DC at Night

DC at Night

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Hope and Heart: The History of Baseball in DC

The story of professional baseball in DC is not one filled with glory. In fact, pennants here have been as elusive as the number of times Republican Congressmen support proposals from President Barack Obama.

In the 20th Century, there was a slogan about the dismal baseball played in the nation's capital: "Washington DC, First in War, First in Peace, and Last in the American League."

How bad has it been? This year will be the 90th anniversary of Washington's only World Series title. From 1947 to 1962, Washington only finished over .500 one time.

But with spring training for the 2014 season now underway, there is an optimistic attitude - or should we say "Natitude" here - that with young stars like outfielder Bryce Harper and a pitching staff that many think may be the best in baseball -  the fortunes of Washington's Nationals and the city's baseball fans may be changing.

Tonight, at a program sponsored by The Historical Society of Washington, D.C. held at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, Associated Press reporter Frederic Frommer discussed his new book You Gotta Have Heart: A History of Washington Baseball from 1859 to the 2012 National League East Champions." Frommer was joined in the discussion by former Washington Senators' announcer Phil Hochberg.

Frommer explained that the title for the book came from the song "You Gotta Have Heart" from the musical Damn Yankees, a musical in which a Washington baseball player sells his soul to the Devil in order to be able to help his team beat the hated New York Yankees.  (If you can't see the following video excerpt, click here.)

The story of pro baseball here begins in 1859. During that year, there were 2 teams playing - the Nationals and the Potomacs. For the next several decades, DC teams "came and went,"

"There really wasn't any stability," Frommer explained.

In the 20th Century, the team stabilized, but its name still alternated between the Nationals and the Senators.

In 1924, the Senators, with 27-year-old player/manager Bucky Harris at the helm, won the only World Series title in the city's history. That team was led by Hall of Fame pitcher Walter "Big Train" Johnson. The Senators defeated the Yankees 4-3 with Johnson pitching 4 scoreless innings in the final game. "The entire nation was pulling for Johnson and Washington. They were sick of the Yankees," Frommer said.

The great Josh Gibson
The team's owner Clark Griffith, a former major league pitcher himself, never had much money to operate the team. In fact, much of his revenue was derived from letting others rent his Griffith's stadium including the Homestead Greys of the professional Negro League. That team featured 2 of the greats of the old Negro League, Josh Gibson often called "The Black Babe Ruth" and Buck Leonard. Baseball was extremely popular with the city's African-American residents and black players couldn't play in the then all-white pro league. Actually, Griffith toyed with the idea of adding Gibson and Leonard to his team, but he never did. "He was a little too risk-averse in what was then a small Southern town," Frommer said.

Griffith was succeeded as owner by his son Calvin, who vowed never to move the team. But in 1960, he turned his back on that promise and headed for Minnesota, where the DC team became the Minnesota Twins. An expansion team was placed in DC, but it too left Washington for Texas to become the Texas Rangers in 1972.

DC was without a team until Major League Baseball moved the Montreal Expos squad to DC in 2005, where they became the Washington Nationals playing in the East Division of the National League.

President Richard Nixon throws out the first pitch
Of course, no matter what it's name, Washington baseball franchises have had a long history with politics, especially the presidents of the United States. In 1910, then-president William Howard Taft became the 1st resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to throw out the ceremonial pitch to start the season. Today, presidents throw that pitch from the mound (and pray they at least get the ball to the catcher), but in the early years the president tossed the ball onto the field from his presidential box and the players on both teams "battled for the ball like bridesmaids," Hochberg said.

Hochberg said that of all the presidents, Richard Nixon was the most knowledgeable about pro sports and baseball. Frommer said he found a lot of interesting comments on Nixon's Watergate tapes about his thoughts on baseball in the nation's capital.

After their victory in their division in 2012, expectations were high for last year's National's squad. But the season turned out to be a disappointing one filled with injuries and under performances from several players.

This year's Nationals squad getting in shape for their March 31 opener
This year will be different, Frommer believes. "Last year was just one of those things that happen in baseball," he said. "I think they will win the division."

But win or lose, the Nationals probably won't put too many of the political Congressional leaders who attend games on the fab-o-vision. "Club officials told me they were afraid they might get booed," Frommer said.

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