Judge James E. Dooley

Inducted: 2023
Born: 08/05/1886
Died: 12/10/1960

James E. Dooley was a leading sports figure in Rhode Island. He became part owner of the Providence Steam Roller of the National Football League from 1916 until 1933, when the team folded. The 1928 team won the NFL Championship with an 8-1-2 record. Dooley was one of the founders of the Canadian-American (Can-Am) Hockey League in 1926, as well as the founder and sole owner of the Providence Reds, the state’s first professional hockey team, one of the league’s original franchises when it launched that same year. He would later serve six years as president of the CAHL, which would eventually evolve into the American Hockey League we know today. In 1929, he hired Jean Dubuc, a former major league baseball pitcher, as General Manager of the Reds. He had become acquainted with Dubuc during his time as president and owner of the Providence Grays baseball team – its most illustrious player being the one and only Babe Ruth, with whom Dooley became a lifelong friend. In 1938, Dooley would sell the Reds to Louis A. R. Pieri. Dooley also has a decades-long association with the Narragansett Park race track in Pawtucket.

 Dooley was born in Massachusetts on April 5, 1886. At age 13, his family moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He graduated from Classical High School, earned a law degree from Georgetown, and was admitted to the bar in 1911. He later clerked for Rhode Island U.S. Senators Nelson Aldrich and Henry Lippitt. His family later settled in Johnston. Early in his career, in 1916, Dooley became a judge, succeeding Willis Knowles, who was a murder victim, as judge of the Rhode Island Eighth District Court. He served in that post for a year before resigning. However, the title “Judge” stuck to him for the rest of his life. Judge Dooley was a member of the Rhode Island General Assembly. As a state legislator, he fought to win approval for horse race pari-mutuel gambling in Rhode Island. On May 18, 1934, his bill passed the state legislature and, by a 4-1 margin in a special election, horse race gambling became legal in Rhode Island.  The following day, the Narragansett Racing Association, formed by Walter O’Hara, James Dooley, and Archie Merchant, announced plans for a $1 million race track and steeplechase course on the site of the former What Cheer Airport and filed articles of incorporation with the Secretary of State of Rhode Island. The Association, with O’Hara as president and Dooley as racing secretary, chose to name their track after Narragansett Park, a former trotting park in Cranston, Rhode Island. On June 6, 1934, the Narragansett Racing Association was awarded the state’s first horse racing permit. Construction was completed in less than two months at a cost of $1.2 million. The track consisted of a one-mile racing oval, a 14,000-seat grandstand, 270 betting and paying booths, a clubhouse, and 22 barns with stalls that could hold more than 1,000 horses. The City of Pawtucket constructed a new four-lane highway leading to the entrance of the track, and a double- railway was built near the stands. Narragansett Park opened on August 1, 1934, with 37,281 people in attendance, including Jack DempseyCornelius Vanderbilt WhitneyAlfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Jr., and Jesse H. Metcalf. The track’s first card consisted of eight races. The feature race was a $5,000 added six furlongs sprint for three-year-olds and up won by Chinese Empress, a three-year-old chestnut filly. On Labor Day 1934, the track drew an estimated 53,922 patrons, the most for any sporting event in the history of Rhode Island.

During its early years, Narragansett Park was one of the most financially successful tracks in the country. From the time it opened to September 30, 1936, it posted a net profit of $2,017,381.54. In 1934, Rhode Island received over $800,000 in revenue from the track, which was more than 10% of the state’s entire budget. Narragansett also became known as somewhat of a “High Society” due to its proximity to Newport, Rhode Island – the summer resort of many wealthy owners from New York City. The track was frequented by celebrities, including Jimmy DuranteBabe RuthLou GehrigMickey Rooney, and Milton Berle. For decades, the track received patrons from Boston via the New Haven Railroad. During the racing season, daily trains, known as “‘Gansett Specials,” ran from Boston’s South Station to the station tracks at Narragansett Park. The trains left Boston around noon to arrive in time for the first race and returned following the last race. Narragansett Park was part of many horse racing innovations. The track was one of the first in the country to install a photo finish camera and a starting gate. It was also one of the first to institute a $1,000 minimum purse. On June 22, 1935, Seabiscuit won his first race at Narragansett and equaled the five-furlong track record. Four days later, in the Watch Hill Claiming Stakes, he once again broke the track record, this time by a full second. In 1937, Seabiscuit finished third in the Narragansett Special. The loss ended a streak of seven consecutive stakes wins for Seabiscuit.

In the summer of 1937, O’Hara got into an altercation with the state racing steward. The state Horse Racing Division ordered that O’Hara be removed as a track official of the racetrack for intimidating and interfering with the steward. A Superior Court judge issued a restraining order which temporarily set aside the division’s ruling. Attorney General of Rhode Island John Patrick Hartigan then got the restraining order set aside by the court’s presiding judge. The Horse Racing Division also ordered an audit of the Narragansett Racing Association’s books, which resulted in six new charges against the track to revoke its license during the fall racing season. O’Hara responded to the charges in the Star-Tribune in an article in which he implied that Governor Quinn was or would end up in Butler Hospital, a psychiatric hospital that specialized in the treatment of substance abuse. Quinn eventually pursued criminal libel charges and State police arrested O’Hara at his penthouse at Narragansett Park. He was quickly released on bail. On September 15, 1937, the Rhode Island Supreme Court unanimously decided to quash the division’s order to remove O’Hara. However, Quinn filed two charges with the division seeking O’Hara’s removal as a track official and the revocation of the Narragansett Racing Association’s license for O’Hara’s attacks in the newspaper. The division sided with the Governor and ordered O’Hara’s removal and indefinitely suspended the track’s license at the end of the summer races. The summer racing season ended on September 30, 1937; however, the track did not remove O’Hara. The Supreme Court quashed the division’s order to remove O’Hara and suspend the track’s license. However, Quinn refused to permit racing at the track. On October 17, Quinn declared that Narragansett Park was “in a state of insurrection” and ordered the National Guard to enforce martial law. O’Hara, who was in Maryland on business, flew back to the track and was escorted by guardsmen to his penthouse on the track’s roof, where he entertained journalists and politicians. He also played March of the Wooden Soldiers over the public address system for the guardsmen.  At 1 a.m. on October 27, O’Hara was arrested in another libel suit by Quinn. As no judge was available to receive bail at that time, deputy sheriffs guarded O’Hara all night in a room at the Providence Biltmore. O’Hara was freed on $7,500 bail in the morning. Quinn eventually decided discontinue the suit on April 26, 1938. On February 9, 1938, sheriff’s deputies battered down the Narragansett Racing Association’ doors and seized records on order of Superior Court. O’Hara then resigned as the association’s president and managing director. He was succeeded by James Dooley

The track began a slow decline at this time. On October 9, 1960, two of the track’s barns burned down. Ten horses were killed, and the damages were estimated to be between $350,000 and $500,000. Many horses fled the barns and ran into neighboring yards and streets. Dooley’s son, J. Alden Dooley, took over as President several years after his father’s death on Dec. 10, 1960. By the 1970s the track had fallen upon hard times. Due to reduced public interest in thoroughbred racing, competition for racing dates with other New England tracks, and competition from greyhound racing and state lotteries for gambling dollars, attendance dropped, and handles decreased rapidly. This led to an inability to attract high-quality horses. The physical condition of the track deteriorated as well. On March 23, 1976, 36 horses died when a fire spread from the hay barn to two adjacent stables. On Labor Day 1978, the final day of the racing season, the track drew only 2,882 patrons. On June 29, 1979, the stockholders of Narragansett Park voted to sell the track to the City of Pawtucket for $5.6 million. The city used a grant to buy and improve the land, which they sold below market value to stimulate employment and business investment. On May 30, 1981, the clubhouse was destroyed by a suspicious fire.

Judge Dooley was Inducted into the RI Reds Hall of Fame in 1965 and the N.E Turf Writers Association Hall of Fame in 2011. He was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 2023.

For additional reading:

  1. An Album of Rhode Island History by Patrick T. Conley
  2. Providence Journal 2/10/38
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