In Goddard State Park, R.I., a few hundred fans have gathered to reminisce about an American League team that played its last game nearly 40 years ago. They’ve brought books, pamphlets, jerseys, shirts, photos, hockey cards – anything alumni can sign. And they’re not shy about pimping their paraphernalia: hats, DVDs, pens, mouse pads, shirts, license plate frames, pins, banners, golf shirts, gym bags, aprons, cookbooks, coffee mugs, ornaments, posters, lapel pins and even, yup, doggie hoodies. The island’s once-iconic Rhode Island Reds logo is everywhere.
At the Rhode Island Reds Heritage Society’s annual reunion in August, it’s clear a diehard group of fans still adore their long-defunct Reds. There’s longtime superfan Don MacIntosh, who doesn’t let his 104 years of age stop him from coming. One fan has made personalized candles for every Reds alumnus in attendance. Another has brought a dozen big black binders filled with photos and statistics of all but seven of the more than 600 players who ever suited up for the Reds. There’s even an old team limousine with a Reds rooster as its hood ornament, driven by Dick ‘Studly’ Bartlett, who has shuttled a handful of alumni between the hotel and all of the weekend’s festivities.
For players who made a pittance when they played, this is the royal treatment. All their accommodations and meals are paid for, and for three days every summer they get to relive the good ole days with their fans. “I’ve had NHL players come up and tell me even their NHL alumni associations don’t treat them as well,” said Buster Clegg, president of the R.I. Reds Heritage Society. All this for a minor league team that relocated in 1977. Sure, the island got its AHL team back in 1992 with the Providence Bruins, but for these fans the Reds remain No. 1 in Rhode Island. “They were great fans, I tell you,” said Alton White, a Red from 1968 to 1972. “When you came to play in Providence, you knew you were coming into a lion’s den.”
The Reds started in the Canadian-American League in 1926, then moved into the AHL when the Can-Am circuit went bankrupt. In their first AHL season, the Reds iced Milt Schmidt, Woody Dumart and Bobby Bauer before the trio became the Boston Bruins’ famous ‘Kraut Line.’ All three are in the Hall of Fame. Another Hall of Famer, Frank Brimsek, led the franchise to its first Calder Cup in 1938. The Reds won a second championship in 1940 and captured a third in 1949. Their last title came in 1956 thanks to another Hall of Fame goalie: Johnny Bower. He’s better known for bringing the Toronto Maple Leafs their last Stanley Cup in 1967, but Bower hasn’t forgotten his Reds roots. So when the Heritage Society approached him several years ago with an offer he couldn’t refuse, Bower and his wife were honored and have been making the annual 14-hour pilgrimage from Toronto to Rhode Island with a busload of alumni and fans ever since. “They said, ‘We’d like to name a bus after you,’ And I said, ‘A bus? What do you mean?’ And they said the ‘Bower Bus,’ ” he recalled. “ ‘Wouldn’t you like that to come down here?’ ”
It wasn’t until 2000 the R.I. Reds Heritage Society formed, but since then it has grown to 700 strong, only 125 of which are players. It is run by a dedicated group of volunteers. The alumni association has produced a New England Emmy Award-winning documentary, a book about the franchise and a permanent exhibit at the Dunkin Donuts Center, where the Providence Bruins play. And, of course, it holds its annual reunion every year in Rhode Island. Aside from Schmidt (who couldn’t attend this year) and Bower, the names of most players are a “who’s who?” of former Reds, some of whom went on to play in the NHL. But to fans, the likes of Jimmy Bartlett, Bob Beckett, Jean-Guy Gendron, Bob Leduc, Ed MacQueen, Howie Menard, Hartland Monahan and Co. are stars. “These are all cool guys,” Clegg said. “And the fans still love them.”