Book traces storied but troubled D.C. baseball history
Examines 19th-century ball, Big Train and only World Series title, both Senators teams
Younger fans may be excused for assuming that the history of Major League Baseball in Washington began in 2005 when the Montreal Expos relocated and were rebranded the Nationals. But there was big league baseball in the nation's capital long before Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg.
Those with a few more trips around the block probably recall that there was once a team called the Washington Senators. Frank Howard hit mammoth home runs at RFK Stadium and Ted Williams managed there in the 1960s and early '70s.
Students of the game know that a Senators team actually won the World Series in 1924, featuring a roster headlined by fearsome right-hander Walter (Big Train) Johnson and managed by boy wonder Bucky Harris.
Frederic J. Frommer ably covers all this -- and much, much more -- in a definitive book, "You Gotta Have Heart: A history of Washington baseball from 1859 to the 2012 National League East champions."
The title comes from the hit song in the 1950s Broadway show "Damn Yankees" in which a mild-mannered but long-suffering Senators fan named Joe Boyd agrees to sell his soul to the devil to help his team win. Boyd is transformed into a 21-year-old slugger named Joe Hardy, who does, in fact, lead the Senators to the pennant. The play was based on a 1954 novel by Washington native Douglass Wallop.
As Frommer makes abundantly clear, being a baseball fan in Washington has required plenty of heart, not to mention patience and forgiveness over the years.
After all, Washington -- "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League," as it was frequently said -- is the only city to lose its only team twice. The original Senators became the Minnesota Twins in 1961. The expansion Senators lasted 11 seasons before becoming the Texas Rangers in 1972. And that's not even the worst of it.
As Frommer points out, the original Senators were an up-and-coming club when owner Calvin Griffith moved the team to Minnesota. Within five years, the Twins were in the World Series. Since 1961 was an expansion year, some argued that Griffith should have been forced to accept an expansion team. Instead, Washington was given the team that had to start all over with a roster made up of players deemed expendable by the other teams.
And that's only one instance of Washington baseball reaching a fork in the road ... and ending up going the wrong way. The book says that Griffith considered signing a player to break the color barrier before Branch Rickey brought Jackie Robinson to the Dodgers in 1947.
Five years earlier, Griffith met with catcher Josh Gibson and first baseman Buck Leonard, two of the biggest stars of the Negro Leagues. In the end, though, short-term financial considerations prevailed. Griffith was making money renting out his stadium to the local Homestead Grays and feared that if the doors were opened for African-American players to compete in the Majors, the Negro Leagues would collapse, depriving him of a revenue stream.
Who knows how the history of baseball in Washington might have been changed if the Senators, who were ahead of the curve in recruiting Cuban players, had also beaten the rest of baseball to the punch in signing some of the best African-American players?
But they didn't. The Senators of Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison went to Minnesota. The Senators of Howard and manager Gil Hodges toiled at D.C. Stadium. And after a disappointing 1968 season, then-owner James Lemon put the team up for sale. The two leading contenders to buy the team ended up being legendary comedian Bob Hope and Minnesota trucking and hotel magnate Bob Short. Again, fate was not kind to Washington.
Short prevailed. And soon after buying the team, he was quoted as saying he wouldn't sign any papers that would prevent him from moving the team. It was a comment that was both ominous and prescient. After a series of escalating demands for lease concessions, he took the team to Arlington, Texas, after only four years of stewardship in the District of Columbia.
The Senators' final game at the renamed Robert F. Kennedy Stadium was played on Sept. 30, 1971. Fans unfurled banners making their displeasure with Short apparent. Before the game could be completed, fans became so unruly that the umpires forfeited the game to the Yankees.
It would be 34 years before Major League Baseball returned.
The story ends on a high note, with the Nationals posting baseball's best record in 2012 and winning the NL East. And Frommer makes the case that there's good reason to be optimistic about the future even though the Nats missed the playoffs this season.
In the meantime, the past is well-chronicled in this volume, from the very beginnings of the sport in the capital in 1859 -- games were played near the White House on a piece of land that is now the Ellipse -- to the Senators' beginnings as a charter AL franchise in 1901 to the only World Series championship Washington has ever experienced in 1924 (and how a bribery scandal could have derailed it). And to the many fallow years that followed to the 1945 pitching appearance by former fighter pilot Bert Shepard, who wore an artificial leg, to the sometimes complicated relationship between baseball and politics, there's something here for fans of any age.