly hemorrhaging franchises (the 1879 season victim was Syracuse), that the rule was waived. For the 1883 season, the league caught on that last place teams in tiny… Read more »
Paul G.
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Paul G.

I suppose I should also add that the NL had a team in Providence for all three years of the Worcester franchise. Providence was a good team; Worcester started out mediocre, then plunged into the basement, and then was just awful.

e_lbj
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Member

This is a great article! I love your blend of regional history, team history, modern business, and personal interest.

David Laurila
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Member

“(We) have tickets down in the green section, a hearty 20-something dollars more than the seven-dollar general admission up above.”

Not sure that was possible. Unless I’m mistaken, PawSox ticket prices have never exceeded $14.

Sn0wman
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Sn0wman

He might have meant the combined price of two tickets. So something over ten in the green and $3.50 apiece in the cheap seats, if so.

hoya33
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hoya33

I guess the Washington Nats just found their AAA east coast landing spot after the 2020 season.

mookie monster
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mookie monster
My grandmother was from Central Falls, RI and spent most of the last half of her life in Attleboro, maybe 10 minutes up 95 from Pawtucket. She was from a classic New England working class background — parents immigrants from Eastern Europe, family members working in various mills and factories, carving out a modest but comfortable and proud life with home ownership and two cars and college scholarships. I hardly ever recall making it to Fenway — in the 1990s, before Stubhub et al., getting tickets could be an actual challenge, even setting aside the expense — but I spent… Read more »
Green Mountain Boy
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Green Mountain Boy

I have no doubt this will be the one and only time in my life that I read the words *bricolage* and *simulacra* in the same piece. My life, no doubt, will all be downhill from here.