District baseball has rich history

District baseball has rich history

An old black-and-white photo shows Washington baseball fans standing in the upper deck of Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, showering left-center field with debris before the last game in franchise history even started. Two vertical banners, draped side by side, read "SHORT STINKS," referring to owner Bob Short, who moved the Senators to Texas after the 1971 season.

As right-hander Dick Bosman was on the mound preparing to throw the first pitch, unruly fans were preparing to say goodbye.

Baseball's storied history in D.C. far exceeds its 34-year hiatus. It began long before April 29, 1901, when the Washington Senators defeated the Baltimore Orioles, 5-2, in the first American League game played in the nation's capital. It ended with a riot, and a forfeit to the Yankees.

"One of the neat things about baseball in the District is it goes back so far, and there have been so many teams representing the full panorama of baseball history," said Jim Gates, a Bethesda, Md., native who is library director at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.

"My first game was a Senators game in 1966. I grew up with my grandparents telling me stories of the Washington, D.C. teams. There are so many stories. Hopefully now the new Nationals can add to those stories."

Before the Nationals return Thursday to the same stadium the team left in 1971, here's a look back at some of the picturesque moments, and the personalities that defined them.

Who was on first: Before the Statue of Liberty was built, and even before the 39th state was added to the Union, there was baseball in D.C.

The very first professional team in the capital was the Olympic Baseball Club of Washington in 1871.

A team called Capital Cities from the League of Colored Baseball Clubs came to town in 1887, marking the arrival of the first black players in the nation's capital. From 1936 through 1938, the Washington Negro League brought three teams, most notably the famed Homestead Grays of Pittsburgh, which played half its games at Griffith Stadium while Washington was on the road. Some of the most revered players in the league played for the Grays, including Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, who were a part of nine Negro League championships.

"There was a huge African-American following of the game in the District those days," Gates said.

In 1901, the Senators joined the newly established American League, opening with a 5-1 win at Philadelphia. Four seasons later, their name was officially changed to the Nationals, but newspapers continued to use both names interchangeably for the next five decades.

Home, first home: On a windy March day in 1911, the all-wooden American League Baseball Park and four surrounding buildings were completely destroyed by a fire started by a plumber's blow lamp and a strong wind. Plumbers working on the park's drain pipes had shut off the water supply and by the time fire fighters arrived, the grandstand and bleachers were engulfed in flames. At the time, the loss of the park was estimated at $20,000.

With Opening Day less than a month away, permission was granted to immediately begin rebuilding -- this time with a steel grandstand.

Four months later, all 27,000 seats in Griffith Stadium were ready, including a presidential box near the first base dugout. The stadium, named after the franchise's owner and president, Clark Griffith, cost about $100,000.

The stadium was demolished in 1965. Nearly 1,000 of the original seats were moved to Tinker Field, a Spring Training facility in Orlando, Fla., where they remain today.

A federally-owned stadium was erected in its place. The three-tiered District of Columbia Stadium was renamed Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium on Jan. 18, 1969. The final regular season game was played there Sept. 30, 1971.

First pitch: After opening the 1910 season in Washington with a one-hit, 3-0 win over Philadelphia, Senators Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson asked somebody else for an autographed ball.

"For Walter Johnson, with the hope that he may continue to be as formidable as in yesterday's game. William H. Taft."

Prior to the start of the home opener against the Athletics, the 27th president of the United States threw the ball from his seat on the first-base side to Johnson. Including President Taft, 11 presidents threw the season's ceremonial first pitch at either Nationals or Senators games from 1910-71. Taft and Woodrow Wilson were the only two U.S presidents to never see the Senators lose, lending credence to the slogan, "First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League."

First and only: Owner Clark Griffith made a controversial decision in 1923, when he appointed 27-year-old second baseman Stanley "Bucky" Harris as field manager. One year later, Harris led the Nationals to their best finish in history with 92 wins and they captured their first American League pennant.

The Nationals went on to face famed manager John McGraw and the New York Giants. Four games in the series were decided by a single run, including Game 7. Johnson's four innings of relief pitching, as well as a clinching hit by Earl McNeeley in the bottom of the 12th inning, led the Nationals to their first and only World Series championship.

Their success continued the following season, as Harris led the team to a record regular-season finish with 96 wins and a second straight American League pennant. Despite a 7-6 lead heading into the bottom of the eighth inning of Game 7, the Nationals' second trip to the World Series ended when the Pittsburgh Pirates scored three runs off Johnson and held on to clinch the championship.

It wasn't until 1933, under first-year player-manager Joe Cronin, when the Nationals again posted their best regular-season mark at 99-53, earning their third American League pennant. Washington again faced the Giants, but this time wasn't as fortunate, losing in five games.

The franchise then went on a downward spiral, as Washington mustered only 66 wins in 1934 and had only two more winning seasons over the next 25 years.

The Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins prior to the 1961 season, and were replaced by an expansion team, also named the Senators. The addition of 6-foot-7, 250-pound slugging outfielder Frank Howard in 1965 gave the Senators lineup an offensive boost, but something was still missing.

After struggling again in 1968, Short brought in Hall of Famer Ted Williams to manage the team. Together Williams and Howard helped the team improve by 21 wins (86) in 1969, but the team was unable to maintain its success. Washington lost 92 games in 1970 and 96 games the following season.

For the last time: A meager, disgruntled crowd of 14,460 had gathered Sept. 30, 1971 at RFK Stadium to watch Washington host the New York Yankees in what many had thought to be the last baseball game in the city's history. The Senators were holding on to a 7-5 lead with two outs in the top of the ninth inning when fans stormed the field. The umpires couldn't clear the field, and the game ended in a 9-0 forfeit.

Baseball left, but the memories stayed.

"My dad used to tell me about taking the trolley car over to Griffith Stadium and there was a bread factory nearby," Gates said. "The old-timers will tell you the name of the bread factory. They would get the ovens going at the start of the game, and there was this wonderful smell that fell over the stadium and made everybody hungry so they had to buy a hot dog. That's the part of the game that makes it great."

Apparently, baseball in D.C. was quite a picture.

Heather A. Dinich is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.