There's a whole new world under that rock.
Guest Host: Sasha-Ann Simons
Maybe you’ve heard: this year’s Nationals team is having a historic playoff run, in a town whose relationship to baseball has been all about heart…and heartbreak.
So, we’re flashing back to the, well, not-always-golden years: the Civil War era, when the Nationals were a club of baseball-playing government clerks; the Washington Senators’ epic comeback run to win it all in 1924, and their mediocrity for much of the rest of the 20th century; the Homestead Grays’ glory days in the 1940s and 1950s; the long years without the game, and the arrival of the Nationals in 2005.
We discuss D.C. baseball before Baby Shark with fans and historians.
Produced by Margaret Barthel
- Mikaela Lefrak WAMU Arts and Culture Reporter; Host of WAMU's What's With Washington podcast; @mikafrak
- Frederic Frommer Baseball Historian and Author, "You Gotta Have Heart: A History of Washington Baseball from 1859 to the 2012 National League East Champions"; @ffrommer
- Phil Hochberg Lawyer; Former stadium announcer for the Washington Senators and Washington’s football team
- Antonio Scott General Manager, D.C. Grays; @DCGrays
- Fred Valentine Outfielder, Washington Senators, 1963-1968
SASHA-ANN SIMONSYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo. Welcome. Maybe you've heard the Nationals are having a historically good season of baseball here in D.C. even with these weekends loses. The sport has a long and, well, not always proud history in Washington, but the characters in it are undeniably fun. The original Nationals, a band of Civil War-era, baseball-mad government clerks, the Homestead Grays, a legendary Negro League team that split its time between D.C. and Pittsburgh and the hapless Washington Senators, who were the reason people described Washington as first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.
SASHA-ANN SIMONSSo in honor of this year's Nationals we'll take a look at the history that makes them look so good. Joining me to discuss if Fred Frommer. He's a Baseball Historian and the author of "You Gotta Have Heart" a history of the sport in Washington. He is also a Sports Public Relations Consultant at Dewey Square. Hi, Fred.
FRED FROMMERHi. Nice to see you.
SIMONSPhil Hochberg is Lawyer and was the public address announcer for the Washington Senators from 1962 through 1968. Hi, Phil.
SIMONSAntonio Scott, he's the General Manager of the D.C. Grays, a collegiate summer baseball team in the District. Welcome, Antonio.
ANTONIO SCOTTThank you.
SIMONSAnd Mikaela Lefrak is WAMU's Arts and Culture Reporter, the Host of the "What's with Washington" podcast and a long time Nats fan.
SIMONSI'll start with you, Mikaela. The outpouring of excitement here in D.C. is undeniable over the Nats. It's pretty remarkable. And now I want to know does it say anything to you about the city's historic relationship to baseball in general?
LEFRAKYeah, I think it says that we have -- for years we were starved for a team and recently we've been starved for success with the Nationals. You know, they started out, you know, in the mid-2000s as not so great a team. And now they've really blossomed in sort of their teenage years into a truly successful ball club that's gelled both on the field and off. And I think it also shows how starved D.C. has been for a successful major sports team as well.
LEFRAKYou know, we had the success of the Capitals a couple of years ago when they won the Stanley Cup. The Mystics also paved the way this year with a WNBA Championship, but, you know, baseball is still America's past time. There's fans, you know, all over this region and all over the country. I've even been getting texts from people in Madison, Wisconsin and New York City who are like...
LEFRAK...the Nats are our team. We're rooting for them. And so I think it just shows like that this is a story that a lot of people can really grab onto, hold onto and get excited about.
SIMONSAnd going beyond Washington it seems. Antonio, same question for you. What do you think is historically significant about this year in D.C. baseball history?
SCOTTWell, it's an opportunity as a baseball fan. I'm not going to claim to be a Nats fan. But I'm a baseball fan, a baseball lover. It's an opportunity for youth to grasp on and to piggyback on something. Mikaela is saying this town has been starving for a winner or, you know, something along those lines. And in my business trying to get youth involved in a sport especially inner city youth, black youth, you know, involved in the game I think it's an opportunity for them to grasp on to the excitement, you know, to what the Nationals are doing. So that's my main thing.
SIMONSYeah. I'm glad you mentioned those youth. We'll touch more on that a little bit later on the show. Fred, I want to hear from you. Baseball has been here in D.C. since the Civil War era. So can you take us back? Give us a sense of those earliest days of the sport in Washington.
FROMMERSure. So baseball in Washington goes back if you can believe to 1859. There were a couple of teams, the Nationals, the Potomacs. The Nationals not be confused with the current Nationals.
SIMONSSo two Nationals.
FROMMERYeah, it will actually be several Nationals. We can get into that if you want to get in the weeds, but they were mostly as you referred to in your opening, they were government clerks. They considered themselves gentlemen and they wanted a gentlemanly version of the sport. So there were fines for spitting, for contesting an umpire's call, for swearing. Those kinds of fines would probably bankrupt even today's baseball players, but they didn't really last very long. And that mode of baseball it really became a kind of ruffian kind of baseball into the 1870s. There was a bar room -- a pool room owner, rather, who had a team in the 1870s called the Olympics. And really Washington had different versions of the Nationals Senators into the 1880s and 1890s. And then things, kind of, start over from scratch, in 1901, when the American League is formed, and that's the beginning of the modern baseball era.
SIMONSNow the name Nationals for the current Nationals that actually comes from that period as well, doesn't it?
FROMMERI mean, that's the original -- origin of it. Although the Washington Senators, their official name was Nationals. Fans around the country would often refer to them as the Senators and that's what we often describe them as. But if you look at the coverage in the Post in the '30s and '40s and the '20s, they referred to them usually as the Nationals or the Nats. Sometimes they come up with more colorful nicknames. Clark Griffith was the owner of the team. So they called them the Grifftmen. Bucky Harris when he was the player manager, they called them the Bucks. So sports writers were all loosey-goosey about names back then. They would use a whole bit different kinds of names depending on what mood would strike the sports writer at the time.
SIMONSYou mentioned Clark Griffith. Tell us a bit more about him.
FROMMERSure. So to your point earlier about Washington first in war, first in peace and last in American League that was really true. Certainly the first 11 years in Washington in the 20th Century they didn't have a winning season. They had some horrible teams that lost over 100 games. Clark Griffith bought 10 percent ownership of the team in 1912. Made himself a manager and basically became synonymous to Washington baseball for the next half century. He eventually got controlling interest of the team. He kicked himself upstairs so to speak. He wasn't the manager for very long. And he really came on to a great formula for about 10 years.
FROMMERIn 1924 he hired his fifth manager in five years. The first manager was himself. The fifth manager was this Bucky Harris guy, I was telling you. Twenty-seven years old, had no managerial experience, was a team second baseman. And the sports writers around the country derided this move as Griffith's folly. They said, you know, this guy is too young untested. And the Senators really weren't expecting to do anything anyway. They had come in fourth place the year before. They had never won a pennant. Well, that year they really caught the imagination of the United States. They were the fan favorites for -- across the country. Kind of like Mikaela said she gets texts from people about the Nats.
FROMMERIt's kind of the same thing. And they really upset the Yankees to win a pennant and then went on to win the World Series against the Giants.
SIMONSI want to bring Phil into the conversation as well. The baseball stadium in D.C. was actually named after Griffith, Griffith Stadium. What can you tell us about the character and quirks of the ballpark itself?
HOCHBERGWell, the -- let me just say first of all none of my fellow panelists go back quite as far as I do. This is my 71st year following Washington baseball. And we're really playing with house money right here. Just making the World Series is a dream that I had always had. Griffith Stadium, you ask, was built in to an area around Seventh and Florida Avenues in downtown Washington. It had an unusual shape in that it had to be built around the houses that existed, and that's why it had a very unique shape.
HOCHBERGWhat the Major Leagues have attempted to do is to create -- started I guess by the Baltimore Orioles, create these unique shapes in Major League stadiums. Griffith Stadium had a 405 foot line down left field, much closer in right field. But they had a 25, 30 foot fence in right field. You didn't have many homeruns hit in Griffith Stadium.
SIMONSMikaela, Griffith Stadium also played host to the Allstar Game twice in 1937 and in 1956. What can you tell us about those games?
LEFRAKYeah, so the city has hosted the All-Star Game five times since this American League National League was established in the early '30s. And President Franklin D. Roosevelt throughout the first pitch in 1937 at that game. And, Fred, I think you actually told me this. But I heard that scalpers were selling box seat tickets that were originally going for like a $1.65 for $20.
LEFRAKWhich was a huge markup back then, so that's like a couple hundred dollars in today's money, which I think is just amazing to think about a box seat going for 1.65. But the other thing that I think is so fascinating about that game was that the stands were packed with members of Congress, because both the House and Senate adjourned early for the game, which I also think they probably wouldn't get to do today. Get to leave work early to go see some baseball. But it really shows what a uniting force baseball was in the city and I think still is.
SIMONSFred, the Senators weren't the best team for most of their tenure in D.C., which we hinted to earlier in the show. But they did have a great season in 1924, one that has some parallels to this year. Can you tell us that story?
FROMMERYeah. So it was quite an upset as I referred to earlier. Nobody saw this team coming. And they started off very similar to the Nats this year. The Nats started off 19-31. The Senators started off 24-26. It looked like another ho-hum season in Washington. And then as Babe Ruth recalled in his autobiography, Washington got hot quicker than any team that I can remember. And they just steam rolled the rest of the way. They battled the Yankees day in and day out for the American League pennant.
FROMMERYou know, as I mentioned, fans were so excited about this team that they really didn't have a road feel disadvantage. On the road, kind of like the Nats in this World Series that they played really well. And they finished the season with a 20 game road trip. And they went 14-6, which ironically is the same record that the Nats had in the last 20 games. And they clenched the pennant the second to last day of the season at Fenway Park against the Red Soxs. Well, right after the final out hundreds of Red Sox fans stormed the field to congratulate the Senators.
FROMMERThey had Clark Griffith on their shoulders. They mobbed the Senators players. It was as if they had themselves won the World Series, because they were so happy about Washington. And part of that is because Washington was the underdog. They had never won anything before, but an equally important factor was Walter Johnson at that point was 36 years old. This is a future hall of famer, perhaps the greatest pitcher ever and also a very nice person, and people really wanted him to win. In fact, Will Rodgers had a column entitled "Everyone is pulling for Walter." And he said there was more interest in him than there was in that year's presidential election. So it was an incredible feat. And, you know, it was kind of unmatched in Washington baseball history.
HOCHBERGWell, what about Johnson's role in the '24 World Series?
FROMMERIt's a great question. So the home field advantage and the rooting for Washington extended to the World Series. Johnson lost his first two starts and after game five -- even the New York Times said it was one of the saddest moments on the baseball diamond. The fans in New York in the Polo grounds were rooting for Johnson against their own team. They were so motivated to see this guy finally get through. Johnson said he was going to probably retire and go out as a two-time loser. And it was really a sad story.
FROMMERSo two days later, there were no off days in that World Series. Game seven in Washington, it's 3-1. They were trailing in the eighth inning. They tied the score and the fans go crazy. Cushions and coats, everything is thrown on the field. And then in the top of the ninth inning they bring Walter Johnson in from the bullpen. Gives up a one out triple to Franky Frit. So he's on the verge of becoming a three time loser. He walks the next guy intentionally. Strikes out the following batter and then he pitches four scoreless innings. The Senators win the game on a bad bounce ball that goes over the third baseman's head. And Johnson is a hero.
SIMONSOh, my gosh.
LEFRAKI have a lot of -- I know Max Scherzer is hurt right now, our ace. But I have a vision of this happening in like the seventh game of the World Series where he gets to come off the bench and have this glorious moment that everyone is rooting for.
FROMMERLet's hope so.
HOCHBERGHe's got to be able to lift his arm.
SIMONSThat would be awesome. Now we asked our listeners and community leaders to share their baseball memories with us. As we head to break, let's listen in on some of the messages that we received.
ADAMHi, this is Adam Korngold. I am a huge baseball fan, a huge Nationals fan from Alexandria, Virginia. I'm actually a 1990 graduate of Walter Johnson High School named after the great Senators pitcher. And in 1987 for the 100th anniversary of his birth there was a memorial ceremony at our high school. Shirley Povich, Maury's father, who was a sports writer in Washington with recollections of actually seeing Walter Johnson pitch was there and gave some reminiscences.
BRIANThis is Brian Frosch. I was a Washington Senators fan growing up, back in the day when Washington was first in war, first in peace and last in the American League. I worshipped those guys. There were many nights, when my parents thought I was asleep, when I was really under the covers listening to my transistor radio listening to Senators lose over and over and over again. And when Texas stole them and then we got another team that was lousy and then they got stolen again, I gave up baseball for a while. Maybe I listened during the World series, but I wasn't a baseball fan again until the Nats came back to town and these guys are fantastic, not only are the great baseball players, but the individuals are so lovely.
ELISSAHi my name is Elissa Silverman. And I'm an at large council member on the D.C. Council. What I really love about baseball is the memories I have sitting with my father, who is a tremendous baseball fan, at various games. We'll be sitting Saturday night together as we've sat throughout the playoffs watching the Nats, cheering the Nats on.
GREGMy name is Greg Chernack. I live in Chevy Chase, Maryland, and I've been a Nats season ticket holder since the team arrived in 2005. The memory I want to share occurred in March of 2008. My second son was born on March 22 of that year and the new park was scheduled to open eight days later. My season ticket holder group I didn't have a ticket to opening night and it turned out that day was my son's bris. Unbeknownst to me my wife reached out to Stan Kasten, then the Nats president, at least to his office, and explained the situation. I came home one day and there was a message on our voice mail from Mr. Kasten's office saying there was a ticket waiting for me to go to that night. And that night I watched Ryan Zimmerman in a walk-off homer in the first game at the new Nationals park.
SIMONSWelcome back. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Fred Frommer. He's a baseball historian and the author of "You Gotta Have Heart," a history of the sport in Washington. He's also a sports public relations consultant at Dewey Square. Phil Hochberg is a lawyer and was the public address announcer for the Washington Senators from '62 through 1968. Antonio Scott is the General Manager of the D.C. Grays, a collegiate summer baseball team in the District. And Mikaela Lefrak is WAMU's Arts and Culture Reporter. We're talking about D.C. baseball history. Antonio, before we get to the '60s, there was another team, not the Senators that played at Griffith Stadium in the first half of the 20th Century. Who were the Homestead Grays?
SCOTTThe Homestead Grays probably one of the most dominant and most popular -- one of the most popular Negro league teams in history. Was a team that was formed in 1912 by Cumberland Posey. The Homestead Grays, of course, Homestead, Pennsylvania is adjacent to the Pittsburgh area. So it's in the Pittsburgh region. So this team -- and of course the fragmented history of the Negro league or complex history of the Negro leagues, because there were so many different leagues that were formed. So many leagues that were short lived. One year leagues, you know, leagues that only lasted a short period of time. So teams were jumping from different leagues to leagues. So it was kind of complex. I won't get into that complexity.
SCOTTBut the Homestead Grays played a lot of their ball in Pittsburgh and split time here in D.C. as well, and played at Griffith Stadium. Some of the stories that I've heard about the Homestead Grays is that during those times when the Senators had a lot of these down years the Homestead Grays would come to town, and put more fans in the seats than the Senators would at times. Of course, that's just what I hear. I wasn't around to see it.
SIMONSWho were some of the legendary players on the Grays and like what were some of the things they were known for?
SCOTTWell, the most legendary Grays player, of course, Josh Gibson, who was, you know, acclaimed as the, you know, the Babe Ruth of black baseball. Josh Gibson, Cumberland Posey, who was the founder of the team, Cool Papa Bell is another name that sticks out for the Grays, Buck Leonard who was also Hall of Fame stature for the Grays, just to name a few. But in forming the D.C. Grays of the summer collegiate team, I felt like it was important to pay homage to this great team. This team that won nine straight league titles, which I think is still a record amongst professional leagues across all sports. I could be wrong about that. But we could definitely check the history of that.
SIMONSYes. We have someone on the computer right now.
SCOTTDefinitely. But, no, this team was so great and so dominant for so long in so many different leagues. I felt that it was important as history goes on and on and the detachment from history with the youth -- and I talked about the youth earlier. I felt like, hey, the team that I want to form for, you know, in the summer collegiate realm should pay homage to the history of this town and the Homestead Grays and their attachment to this town as well.
SIMONSAnd we're going to go into it a little bit more, Antonio, because I really want to dig in to that history, because it wasn't always smooth for the Grays. There was a lot that they had to contend with. And as you mentioned they were a lot better than the Senators, right? Let's turn to the phone lines real quick. Rachel has been waiting patiently. She's in Silver Spring, Maryland. Hi, Rachel.
RACHELHi. Thanks for taking my call. My dad was born in D.C. in 1928. And he was a huge fan of the team no matter what they were called and how bad they were. And for some reason my brothers weren't particularly interested in going to games. I went to games with him and loved filling out the little forms and that. But my dad died on the 13th of this month, two weeks ago, Two days before the Nats made the World Series.
SIMONSOh, I'm sorry to hear that.
RACHELAt first, well, I was disappointed. And then I thought, you know, along with is Uncle Henry Gichner, who was at one point commissioner of parks in D.C. and insanely fan of the Senators. I like to think they had something to do with this because, you know, it seems so unlikely that they would get to the World Series that I just like to think that my dad and Uncle Henry helped them get there.
SIMONSThat's a great memory. Thank you for sharing that with us, Rachel. Antonio, you talked about the youth that you're currently working with and them playing homage to the Grays. But how have the current Nationals been playing homage to the history of the Grays?
SCOTTSo, of course, the D.C. Grays, we're playing in the Cal Ripken Collegiate Summer League where each team in the league has its own home field, etcetera. We play our home games at the National's Youth Baseball Academy over in southeast D.C. There's activities that -- I mean, I don't want the D.C. Grays to take credit for what the Nationals Youth Academy does. So they have programs and things to that nature that invite kids in to the realm of baseball. You know, what I would like to see is that get enhanced a little bit more. During these Nationals World Series games especially I think games one and two they showed shots of the Dominican Academy -- the Nationals Dominican Academy, and Juan Soto -- I think that's where he's from.
SCOTTYou saw all these kids rooting for Juan Soto. And, you know, of course, the overall mission is to get a lot more, groom a lot of those players and help them get better and a path to the Major Leagues. I'd like to see that here this academy, which is in the same town where the World Series was happening and since 1933 or whenever it was. So I mean, the Nationals Youth Academy does somethings, you know, set out to help invited more inner city youth into the game.
SCOTTThe Grays we have our D.C. Grays RBI Program, which is providing baseball inner city program, which is a Major League Baseball sanctioned program. We're going into I believe our fourth or fifth year of the program. The original D.C. Grays that I cofounded in 2006 along with my friend and buddy Brad Burris -- Brad also sits on the current board of the D.C. Grays with me. He runs our RBI Program. And I have to give a lot credit to him and the coaches of our RBI teams and our girls' softball team too. They've made steady progress year after year going in the right direction.
SIMONSNow with those kids as you're communicating about the legacy of the Grays and Negro leagues in general, I want to talk about something here. You know, there seems to be fewer African American players on the field these days, you know, same with the fans in the stands. What do you think is behind that shift in demographics?
SCOTTWow. Well, there could be a whole other show about that.
SIMONSYes. Certainly could.
SCOTTI mean, the popularity of the sport, the way the sport is marketed to the black community can be, you know, a factor in that.
SIMONSAnd we're talking here in D.C. too, because locally it's been an issue.
SCOTTYes. And then locally, what are your two dominant sports here, football and basketball.
SCOTTEspecially in this region, and rightfully so, there's a lot of good football and basketball talent that comes from here. What you need though is to have more of those talented names come from out of the baseball world from here in D.C. So what we're trying to do with the RBI Program where we're dealing with middle school and high school players, we're trying to give them exposure to, you know, the baseball world and to help groom them and develop as well. And hopefully from under our umbrella we can start producing more of those local names that will get more recognition and expose the area for, you know, for the baseball realm that it can be.
SIMONSYeah. Great thinking. Fred, racial integration came pretty late to the Senators. Why was that?
FREDERICK FROMMERLet me just rewind just a little bit before that, because Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, the players you referred to, Antonio, they had a meeting with Clark Griffith in the mid-'40s, a couple years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. And Clark Griffith had that meeting because he was getting a lot of pressure from black sports writers in D.C. and elsewhere. And he basically said, you know, I'm under pressure from people, and I wanted to ask you what you all thought about it. And they said, well, we'll let others make the case for us.
FREDERICK FROMMERBut he said, you know, if we were to sign you with the Senators, you'd be subjected to vile racist taunts, which obviously would have been true. But I don't think Griffith really seriously entertained the idea, for a couple of reasons. One is, he was sort of socially conservative. Washington was a small, Southern city at the time. It would've been an uphill battle. But also, he benefitted financially from the Grays paying rent at Griffith Stadium.
FREDERICK FROMMERSo, it took him a while after that. You know, the Grays played for a couple more years. I'm not sure, maybe you know, Antonio, after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. But the Senators were very intransigent about integrating baseball. They were one of the last teams to do it in the mid-1950s.
SIMONSAnd joining us by phone is Fred Valentine. He was an outfielder for the Washington Senators from 1963 through 1968. Welcome to the show, Fred.
FRED VALENTINEThank you for having me.
SIMONSFred, you started playing for the Senators less than 10 years after the team integrated. Do you remember any tension in the dugout or with the fans?
VALENTINENo, I really don't. During the time I came in, '63, from Baltimore, it was a hard time for Washington, D.C. and the sports fans. Basically, as they indicated before, they were in the cellar at all times. Gil Hodges himself was the manager over here, and we played our last game -- I was with Baltimore -- against the Senators, in Baltimore. And after playing -- the game was over, I was on my way home on 95, going back to Wilson, North Carolina, and the news came over about 1:30 in the morning. And they said we got some sports news. And, sure enough, they said Fred Valentine's been traded from Baltimore to the Washington Senators. (laugh) And, sure enough, I'm going from a contender to the basement.
VALENTINEAnd, to me, that was a God's gift, because at that time, Baltimore had a tremendous number of outfielders, and I wasn't doing much playing. So, Gil Hodges gave me a call the first thing the next morning and welcomed me to Washington, and said the only thing he was asking was to get 110 percent, and we should be okay. But, coming into Washington, it was a time of real changes. And I was accepted well. The teammates were well and the environment was well. But we went through a lot of changes from '63 up until '68, the time I left.
SIMONSAbsolutely. Mikaela, decades later, this year's Nationals have had some moments this season where they seemed to be publically embracing the diversity of their team. What are some notable examples of that?
LEFRAKYeah, well, I just first want to note that we were talking about Josh Gibson. His name and number hanging from the upper decks of the stadium, I believe, in right field. So, next time you're there, you should give a little shout-out to Gibson.
LEFRAKBut, yeah, the Nationals this year, they're such a diverse team, and they've still really gelled despite, you know, the language barriers that can come with that diversity sometimes. And particularly half their lineup in a given night is from Latin America, particularly two countries. Juan Soto and Victor Robles are from the Dominican Republic, and Anibal Sanchez, Gerardo Parra and Asdrubal Cabrera are from Venezuela. They also have the first-ever Brazilian-born player in the majors, Yan Gomes.
LEFRAKAnd the team has really come together over Latin American culture, in a lot of ways. One of their unofficial theme songs is “Calma,” which is a reggaeton hit. And if you haven't seen the white, American-born Brian Dozier dancing to “Calma” without his shirt on in the dugout, please just, like, Google it right now. It's amazing. He's used a lot of reggaeton and other music from Latin America to help him learn Spanish, which is just one example of how the team has really gelled. They've really come together.
LEFRAKAnd I do think that, you know, despite that, the team still needs to do a little bit better at reflecting the diversity of this region, and, in particular, you know, back in 2005, you could get tickets for 10 bucks. Beer was cheap, hotdogs were cheap. Now, a beer costs 16, $18. Tickets can go up to the hundreds. And that can make it difficult for some fans in this region to make it to the ballpark.
SIMONSAbsolutely. Fred Valentine, you remember a big team celebration during the '64 season. What was that about?
VALENTINEOh, that was a great year, my first year. And in spring training, we all got together and we knew what we had to do. And we had a theme during that time. We said, off the floor in '64, which meant out of the basement and going up. Long story short, we finished the season in Boston, and that was the last game of the season. We had to win one game to get out of the cellar, and that's the same game that Ted Williams hit his last homerun, and I saw him go through the tunnel, and we never saw him on the field again.
VALENTINEBut after we won the game, we celebrated with champagne (laugh) in the clubhouse, because we left the cellar and we moved up to 7th place. And Gil Hodges was very glad to know that the team itself had made some progress. And that was our big celebration in 1964, in reference to moving up.
SIMONSNow, Phil, the expansion Senators, as they're referred to, they played in RFK Stadium, which was called D.C. Stadium at the time. What's that stadium like, as a ballpark?
HOCHBERGThey used it for baseball through the club's last season in '71. It was probably typical of the stadia that were being built in that era. They were combined football and baseball stadiums, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, I think Kansas City. And, you know, they talk about, with the Redskins, how you could see the stands behind the visitor's bench bouncing up and down when the Redskins score. That was because the stands for baseball along the third baseline were moved. They were on railroad tracks. They were moved into what would've been left field in baseball. So, those stands were temporary.
HOCHBERGWhen the Cracker Jack Old Timers game was played here in '81, it was about a 215-foot baseline down the third baseline. And Luke Appling, 82 years old, hit a homerun that game. It was an abortive baseball stadium. By the time the Nationals started playing in the two years that they played at RFK, they had moved the seats back along the third baseline. It was, as I say, a fairly typical baseball stadium.
SIMONSYeah. Fred Valentine, another question for you. You were still on the team when the news broke that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been killed in Memphis, your hometown. His death set off riots here in D.C. Do you remember how those events actually affected baseball?
VALENTINEYes. We were playing our last exhibition game in Atlanta when this happened. And we stopped the game, I think, in the fifth or sixth inning, and everybody went in to shower up and come home. On the way back to Washington, naturally, we just kept hearing the news about the death of Martin Luther King, and also about the fires that broke out in the Washington area. And coming back we got to Atlanta, I think, and sure enough, the pilot started giving us information about what was happening in Washington. The closer we got to Washington, the more smoke we could see in the sky. And it was a trauma in reference to being able to see a city going up in flames.
VALENTINEBut the downside about it, it was the fact that we had lost a great, great patriarch for civil rights in Martin Luther King. And the pilot asked us, if anybody wanted to come up front to see what was taking place, they were welcome. And the few black players on the plane at that time, we went up front, and we could just see all of this happening. And as we got closer, as we landed, it was heartbreaking to see our city in the trauma. But we went through it, and sure enough, God's blessing, we made it out as well as we possibly could have. But the drama behind it, it left a big, big scar in many, many hearts. And that's for the whole community here in the Washington area.
SIMONSThat's for sure.
VALENTINEYeah, I think it brought many people together, and to some, it may have separated some. But, overall, that was a big, big history episode that took place. And it affected baseball, and it affected everything: baseball, politics, the communities and everything else. But I think, overall, it brought a lot of people together.
SIMONSThat was Fred Valentine. He was an outfielder for the Washington Senators from 1963 through 1968. Fred, thanks so much for calling in.
VALENTINEIt was a pleasure. Thank you, and have a blessed day.
SIMONSAfter the break, why baseball left D.C., and why it came back. But first, here are some more reflections we received about baseball in D.C.
MARK HORNBAKERMy name's Mark Hornbaker. I'm the founder of DCBaseballHistory.com. I want to take a minute and share a memory of a Washington Senators game I attended on July 12th, 1969. The Senators were playing the New York Yankees in RFK Stadium, and my father took me and my three brothers to our first-ever baseball game. The final results were the New York Yankees beat our Senators three to one, and my favorite player of all time, Frank Howard, went 0 for 4. Even with the defeat, the game still ranks as one of my all-time favorite baseball games that I ever attended.
MARK HERRINGHi, I'm Mark Herring. I'm the Attorney General of Virginia, a proud Loudoun resident and a huge Washington Nats fan. I opened my Washington Post one morning, I think it was in 2009, and saw an ad for two tickets, two hotdogs and two sodas for $10. Now, those ticket prices should probably tell you what their record was, but, nevertheless, my son Tim was about 12 or 13 at the time. We hopped in the car and drove in from Leesburg and just had a great father-son day at Nationals Park that we will never forget.
PHIL MENDELSONI'm Phil Mendelson, and I'm chairman of the Council. The thing about baseball teams, any major league sports team, is that it contributes to the community psyche, and it can make a difference. It's what we're seeing here. And some people understood, and many people just didn't realize back when we were fighting over whether to bring baseball back to D.C. in 2005.
CALVIN BALLHi. I'm Howard County Executive Calvin Ball. We have a lot of homes with multiple sports loyalties. It's not uncommon here for Ravens fans and Redskins fans, Orioles and Nationals fans to live together under the same roof. I think it's safe to say we're all backing our Nats, and we're proudly sporting our caps with the curly Ws. We hope it won't be long until we see you hoisting that commissioners trophy for the next champions of Major League Baseball.
SIMONSI'm Sasha-Ann Simons, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. I'm talking with Fred Frommer, Phil Hochberg, Antonio Scott and WAMU's Mikaela Lefrak about a hot topic in the District right now: you guessed it, baseball. Phil, a quick question for you, I know you talked to us earlier about RFK Stadium. At that time, you were an announcer there at the end of the Senator's time in D.C. That seems like a big job. Did you find it stressful?
HOCHBERGIt's not brain surgery. What I did try to do while I was in law school was to brief cases during the game. That was impossible. The nature of the presentation of baseball has changed significantly since then. The game day presentation, the walkup music, the constant cheers and the video board in the outfield, all of that has changed. And the way of introducing players has changed.
SIMONSCan you give us an example?
SIMONSWell, all you have to do is listen to any home field announcer. And they play to the crowd, which is not to say that's bad. It's just to say that it's changed. The elongation of names -- although I must admit, in the '60s, when Paul Casanova came to bat, I did do it myself, Paul Casanova. And the fans seemed to enjoy it, the same way that they're enjoying the introductions these days.
SIMONSFred Frommer, why did baseball leave Washington? Loaded question. (laugh)
FROMMERYeah, it's kind of a long and sad story.
SIMONSGive us the concise version.
FROMMERSure, I'll be quick. So, the Senators won the World Series in '24, as I had mentioned. They repeated as pennant winners in '25 and lost, and then they won the pennant in 1933. That's the last time Washington had been in the World Series until this year. In fact, they won one home game in the '33 World Series and that remains the last time Washington won a home game in a World Series. We had a long losing streak, five games now.
FROMMERThe year after '33, the Senators, again, had a young player named Joe Cronin. And he actually had married into the family. He was married to Clark Griffith's niece, but because Clark Griffith was so short on cash in the Depression, he sold his star player Joe Cronin to the Red Sox for $250,000. He got a marginal player in return, and that was really the beginning of the end. They couldn't really feel the competitive team after that. Maybe one good pennant contender after that.
FROMMERAnd so he didn't have a good team to put on the field. That kept the fans away. That meant less money into the Senators. They couldn't put money into the team. It became this vicious cycle. And that's when the Senators wound up moving. A few years after Clark Griffith died, his son moved the team to Minnesota, after the 1960 season. The expansion Senators, which we talked about earlier, they were even worse than the original Senators, and they didn't draw well, either. And so, only after 11 years, they moved to Texas.
HOCHBERGThere's an interesting side note to that, Fred. In '45, the Senators finished second, losing on the last day of the season.
FROMMERThat was the one exemption I was referring to. Yup.
HOCHBERGRight. But, ironically enough, the Senators had finished their home schedule seven days before the Tigers finished their home schedule, because Griffith had rented Griffith Stadium to the Washington Redskins. And so they sat around for seven days, only to find out when Greenberg hit the homerun, that Detroit had defeated them for the pennant.
SIMONSI want to jump to the phones, real quick. Julie has been waiting patiently, Julie in D.C. Hi, Julie. You're on the air.
JULIEHello. This is Julie Koczela. I am the chair of the Board of Trustees for the Historical Society of Washington. And I want to invite everyone to the D.C. History Center in the Carnegie Library, where we have a 40-foot-by-10-foot photograph, panoramic photograph of the 1924 World Series teams, with the Washington Senators and the New York Giants, at Griffith Stadium. And we also have some seats from Griffith Stadium for you all to enjoy. We're in Mount Vernon Square. Apple happens to be the downstairs neighbor, and we're on the second floor.
SIMONSThank you, Julie. We appreciate that. A couple of memories we've gotten by email, as well. Sarah emails: at RFK, two adults could bring in up to four kids. Kids lined up to be adopted by families with fewer children. My parents always took in as many extra children as were permitted, beyond their own two. Kathy also emails: as a boy, in the '30s, my 95-year-old uncle remembers playing baseball outside the stadium. And Mr. Griffith himself came out and said, you boys want to see a ballgame? And he took the group in for free.
SIMONSMark emailed us: I remember seeing Frank Howard play for the Senators in the '60s. I still have a Howard promotional bat from attending a game. It's my recollection Howard swung big, and occasionally broke a bat over the knee when striking out. Do those memories bring up any others for you, Phil?
HOCHBERGNever saw Howard do that. Never saw Frank Howard express that kind of anger after striking out.
FROMMERI do have a Frank Howard memory, if I -- not a personal memory, but I read about it. It's pretty interesting.
FROMMERThe last game that Washington played before they moved to Texas, leaving the city without a team for 33 years, the Senators played the Yankees. And Frank Howard hit a homerun. He blew kisses to the fans. It was a very moving moment. And as he crossed home plate, he said to the catcher, thanks for the gift, because the pitcher had grooved one to him.
SIMONSWow. Mikaela, you were a baseball fan growing up in this area without a home team. What was that like?
LEFRAKIt was hard, Sasha, it was hard. (laugh)
SIMONSI read one of your pieces, where you might have thrown in the word annoying.
LEFRAK(laugh) It was. You know, I used to schlep up to Baltimore to see the Orioles play, with my parents, starting when I was a really little kid. And they would make a bed for me in the backseat, so that I could go to bed when we were driving the hour-plus back to D.C. after the games. I grew up a Yankees fan. My dad's from New Jersey, and so we would always go see the Yankees play when they were in Baltimore. But, otherwise, you had to watch on TV, or you reminisced about the good old days.
LEFRAKAnd I did a piece recently where I talked to a bunch of tweens and teens and young kids who have always had baseball in Washington. They were born after 2005. And, I've got to say, I was pretty jealous of them. I mean, one of the great things about Nats Park is that it's right in the middle of the city. It's Metro-accessible. It's a pretty quick jaunt for a lot of people to get there. And it's such a joy for these kids to get to see baseball in their backyard, every single week.
SCOTTDo you remember when Peter Angelos was saying that this region couldn't have two major baseball teams? I wonder how he feels about that now.
LEFRAKI know. I wasn't going to bring up his name. (laugh)
SIMONSMikaela, music, though, is a big part of the culture of the Nats this year. What's the significance of “Baby Shark” and “Calma”?
LEFRAKAre you going to sing it for us, Sasha?
SIMONSBaby -- okay. No, I won't. (laugh) You were supposed to pick it up.
FROMMERIn her head for the rest of the day, now. (laugh)
LEFRAKIt's pretty hard to get out of your head. Yeah, so Gerardo Parra, the outfielder from Venezuela who I mentioned earlier, he picked that as his walk-up song when he was acquired by the team, I believe, in May or June. And, you know, his daughter loves it, and it's really just become this unofficial anthem for the team. They play it for his walk-up song, and then just throughout the ballpark, people do the, like, clapping. When I was at the World Series game on Friday, and there were at least a dozen adults in full shark onesies or shark gear. (laugh) And just the silliness is so much fun.
LEFRAKAnd then, of course, there's “Calma,” that I mentioned before. And then the last thing I'll say is, you know, the stadium's always, you know, been pretty devoted to playing go-go music, in particular Chuck Brown's classic “Bustin' Lose” is the song they play after homeruns. And I'd love to continue hearing that and hearing more of it.
SIMONSWhile we're on the subject of music and Washington baseball, here's a quick clip, here. The Senators of the midcentury actually inspired a Broadway musical. Let's get a little taste of it. This is the song "You Gotta Have Heart."
SIMONSQuickly, Mikaela, do you think that that sentiment, the heart of the team, resonates with this year's Nationals?
LEFRAKOh, I think it definitely does. I have to say, though, I think I prefer “Baby Shark.” (laugh)
SIMONSAntonio, you talked earlier about carrying on the name of the Homestead Grays with your team, the D.C. Grays. Just quickly, how are you keeping that legacy alive?
SCOTTOne of our major, major objectives with the Grays is to recruit some of the best black ball talent -- collegiate ball talent from around the country. The Cal Ripken Collegiate Summer League is one of many summer college wood bat leagues around the country. The old D.C. Grays that we founded was in the old Griffith League, which was, at the time, the oldest summer collegiate league in the country. But one of our things is, you know, these guys need the type of exposure in a league like this. So, we wanted to get more black, you know, ballplayers into our league.
SIMONSFred Frommer, Phil Hochberg, Antonio Scott and Mikaela Lefrak, our thanks to you. Today's show was produced by Margaret Barthel. And, before we go, just a quick mention, “What's with Washington,” season two of the podcast starts tomorrow.
LEFRAKYes, tune in.
SIMONSThanks for listening. I'm Sasha-Ann Simons. We'll see you then.
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