April 24 - The Nats Are Back
As someone who was born, bred and has spent most of his life residing in Washington DC, the advent
of the spring meant more than the blooming of the cherry blossoms and witnessing loads of school
kids make their annual trip from all over the USA to tour the nation's capital around Easter time.
My formative years in the 1950's were spent living and dying with the original Washington Senators, not
the expansion team that came to D.C. in 1961 after the team we also called the Nats was moved by
then-owner Calvin Griffith to Minnesota just as the team started to show promise of better days ahead
after decades of total futility. The Senators of my childhood were one of the worst professional sports
organizations ever, with Washington DC justifiably earning the title, "First in war, first in peace, and last
in the American League".
In those days each major league consisted of only EIGHT teams. A western road trip for our beloved
Nats consisted of a swing through Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis, where the Browns were
are soulmates in futility until they moved to Baltimore in 1954 and became our hated rivals thirty-five
miles to the north.
Those teams traveled almost exclusively by train, and on off-days while the team was heading "west"
(even though west in those days was still 1,500-2,000 miles east of the Pacific Ocean), the dateline of
the beat writer in the Washington Post or the long-departed Washington Star would say, "En route to
For diehard Senators' fans, a single win in a four-game series over the arrogant Yankees was
analogous to a World Series victory. I can vividly remember such journeymen Nats' pitchers like Bob
Porterfield and Steve Nagy having career outings against the Bronx Bombers, as I listened with fingers
crossed to the broadcasts with longtime announcers Arch McDonald and Bob Wolff - yes, the great Hall
of Fame broadcaster still going strong in the New York area - describing the exploits of Mickey Vernon,
Eddie Yost, Jackie Jensen, et al, trying to hang in there against Joltin' Joe, Yogi, Billy the Kid, and those
other marauders with their championship rings figuratively flashing on the field.
When I was in primary and secondary schools in D.C., if you could produce a prized ticket to opening day
- called the "Presidential Opener" and always played a day before the other major league teams started
their seasons - you could leave for the afternoon to go to Griffith Stadium at Florida Avenue and 7th.
Street, N.W., and be one of the fortunate 30,000 crammed into that old ballyard where Howard
University's medical school now stands. The President of the United States would throw out the first ball
into a mass of players from both competing teams grouped in front of his box, with the player who
outbattled the others to grab the thrown ball becoming celebrated for the rest of the day. Can you
imagine today's millionaire athletes elbowing each other (including teammates) out of the way and
falling over bodies to come up with the sought-after trophy?
The first president I saw in person throw out a first pitch was Dwight Eisenhower, who was surrounded
by every political big-wig who could beg or borrow a seat near the location where Ike sat, so they could
be in pictures the next day of the "historic" toss. John F. Kennedy easily had the best arm of any of these
"hurlers" and looked the most natural and athletic in his manner of delivery.
In the late '50's, the Senators had finally put together a fearsome foursome of home run hitters -
Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Roy Sievers and Jim Lemon - as well as the most promising young
talent I had seen in my decade-and-a-half of devoted fandom to this franchise. Then...BOOM. After the
1960 season, they were yanked from us and moved to the Twin Cities, where they became an American
League power, ultimately making it to the World Series in 1965.
The American League immediately expanded in 1961 and put teams of castoffs and unproven
prospects in D.C. and Los Angeles (yes, the original Los Angeles Angels who played in that city's
Wrigley Field and were sparked by the legendary Leon Wagner, who became an early season home run
sensation). Meanwhile, our new version of the Senators struggled badly, as befitted a team wearing a
Washington uniform, with even a move in 1962 into what was then called D.C. Stadium (now RFK) not
changing the team's fortunes.
Oh yes, we had the beloved Frank Howard hitting mammoth four-baggers, with his longest blows
immortalized by the ceremony of painting the upper-deck seat where they landed white. Gil Hodges
started to turn the team's fortunes around in the mid-60's as a newly-minted manager, but he soon
moved on to that hated city up north as the Mets' manager, and the rest is history.
In 1969 Ted Williams took over as Senators' manager (the same year Vince Lombardi came to D.C. to
coach the Redskins and Lefty Driesell began his run as Maryland's head basketball coach). That year
the Senators responded with an exciting, winning season, but in 1970 and '71 the team reverted back to
its losing ways and moved to Texas.
Now thirty fours later (I have lived about half my life with baseball in D.C. and half without), we are back
in the big leagues. It is a true rebirth of spring for those of us who remember the good old (even though
consistently losing) days. With the former Expos migrating down from Montreal and starting this
season by going four games over .500 (even though starting the season with nine road contests), I can
only hope the beginning of the 21st century is better than the last half of the 20th.
In any event the only thing that matters is that baseball is back inside the Beltway. No more having to
depend on the anti-Washington Peter Angelos and his Orioles to provide us with our closest "live"
baseball action. Generations of kids can experience what I had in my childhood years - our very own
Nats to live and die for each day.