Tattooed on his right upper arm, a Red Sox logo. On his left calf, the Providence Grays “P.”
“I love my Sox, but I don’t want to play modern baseball. I want to play my game,” said Brian Travers, chair of the Math Department at Salem State University and captain of the Providence Grays.
The Grays are a vintage baseball club based on the actual 19th-century team, the Providence Grays. And as Major League Baseball begins its pandemic-era season, the Grays, too, are taking to the field. Precautions include: no handshakes at game’s end; to deter crowds, they’re not promoting games; they keep hand sanitizer on the bench, which, up until this year, had nothing on it that didn’t exist in the 1880s. (The Grays drink from metal cups or mason jars, for example.)
Their opponents are other vintage teams, and they play by 1884 National League rules: no gloves, no helmets, overhand pitches, a heavier bat than modern standards, authentic 19th-century wool uniforms. They prefer open fields to manicured diamonds.
As for injuries?
“Oh, people get hurt all the time” said the Salem resident and first baseman. “I’ve either broken, or have ligament damage in, every finger. I’ve sheared a blood vessel in my leg twice. … I feel bad for the catchers — they’re the ones who take the real abuse.”
Only the catcher can use a glove, though it’s no modern mitt.
“Remember Hamburger Helper? That’s kind what is looks like. No webbing, just a big brown hand,” Travers said. The catcher also gets a chest-protector and wire mask. “We date our wire mask to 1910 — as old as we can find. That’s it” for protection.
Most player injuries are “just ‘Hang on a sec’ and pop [a finger] back in,” said Travers, 47. But “we wouldn’t be playing this [type of] baseball if we weren’t playing for a reason.”
That reason? For Travers it’s both a “Sandlot”-esque nostalgia, and an appreciation for the history of the sport.
“It’s the pure game,” said Travers. “It’s like if you think back to playing baseball as a kid, and it’s just the neighborhood kids. … ‘Oh we’re just gonna play home run derby, who needs a glove?’ It just gives you that spark of ‘This is the way the game is supposed to be. No fixing your batting gloves; no helmets. We just go play.”
The Grays hail from all over New England, and range in age from around 20 to 58, Travers said. Founded in 1998, the Grays are not the only vintage club in New England, but they are the oldest, according to Travers.
Two other local examples: There are the Boston Beaneaters, who play by 1886 rules (they’re taking this season off), and the newly formed Boston Union, who can claim “The Office” star Steve Carell as a fan.
Vintage baseball is not one league; there are some 300 independent club teams around the United States, Travers said. “We all formed for different reasons,” he explained “You find a historical team from your area, and you emulate them as best you can.”
The Grays selected 1884 rules because “that was the year of the first World Championship; the Grays were the first world champions. It was also the first year that pitchers were allowed to throw over-the-top. In Civil war era, it looked more like softball.”
“Some people look at this and think, ‘Oh yeah, I can put on funny uniforms and play softball, too.’ No, we’ve done research,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re using the right language on the field. That the bat’s the right specification. We wear 100 percent wool shirt and pants, a little pillbox style cap. It’s hard to find all black shoes, so we spray-paint [metal cleat shoes] so it looks the part.”
Other vintage teams play by more modern rules with gloves. But Travers said gloves are “almost a detriment, because in the back of your mind, you say, ‘I’m wearing a glove,’ and you lose a little of the fundamentals. At least that’s what happens with me.”
Learn more at www.providencegrays.com.