[Editor’s Note: The following article is excerpted from Dan Barry’s Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game (Harper Collins, 2011). This book focuses on the Pawtucket Red Sox’s historic 1981 win in what is still the longest game in professional baseball history. But, of course, as with the best baseball books, the story is about much more than sports. Barry, a journalist for the Providence Journal-Bulletin from 1987 to 1995, during which time he won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, provides a marvelous look at Depression-era Pawtucket. At the time it was run by an Irish political boss who struggled to keep the city’s immigrant workers employed and, at the same time, had his dream of building a stadium in his beloved city fulfilled. With the stadium in its seventy-second year, a new minor-league baseball season beginning at Pawtucket, and the recent announcement by the baseball club’s new owners that they plan to move the team to Providence, the timeliness of this article seems fitting.]
So they rise: father and son and hundreds of others, as the April winds blow and the barrel fires burn and a baseball game takes pause. They rise and look about this place called McCoy. With the drab gray rafters above their heads complementing the drab gray concrete at their feet, the stadium has the permanent feel of a natural formation, carved by time from the industrial-residential landscape of Pawtucket. And yet,especially under these lights, the place also seems dreamlike, transitory—a mirage that fans and players have overtaken somehow and now share with its ghosts:
Standing at the very back of section 1, on the first-base side, watching from the concourse, Depression-hardened men in battered cloth caps and mud-flecked overalls shaking their heads in disbelief that the thing ever got built. Standing in the blue general-admission seats, in section 12 along the third-base side, ballplayers in woolen uniforms with red-and-navy piping and the word “Slaters” scripted across the chests, itching to snag the next foul ball to show they still have what it takes. And standing before the best box seat in the house, white hair crisply parted and bristle-short on the sides, wearing a dark suit offset by a shamrock-patterned tie and a red rose in the left lapel: Himself. The Prince of Pawtucket. Mayor Thomas P. McCoy. Dead since 1945, but looking out upon his handiwork, all aglow, and sniffing: “McCoy’s Folly, indeed.”
There was a time when all of this was water. In the mid-1830s, a man named Samuel Hammond dammed up Bucklin’s Brook to create a reservoir that soon became a favored recreation area. Smartly dressed women took afternoon boat rides with mustachioed suitors. People swam in its cool waters, picnicked at its shores, skated upon its frozen, glasslike surface. The surrounding streets received names that suggested connection to the water: Lake, and Lakeview, and Pond. By the early 1900s, though, the man-made reservoir had become more of a forbidding swamp than an inviting hole, a muck-bottomed pool that parents warned children to avoid, which only emboldened those children to toe its murky edges, catching frogs, tempting the brown waters. Back then, everyone seemed to know someone who knew someone whose neighbor lost a child to Hammond Pond.
A large textile concern offered to give the pond to the city so that it could be filled in and used for recreation. But the city’s engineers opposed the generous proposal, having not forgotten their struggles in laying a sewer line in the vicinity. Everything beneath the ground was either quicksand or water-bearing silt; the engineers could not exactly agree on which.The Providence Journal tried to explain: “They reported that workers did not seem to sink as rapidly as men usually do in quicksand, but that if a man stayed very long in one spot he would sink.”
Over the years, city elders considered turning the pond into a race track,or maybe an airfield. But the municipal dithering stopped when Pawtucket became the fief of Thomas P. McCoy: an Irish gamecock, one historian called him, and the overseer of a Tammany Hall in New England miniature, as pure an American political boss as Croker of New York or Curley of Boston. He had some ideas for the property.
McCoy, one of seven children of Irish immigrants, was born in Pawtucket in 1883, two years before the incorporation of the city. His childhood effectively ended in the eighth grade, when, he later wrote, “a turn in the fortune of my family compelled me to go to work.” He held a series of jobs through his teen years before becoming a railway conductor, which required him to rise every morning at four o’clock. This work shift not only allowed him to take evening high school classes and courses at Brown University, it freed him to pitch for the Street Carmen Union’s baseball team, where his proficiency at throwing a spitball might have been a harbinger of things to come.
He rose to become a popular union leader whose easy charm and oratorical ability intrigued the city’s Democratic political machine, now in the control of ascendant Irish Catholic leaders of mill-worker lineage who had displaced the old-guard Protestants of mill-owner connections. After paying his dues in politics and populist causes—for a time he was president of the St. Mary’s Total Abstinence and Benevolence Society—McCoy was elected to the state legislature in 1920, where he became known as a progressive Democrat and champion of immigrants, with cut throat backroom skills. By 1930 he had risen to become the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, although his ticket lost amid allegations of fifteen thousand tampered ballots, which ensured the state remained in the control of the Republican Brahmins. Interms of Rhode Island, then, a routine election.
To maintain his position as a state powerbroker, McCoy redoubled his efforts in Pawtucket, becoming city auditor, city comptroller, and the kingpin of a political operation so tight-knit that the councilman overseeing his discharge of fiscal duties was his brother Ambrose. His landslide election as mayor in 1936 merely provided him with the title to the position he already effectively possessed. Not only was McCoy now the mayor, and the auditor, and the comptroller, but he was also the chairman of the Sinking Fund, chairman of the Purchasing Board, and clerk of the city council. Oh—and the city’s Weigher of Merchandise.
McCoy controlled Pawtucket so completely that the line blurredbetween man and city. Some of his fiscal decisions, including a restructuring of the tax base, enabled Pawtucket to tough out the Depression’s devastating effects on the textile industry. He also increased the budget of the relief rolls, improved health services, modernized the city’s public safety programs, and took full advantage of the Roosevelt administration’s many funding programs, including the New Deal, to build a new city hall and other much-needed public facilities. On the other hand, he and his cronies often dipped into city coffers for unauthorized expenditures; routinely tossed reporters out of city hall; used city funds to create a newspaper that—surprise!—wholeheartedly supported the administration; and played a role in the travesty of the 1938 election, in which one in eight ballots cast in Pawtucket were later deemed to be irregular.
But the mayor had the touch. He seemed to know every one of thecity’s seventy-five thousand residents by name. One day a teenage boy, looking for a job during the Christmas break, was summoned to the mayor’s office. The boy was not connected in the classic Rhode Island sense. His immigrant parents had settled in Pawtucket more by chance than by design. His Scottish father, a good mechanic, had first landed a job as the driver for a local affluent family, and was now working as a woodworking teacher in the public schools, while his NorthernIrish mother, accustomed to the cultural sophistication of London, wondered how she came to be living on Oswald Street in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Their older son demonstrated only passing interest in school, but their younger boy, who would later describe himself as “shy to the point of mutinous,” was so academically oriented that a friend from church had arranged for him and his brother to attend a private boarding school in Massachusetts. Now this boy needed a job over the Christmas break, and he timidly entered the office of the great fixer, the mayor of Pawtucket.
Galway, how are you? Mayor McCoy called out to young Galway Kinnell. Of course, I’ll get you a job. At the post office! Sorting mail! We need that at Christmas! Give your mother and father my best!
Galway Kinnell, of course, went on to become one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. In later years, he will talk with great wonder and affection about the Pawtucket of his youth: the trolley car rides, the hours whiled away at the Pawtucket Boys’ Club, the summer job at a textile mill dedicated to the war effort. He will remember coming across a book of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe—”It was many and many a year ago, In a kingdom by the sea”—that opened his mind and ears to a musicality in language that he never found in the RhodeIsland voice. And he will recall, with great affection, his brief encounter with the omnipotent, omniscient Mayor McCoy, who once called a painfully timid boy by his first name. “He was really good about it,” Galway Kinnellwill say. “He made me feel good that I had a real job. Even though I didn’t, really.”
At the height of his power, with the huzzahs drowning out the charges of corruption, Mayor McCoy decided to build a baseball park somewhere in Pawtucket. The old spitballer cherished his younger days as an athlete, and often regaled his entourage of gofers and hacks with tales of his physical exploits. How dazzling he was at left halfback; how gifted at tennis, at swimming, at checkers. How he once knocked out “Irish Pat” Brennan in two rounds. “Then he would get out the record books to top that with 16 straight wins as the pitcher on the Carmen’s team, with a batting average, during the season when they won the pennant,of .632,” one of his loyalists later wrote. “Any wonder, his friends ask, that he insisted on completion of Pawtucket Stadium—against the pressure of EVERY ONE in his Democratic city organization—so there might be football and baseball for the people of Pawtucket.”
To his credit, McCoy understood baseball’s integral role in Pawtucket and in the Blackstone Valley. By the twentieth century, the Rhode Island System had evolved into what the historian Doug Reynolds called a “moral economy.” Workers agreed to lower pay in exchange for various considerations, including cheaper rents in company-owned mill housing, available care at company-controlled hospitals, and access to various company-sponsored diversions. Diversions like baseball, often with company teams chock-full of ringers and competing in industrial leagues. The game was thought to boost morale; to help “Americanize” immigrant workers; to underscore central ideals in life and in business. Teamwork. Allegiance. Pride.
As a Pawtucket mill executive, cited by Reynolds, put it: “Let the worker get outdoors (either as participant or observer) . . . and when the whistle blows he will return refreshed both mentally and physically… adding to the life of the worker and to his period of productivity. Both the worker and the company benefit.”
Considering McCoy’s past as a union leader, his baseball park plan was intended less for mill owners than for mill workers, thousands of whom were now without employment. Beyond the entertainment and community pride to be created, the building of a ballpark meant jobs. After receiving assurances of federal funding from Washington, the mayor announced that a ballpark and a recreational field would be built in the city of Pawtucket—on the sinkhole site now occupied by Hammond Pond.
Work began in the summer of 1938, with shifts of men toiling knee-deep in muck, by the sunlight of day and the floodlights of night, round the clock, six days a week. Their first task was to drain the swampy pond, but the project wound up swallowing time, manpower, money, and more, thanks to the underground springs. The pond seemed to have an insatiable appetite for the hundreds of concrete and wood pilings being driven into its maw to create a semblance of solid ground. Stories of vehicles and construction equipment disappearing into the ground overnight became part of Pawtucket lore. A retired detective captain in the Pawtucket Police Department named Ted Dolan will remember how his father, a city laborer who went by the name of “Cozy” Dolan—after a turn-of-the-century ballplayer for the Boston Beaneaters—swore until his death that a city truck sank so deep into the ground at the ballpark’s construction site that workers just left it to become another awkwardly shaped piece of piling. Jerry Sherlock, who also grew up in Pawtucket, will recall visiting the site and watching four or five trucks pour the cement for the stanchions that were needed to hold up the stadium. “And we’d go back the next day, we can’t findany sign of the four or five trucks of concrete,” he will say. “They were gone! They just sunk in the pond!” To hear the locals of Pawtucket tellit, the site all but swallowed a parking lot of vehicles.
As the years passed, and those pilings continued to vanish into the earth, the project came to be called “McCoy’s Folly.” The federal government’s Works Progress Administration suspended its financial support until the city could provide assurances that “a safely constructed stadium could be built at a reasonable cost.” The workers nicknamed the site “Alcatraz.” The original cost estimate of $600,000 ballooned to well over $ 1 million, even as the project was scaled back from a planned fifteen thousand seats to fewer than six thousand. Still, Mayor McCoystood firm. The protracted construction of the stadium helped to feed many Pawtucket families, including the Pappas family, two parents and eight children crammed into a third-floor rear apartment in a six-unit triple-decker up on East Avenue, in the Greek neighborhood. The immigrant father, Andrew, was a bartender when he could find work, but he gladly traded his white apron for overalls to work down at the sinkhole. He would come home, roll another one of his cigarettes, and tell tales of filling the pond with cement, tons and tons of cement.
In the middle of construction, Andrew Pappas was struck by a car on East Avenue, injuring his back and legs and putting in jeopardy his slot down at the stadium project. The family had no choice but to send his son Billy in his stead, even though Billy had been born with a bone infection that impeded his ability to walk. “They couldn’t lose that money coming in,” Mike Pappas, another of Andrew’s sons, will later say. “So Billy stood for him.”
Andrew Pappas returned to the mire after a couple of months. Backthen, if you were fortunate enough to get a job, you made damned sureyou kept it. Eventually, those rolled-up cigarettes caught up with him; he died at sixty-three, of lung cancer. But his son Mike, who would later become a public-address announcer at the stadium his father helped build, never forgot this Greek immigrant coming home from work in his worn clothes, bone-weary, spattered with the mud of baseball promise.
Thanks to Andrew Pappas, and Cozy Dolan, and hundreds of other forgotten laborers, truck drivers, and engineers, the Hammond Pond ground finally took hold. Mayor McCoy came out on a Sunday afternoon in November 1940, two days before the municipal elections, to lay the cornerstone of the ballpark in the presence of a small crowd of city workers and their families. He buried a sealed box that contained, among other items, a letter that dedicated the stadium “to the health, happiness and enjoyment of the people of Pawtucket for all eternity.” He also seized the chance to address those who had doubted his perseverance:
“As for those carping critics, let me say to them this stadium will bring pleasure and happiness to the people of this city long after they have returned to the dust whence they came.”
In July 1942, the City of Pawtucket threw a celebration for the completion of the stadium that its mayor had all but willed into existence. No matter that the project had cost $1.5 million—more than the construction of Notre Dame’s considerably larger football stadium; more than the assessed value of Fenway Park. No matter that its steel fencing and other finishing touches were installed in apparent violation of a federal ban against using vital war materials for “non essential” projects like baseball parks. No matter that it had the feel of floating on an invisible swamp, rather than being nestled into the earth; the dugouts, for example, were not dug out, but built into the grandstands, so that the first row of seats began several feet above the field.
No matter. With admission free if you bought a twenty-five-cent defense stamp to help the war effort, a crush of patriotic fans overwhelmed the box office. Entertainers who were famous in Providence sang, the local fife-and-drum corps played martial tunes, and somebody read words of congratulation sent by President Roosevelt. Before long, a semi professional team from Pawtucket christened the ground by beating a team from Lynn, Massachusetts, 4-2.
Three years later, as the rest of the country rejoiced over the war-ending surrender of Japan, Mayor Thomas P. McCoy returned to dust, well in advance of most of his carping critics; he was sixty-two. The following spring, the city he once ruled held a lavish dedication ceremony at the stadium, home now to a new professional team called the Pawtucket Slaters—after Samuel Slater, the textile industrialist who started it all. Young school children performed every ethnic dance imaginable, Irish and Russian, Chinese and Dutch, and older students conducted a Pageant of Nations, and the Boys and Girls Glee Club sang “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” and the governor of Rhode Island, among other dignitaries, prattled on. But the long morning ended with the stadium being named after Himself: McCoy. As it should be.
(Banner Image: Major Thomas J. McCoy at work (Pawtucket History Research Center Collection))