History of baseball in the nation's capital has been a rollercoaster ride

2012-10-06T09:00:00Z History of baseball in the nation's capital has been a rollercoaster rideMcClatchy Tribune News Service Herald-Review.com
October 06, 2012 9:00 am  • 

As the surprising Washington Nationals prepare for the postseason after winning the National League East Division, fans in the nation's capital are rejoicing after generations of lousy baseball in their city. For most of Washington's baseball history, the team played in the Junior Circuit, and an old vaudeville joke captured the city's plight: "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League."

In addition to a litany of losing seasons, baseball in Washington has been marked by repeated team failures and flights. The city enjoyed two early franchises in the NL, 1886-1889 and 1892-1899, but each folded after never sniffing .500 ball.

More disheartening were the team departures, and not by train for road trips to New York and Boston. Twice, team owners packed up and left Washington and its tired and huddled masses yearning for a winning team in the 1900s.

When Major League Baseball caught expansion fever in the early 1960s, Senators owner Calvin Griffith looked for a new home for the Senators. Caught in a downward spiral of bad play and the resultant bad attendance, Griffith gained league approval to move his team to Minneapolis for the 1961 season. Renamed the Twins, the team quickly doubled home attendance from that endured in Washington. In 1965, the Twins, who still fielded many of the Washington holdover players, won the AL pennant.

The AL immediately backfilled an expansion team into Washington without missing a game. But the "new" Senators continued to play in the league basement and lost at least 100 games in each of the first four seasons. Overall, the team won about four games out of every 10 during the period 1961-1971. To quote Yogi Berra, it was "deja vu all over again." Finally, the team left for greener pastures and became the Texas Rangers, beginning in the 1972 season.

Amid all of the weary sighs and grumbling, there have been a few scattered huzzahs among the faithful in years past. The old Washington Senators won the American League pennant in 1924, 1925 and 1933. The team's only World Series title came in 1924 against the New York Giants, with the incomparable Walter "Big Train" Johnson winning Game 7.

During the time without a baseball team - 1972-2004 - Washington reverted to another of the city's equally disappointing spectator sports - partisan political wrestling. Finally, the lowly ward of MLB, the Montreal Expos, moved to the capital for the 2005 season. This latest transfer cemented the moving van as an enduring symbol of Washington baseball.

All of this coming and going started in Washington just before one of the capital's other tough times, the Civil War.

Organized baseball began in Washington in May 1860 when two teams of "gentlemen" met for a game on the White Lot, a field of land that later became the Ellipse south of the White House. Players were government clerks, and the Potomacs beat the Nationals, 35-15.

Abraham Lincoln reportedly followed "base ball," as players called it then, and a political cartoonist used the game as a metaphor to depict his 1860 election as president. He stood on a bag labeled "home base" and held a split rail, while his symbolic opponents held more recognizable bats.

Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, attended an 1865 tournament hosted by the Nationals that featured the Brooklyn Atlantics and Philadelphia Athletics. Johnson became so enamored with baseball, that, according the late Washington Post sportswriter Shirley Povich, the president ordered the Marine Band to play at every Saturday game. Local baseball promoter and pool hall owner Mike Scanlon built the first enclosed baseball field in Washington for the Nationals in 1870.

After a few false starts with professional teams, Washington gained a spot in the National League in 1886, and variously used the names Nationals, Statesmen and Senators. Among the team's best players was catcher Cornelius McGillicuddy, who as "Connie Mack," would later manage the Athletics for 50 seasons. After the Nationals folded in 1889, the NL transferred the franchise to Cincinnati.

A Washington team rejoined the majors when the NL expanded from eight to 12 teams in 1892. Playing centerfield was William E. Hoy, a holdover from the 1889 team. Known as Dummy Hoy because he was deaf and spoke with difficulty, Hoy was an intelligent player regardless of nicknaming practices of the era. At age 99, Dummy Hoy threw out the first ball in the third game of the 1961 World Series. The baseball field at Washington's Gallaudet University, a leading institution for deaf students, is named for Hoy.

In 1894, a pitcher for the visiting Chicago Colts, Clark Griffith - Calvin's uncle and adoptive father - took several hidden baseballs to the top of the Washington Monument. He wanted to see if his catcher, Bill Schriver, could catch the ultimate pop fly at the base of the monument. "I had time to make two throws before the monument police hustled up the elevator and demand to know what nonsense was going on in the monument," Griffith said later.

Griffith flipped the first ball too far away from the top and Schriver missed it. Griffith merely dropped the second, which acted like a 555-foot knuckleball. Schriver muffed it as the cops arrived. Others have attempted the dangerous stunt since then.

The NL contracted back to eight teams after the 1899 season and bought out the Washington franchise for $46,500. Washington fans went into one of their hibernation periods until Byron Bancroft "Ban" Johnson created the major-league version of the AL for the 1901 season.

Johnson assembled eight former minor- and major-league teams into the Junior Circuit: Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Washington. Povich wrote that Johnson included the nation's capital "with blithe disregard for Washington's wretched record as a major-league town under the old National League banner."

For the first 11 years in the AL, the Senators languished in either sixth, seventh or eighth place. The lowlight was in 1904, when the club posted the franchise's worst record, 38-113. The fans must have said, "Here we go again," predating both Yogi's more famous phrase and the Cubs lament, "Wait 'Til Next Year."

The period's highlight, however, was President William H. Taft's ceremonial first pitch at Washington's American League Park on April 14, 1910. The tradition continued in Washington, with periodic interruptions, until the city ran out of baseball teams during the years 1972-2004.

In 1912, Clark Griffith arrived to manage the team. The former Chicago pitcher had gone on to manage the White Sox, New York Highlanders - later the Yankees - and Cincinnati. He led the Senators to a second-place finish in 1912, followed by another second and a third in the following years. Part of the team's success, however, arose from their headline hurler, Walter Johnson, who many consider Washington's finest player.

The big right-hander signed with Washington in 1907, but poor teams smothered his brilliance until Griffith arrived. Johnson went 33-12 with a 1.39 ERA in 1912, and led the league in 1913 with a 36-7 and 1.14 marks. The fans loved the mild-mannered and sober Johnson, a man conspicuously removed from the high spikes and cheating of baseball's dead-ball era.

For his career, Johnson finished with 417 wins, second only to Cy Young (511), and still holds the career record for shutouts with 110.

Griffith became part owner of the team after the 1919 season and replaced himself as manager with several men before making his 27-year-old second baseman, Bucky Harris, the player-manager for the 1924 season. Opposing teams called Harris "Baby Face" and "Snookums," but the team responded by winning the team's first ever major-league pennant with a 92-62-2 record. First baseman Joe Judge and outfielders Sam Rice and Goose Goslin paced the team in hitting, and the 36-year-old Johnson led the starting pitchers with a 23-7, 2.72 record.

The Senators beat the Giants, 4-3, for Washington's only World Series title. Judge, Goslin and Harris provided the firepower at the plate. Pitcher Tom Zachary won two games, and Johnson lost his two starts but won the deciding seventh game in relief.

After winning the league pennant in 1925 and 1933, the Senators escaped the "lower division" of the eight-team AL -places five through eight - only four times during the period 1934-1960. They ended the season in either last or next-to-last place 13 times during the long slide toward the Senators move to Minnesota in late 1960.

In 1936, while the Senators were winning a respectable 82 games (out of 153), the retired Johnson attempted to replicate George Washington's mythic throw of a silver dollar. Legend had young George pitching the coin across the Potomac River, an impossible feat below the falls. But the story arose out of a more likely tale of young George throwing a rock across the Rappahannock River at his family home in Fredericksburg, Va. At that location, Johnson twice threw a silver dollar across the river, with his second measuring 286 feet.

Washington baseball rolled into the nation's culture again in the mid-1950s. City native Douglass Wallop wrote a novel, "The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant," in which a Senators fan reprises the Faustian legend and sells his soul to the devil to help the Senators win the pennant. The musical play based on the book, "Damn Yankees," opened to great reviews on Broadway in 1955 and has been a theater staple ever since.

Starting in 1961, the replacement team, Senators II, struggled during its 11-year tenure. Baseball purists partially blame the bad run on the team's home field starting in 1962 - D.C. Stadium, later renamed Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. The first of the "cookie-cutter" multi-use venues, the round bowl just didn't have baseball bones.

Other, more tangible problems came from multiple owners, each using the revolving door approach to hiring managers. Included among the six men who managed at least one game were baseball greats Ted Williams and Gil Hodges. Williams had been fishing for eight years after retiring from the Red Sox in 1960 and recognized the dangers of taking over a losing team. Speaking with the Washington Post in February 1968, Williams said, "I may end up with an ulcer. I'll need plenty of aspirin and Alka Seltzer."

Last, the turbulence of the late 1960s made Washington a rough town beyond baseball. The nation's capital suffered through riots after the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. assassination, and then anti-war protesters clogged the streets until the team's last season there in 1971. Washington shortstop Ed Brinkman, a member of the Army National Guard, lost playing time when he patrolled the city's streets during the 1968 riots. "I hadn't realized when I signed up that Washington D.C. is probably the worst place to join the National Guard - there's always something going on," Brinkman told author Frederic Frommer in 2005.

Slugger Frank Howard provided many of the limited highlights during the run of Senators II. The outfielder and first baseman played for Washington in 1965-1971, and led the AL in homers twice, with 44 in both 1968 and 1970. The team celebrated his monstrous home shots in RFK Stadium by painting white the wooden seats where the balls landed. Even today, some are still visible in the aging, 51-year-old stadium.

Bad trades, poor attendance and cash shortages led Senators owner Bob Short to seek and later gain approval from the AL to move his team to Arlington, Texas, in 1971. In the season's final game on Sept. 30, 1971 in Washington, the Senators led the Yankees 7-5 with two outs in the ninth . . . but lost, 9-0. Then, fans, whose emotions ranged from angry to glad, stormed the field in search of souvenirs - bases, dirt, grass strips and everything that wasn't nailed down. Unable to clear the field, the umps declared a forfeit by the Senators and the official scorer entered the traditional forfeit tally, 9-0.

The Baltimore Orioles quickly filled the void for greater Washington area fans, and the Oriole owner, Peter Angelos, threatened to veto any AL expansion into Washington D.C.

Reversing a century-old trend in 2005, a major-league team actually moved to Washington. The Montreal Expos, an NL expansion team in 1969, had been the first major-league team in Canada. The Expos enjoyed some success - a division title in 1981, and the best record in the majors in the strike-shorted 1994 season. But crowds diminished, and in 2001, MLB considered tossing the Expos out of the NL. Instead, the major-league owners collectively bought the franchise and began looking for a new home for the team.

Washington was a long-shot candidate to host the Expos, largely because of the Orioles' opposition and the city's record as a major-league loser. But weaker alternatives - Las Vegas and Portland, Ore., for example - forced MLB to reinstall baseball in the capital. Officials worked out a compromise on broadcast rights with Angelos and the Orioles, which eased their threat to block any team in Washington.

The new club became the Nationals, the official name of the Senators from 1901 to 1956. Both the fans and the press had preferred the name Senators all those years, but the fine print still celebrated the Nationals teams that started in 1860.

While the Nationals played the first three seasons in RFK Stadium, the city built a publicly financed, baseball-only stadium. Real-estate developer Ted Lerner and several others bought the team from MLB in 2006. The owners set in motion a plan to find the right combination of front office, manager and player talent. That plan came together for the 2012 season, and the "Nats" have been the toast of the NL this season.

Beyond the Senators and Nationals, there is one corner of Washington baseball that is often overlooked - the Negro Leagues. In the 1900s, team owners kept African-Americans out of the big leagues until 1947 when the Brooklyn Dodgers sent Jackie Robinson onto the field. In response to baseball's segregation before Robinson, blacks could only play on what the public and the press called "negro" or "colored" teams. In the late 1930s and 1940s, the Homestead Grays, based near Pittsburgh, played some of their "home" games in Washington's Griffith Stadium.

The Grays won the pennant in the Negro National League nine straight years, 1937-1945, and won three Negro World Series titles in that run. The team's stars included baseball Hall of Famers, Josh Gibson, the "black Babe Ruth," Buck Leonard, the "black Lou Gehrig" and James "Cool Papa" Bell.

Now, the Nationals play at Nationals Park - home of the 2012 NL East champions.

Copyright 2015 Herald-Review.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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