Newest Grays a Tribute to Storied Past

By Stefan Feuerherdt

When the newest BRASSWorld franchise, in Portland, Oregon decided on a team name, its owners considered the league charter, then reached way back into baseball history.  The new “Portland Grays” nickname is a tribute to the storied Grays teams of the past, reaching back to the birth of organized baseball in the 1876, and is in keeping with BRASSWorld’s stated desire to “be a reflection of the grand history that is baseball.” 

 There haven’t been any “GRAYS” adorning professional jerseys in quite some time.  But in the 19th century, the name was much more common.  In fact, when the National League was first formed in 1876, the Louisville Grays were one of the original eight teams.  And while the Louisville Grays only lasted two seasons, there were others waiting to take up the name, and in 1878 the N.L. sported not one, but two “Grays”-nicknamed franchises (in Milwaukee, WI, and Providence, RI). 

 One likely reason for the early popularity of the name was the informal nature of team nicknames at the time.  Nicknames were often left to be decided by fans and newspaper writers, and tended to reflect a feature that set one team apart from the others.  In the simplest cases, a prominent color of the team’s uniforms might suffice.  Consider the other original N.L. teams, including the Cincinnati Red Stockings, the Chicago White Stockings, the Boston Red Caps, the St. Louis Browns, and the Hartford Dark Blues.    

The Providence Grays became one of the most successful teams in the early years of the National League.  Though the Grays lasted only 9 seasons (due in part to poor attendance), the team suffered through only one losing season.  In 1884 they reached their highest heights; led by starting pitcher Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourn’s 60 wins (no, that’s not a typo- it’s still a Major League record), they reached and then won the very first post-season series ever, against the American Association’s New York Metropolitans. 

 Grays history has a notorious side as well, however-  the Louisville Grays were involved in the very first game-fixing scandal in National League history, in 1877.  That summer, with a comfortable lead over 2nd place Boston by mid-season, the Grays began an inexplicable losing streak, highlighted by a long series of questionable errors, strikeouts, and other “bonehead” plays.  Louisville’s “streak” eventually allowed Boston to overtake them and win the pennant.   An ensuing league investigation, however, turned up ties between some Louisville players and East Coast gamblers, and when the dust finally settled, four of the Louisville players would receive lifetime bans from the game. 

 The most famous team within the Grays “family,” however, has to be the one that started out in 1908 as a spare-time amusement for black steelworkers at the Homestead Iron Works, outside Pittsburgh, PA.  The Homestead Grays eventually acquired a great deal of talent, and a growing following, leading to more and more “barnstorming” engagements.  When the Negro National League was formed , Homestead became a charter member.  In the decades that followed, the Homestead Grays became arguably the best Negro League team ever, at one point winning nine consecutive pennants.   Grays’ 1B Buck Leonard and C Josh Gibson were among the first Negro League players to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1972. 

 BRASSWorld’s Grays have yet to sign their first player- but they’ll have the rich history of the real-life Grays teams of the past to serve as inspiration. The Portland Grays will be hoping to do the name proud in the coming seasons.