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Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024
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Baseball's unique history in the District

On Sunday, Washington, D.C., baseball fans were able to root, root, root for the home team for the first time in 30 years with the debut of the Washington Nationals at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Though the 4-3 loss to the Mets was an exhibition game and will not count in the standings, it was the debut of Washington's first baseball team in decades.

The last time District baseball fans came to RFK, it was not the Nationals they were watching, but the Washington Senators. It was Sept. 30, 1971, and D.C. fans were not only losing the Senators, but also making the Senators lose.

According to a Washington Post article dated Oct. 1, 1971, several hundred fans stormed the field in the ninth inning of the last game of that year's season, which was to be the last Senators game before they moved to Texas to become the Rangers. The game, which the Sens were winning, was forfeited when the police couldn't clear the field of the fans.

The Post called the game "one of the rowdiest wakes ever." It was the end of a 71-year run of baseball in the nation's capital and the start of a dry spell that has finally ended in 2005.

The lasting legacy of the Senators may be the way they left the city, not once but twice.

First, in 1960, owner Calvin Griffith took the original Senators and moved them to Minnesota, where they became the modern-day Minnesota Twins. The very next year, though, a new Washington Senators franchise owned by Robert Short was installed.

"There was a great deal of nervousness about not having a team in Washington," said SOC professor Lenny Steinhorn, a lifelong baseball fan, about the replacement Sens franchise.

"There was some sense that Griffith had not left with all the best intentions at the time," he said.

In the move, all historical claims to the Senators' past were lost, as they now belonged to Griffith's Minnesota organization. Short's Sens were a blank slate.

With no history, the Senators stumbled through 11 seasons and only once posted a winning record. Though they were managed for stretches by famous ex-players like Ted Williams, Gil Hodges and Eddie Yost, they produced few notable players, and game attendance suffered as a result.

"[The first franchise] left in the early '60s, and the second franchise couldn't survive," said Baltimore Sun sports columnist Peter Schmuck. "It wasn't working from a standpoint of economics, and there were other markets that baseball was thinking about exploring."

The only physical remnant of baseball's last stand in the District was RFK Stadium, which opened in 1962. It was called D.C. Stadium for six years and was renamed after Robert Kennedy's 1968 assassination. After Short moved the team to Texas in 1971, RFK was used by the NFL's Redskins until 1996 as well as for other sporting and concert events.

The Nationals will use RFK as their home field for the next two to three years while a new stadium is built along the Anacostia River waterfront.

But with the rise of the Nationals, memory of its predecessor continues to fade. "Any recollection of the Senators probably comes from watching the play 'Damn Yankees,' " Schmuck said.

The Old Fox, The Big Train and the Lovable Losers

The names most often associated with the Senators are Clark Griffith and Walter Johnson. The former managed the team for years and later owned it, while the latter was the team's star and arguably the greatest pitcher in baseball's history.

Griffith, nicknamed the Old Fox, played ball prior to the turn of the century and began managing various teams in 1901. He joined the Senators in 1912. In his first year, he led the Sens to a second-place finish, largely behind the arm of the 24-year-old Johnson.

Griffith managed the squad until 1920, when he retired and bought the team. Meanwhile, Johnson continued to rack up wins and strikeouts at an astonishing rate.

Known to fans as the Big Train, Johnson retired with 3,509 strikeouts, which was the all-time record until the early '80s and still ranks ninth all time. He also ended up with 417 wins, which is still second only to Cy Young's 511 for most all time.

On Oct. 10, 1924, the Senators defeated the New York Giants to win the World Series. The Sens, losing 3-1 in the eighth inning of the clinching game, scored two miracle runs on a Giants error. Johnson came in to relieve the next inning, going on to fittingly be credited with the game's win.

Finally, in the 12th inning, Muddy Ruel scored the winning run.

The next morning, the headline of the Washington Star read, "Capital Celebrates Its Joyous Delirium."

The article began, "Time may erase the solemn pages of history, fleeting ages may sink nations into the dust of forgotten pasts. But nothing will ever dim the memory of that wondrous hour when Washington won the world baseball championship." It went on to describe the celebration as "a night of delirious revelry, a veritable orgie of joy" and "the happiest-go-luckiest mob that ever howled itself ragged."

In the following years, Griffith fielded a competitive team, which won the American League pennant in 1925 and again in 1933. But financial constraints soon took their toll, and the team never returned to glory.

Aside from 1943 and 1945, when most baseball players were overseas fighting World War II, the Senators never again finished higher than fourth in their division. It was during this period that they gained a national reputation as a group of hard-luck, ragtag losers.

This reputation was exemplified by the fan slogan for the Washington squad: "First in war, first in peace, last in the American League."

"They gained this reputation as being one of those lovable loser-type teams, in juxtaposition to the New York Yankees," Schmuck said.

While the rival Yankees racked up world championships, the Senators never again came close to one.

The fan frustration in the District spilled over to literary ranks. A 1956 Broadway play, later adapted to a move in 1958, was written about a Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for a World Series championship. "Damn Yankees" came to personify the dissatisfaction of baseball fans in Washington.

Griffith passed away in 1955, bequeathing the team to his son, Calvin. Calvin Griffith almost immediately began looking for a place to move the team out of Washington.

However, he was met with resistance from baseball lovers in Congress who did not want to lose the team. Baseball officials feared that upsetting Congress could result in a revocation of their sport's antitrust exemption and did not allow Griffith to move the team at first.

In 1960, though, they had an opening, as baseball Commissioner Ford Frick commissioned two expansion teams for the following season. In one swift move, baseball approved Griffith's move to Minnesota and approved Short's new franchise to begin play in D.C. in 1961.

Short's Senators lasted only 11 years before leaving for Texas, and since then D.C. residents have had to rely on the Baltimore Orioles for their baseball fix.

"It's almost foolish that there wouldn't be a team in Washington," Steinhorn, the SOC professor, said. "Even if you thought it was a sleepy town 30 years ago, it's not anymore."

While it's unclear how the legacy of the Senators will carry through to the Nationals, it is certain that the old team has had quite an unusual journey.

"There's quite a history of baseball in Washington, but it's an odd history," Schmuck said.

 Hosts Sara Winick and Sydney Hsu introduce themselves and talk about their favorite TV shows. This episode includes fun facts, recommendations and personal connections. 

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