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The Nationals Past Times
The History and New Beginning of Baseball in Washington, D.C.
By James C. Roberts
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2005 James C. Roberts
All rights reserved.
A Capital Game
Author Hank Thomas and antiques dealer Blair Jett were in their third day of rummaging through their friend Miller Young's attic, and they were growing discouraged. They had offered to help clean out the attic, partly in the hope of finding hidden treasure, after Young sold his house in the Washington suburb of Damascus.
Treasure for Thomas — a grandson of the great pitcher Walter Johnson — meant baseball materials, and Young's attic seemed like a fertile field since his great-grandfather, Nicholas Young, had been one of the founders of the National League in 1876 and had served as its president from 1885 to 1902.
Miller Young, however, had frankly expressed skepticism because he was convinced that he had all the family's baseball materials locked in a safe.
The two nevertheless doggedly continued their search of the hundreds of boxes and a dozen bureaus crammed with all manner of junk.
Then Thomas heard Jett cry out, "Oh boy! Oh boy!"
"I knew from the tone in his voice that he had found something fantastic," Thomas said.
Indeed he had. Jett had discovered a cache of baseball documents related to the Washington Nationals — a team founded in the District of Columbia in 1859 — just 13 years after the rules of the game had been codified by Alexander Cartwright in New York City.
The Nationals played at a field located at the intersection of 6th and 7th Streets and Maryland Avenue N.E., about eight blocks from the U.S. Capitol. In literal terms, the "Nats," as they came to be called, were the first people to play baseball on Capitol Hill.
Among the items was a scrapbook containing the club's charter, articles on the Nationals' games clipped from the New York Mercury, and a collection of game tickets and invitations to social events sponsored by the team.
The collection had been compiled by Edmund F. French, a clerk in the Treasury Department, who gave it to Nicholas Young, a clerk in the War Department and the great-grandfather of Miller Young.
Among the documents in the plastic bag were a number of letters addressed to the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs. Nicholas Young was one of the founders of the league in 1876. He served as its first secretary until 1885, when he became league president, an office he held until 1902. The National League still goes by the same name, of course, and this year marks the 125th anniversary of its founding.
Rather than sell the documents to a private collector, Miller Young decided to donate them to the Washington Historical Society so that they could be accessible to researchers and historians.
Thumbing through the fragile yellowed pages, the reader is struck by the genteel tone of the newspaper accounts of the time — as well as the lives of the players.
Describing a visit by the Nationals to play the Pastimes in Baltimore, for instance, the Mercury reported, under the headline "Healthful Game of Baseball":
It is gratifying to report that this admirable field sport continues in Baltimore and one of the most interesting match games has been played by the Pastimes of this city and the Nationals of this metropolis. The National Club arrived on the early train and were met by a committee of the Pastimes who, taking possession of their ball, did the honors up to 1:00 where they were escorted to Mr. Charles Hoffke's Saloon and partook of a refreshing lunch. At 2:00 they took them in a special car furnished by the city passenger railway and proceeded to the grounds on Madison Avenue.
The trial of skill and physical ability over, the participants somewhat wearied by their assiduous efforts, enjoyed for a brief season the cool refreshing breezes of the country and then returned to Mr. Hoffke's saloon. The bill of fare embraced many delicacies of the season.
The first game recorded by the Nationals was played against the Potomacs on May 5, 1860, with the Potomacs winning 35–15.
A Mercury article dated March 31, 1861, reports "commenced play on ground between 6th and 7th Streets east near Maryland Avenue, Capitol Hill."
Less than three months later, however, a report notes, "changed our ground to square south of President's house."
Teams played on this ground — now known as the Ellipse — throughout the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln is reported to have watched some of them.
An article published on August 28, 1865, reports on a game between the Nationals and the Atlantics and a meeting with Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson:
The reception committee of the National Baseball Club accompanied the Atlantics to the White House on Wednesday morning and obtained an interview for them with the President, although a host of people were already awaiting an audience. The members were serially introduced to the President and expressed their regrets that he was not present to give the game a national importance.
The President replied that nothing but urgent business prevented his witnessing the match and promised to visit the playground in September when the Excelsiors visited the capital.
Thanking the Atlantics for the compliments of their call, he bowed his acknowledgements and retired.
The meeting with President Johnson was among the first in what has developed into a unique relationship between the presidency and baseball. Over the past century and a half, both institutions have sought to ally each with the other, to the advantage of both.
In their book Baseball: The President's Game, William S. Mead and Paul Dickson note that every president except Rutherford B. Hayes has had some documented association with baseball.
A Revolutionary War soldier named George Ewing wrote of playing a game of "base" at Valley Forge on April 7, 1778, and of General Washington it is reported by another soldier that "he sometimes throws and catches a ball for hours with his aide-de-camp." The game played by the general and his troops at Valley Forge was almost certainly "rounders" — a British antecedent of baseball.
Andrew Johnson was the first president to call baseball "the national game." Johnson was a great fan, hosting teams at the White House and giving federal workers the day off for a special round-robin tournament featuring the Washington Nationals, the Philadelphia Athletics, and the Brooklyn Atlantics.
His successor, Ulysses S. Grant, was also a fan, and he and his staff are said to have watched games played south of the White House from the rooftops of a neighboring government office building. Grant also watched the New York Gothams play their first game at the New York Polo Grounds in 1876.
Chester Arthur, another baseball fan, was host to the Cleveland Forest Citys at the White House on April 13, 1883, stating on that occasion that "good ballplayers make good citizens." Arthur's successor, Grover Cleveland, received the Chicago White Stockings at the White House in 1888 and reminisced about baseball with the team's owner, Cap Anson. In an interesting historical twist, Cleveland was the namesake for Grover Cleveland Alexander, the great pitcher portrayed more than a half century later by President Ronald Reagan in the film The Winning Team.
In his second term, Cleveland invited government clerk John Heydler to recite a popular new poem, "Casey at the Bat," while Heydler was delivering a package to the White House. Years later Heydler went on to become president of the National League.
Benjamin Harrison, who defeated Cleveland, was an enthusiastic baseball fan and also the first president to attend a major league game. On June 6, 1892, Harrison saw Washington lose to Cincinnati 7–4 at Washington's Swampoodle Grounds.
William McKinley threw out the first ball for the Columbus, Ohio, team to open the season of 1892 and he told a reporter for Sporting Life that he hoped to do the same during his first year as president. However, on Opening Day, to the disappointment of 7,000 Senators fans in National Park, he failed to show up.
Teddy Roosevelt was one of the only presidents to dislike baseball, privately dismissing it as a "mollycoddle game." T.R.'s three sons were avid players and fans of the game, however, and the president took pride in their success. He was also too politically savvy to publicly express his disdain for the sport, and when called upon to comment on it went through some Clintonesque verbal contortions to say something that sounded positive without connoting his support.
Roosevelt also received two teams at the White House, including the New York Highlanders, then managed by one Clark Griffith. In 1912, Griffith became manager of the Washington Senators; William Howard Taft was the first of nine presidents that the wily Griffith would court for baseball's benefit, as well as his own.
Taft was a huge baseball fan (at 330 pounds he was huge in every respect), and he attended games as often as he could fit them into his schedule. On April 14, 1910, Taft threw out the first ball to open the Washington Senators' baseball season. The great Senators pitcher Walter Johnson caught the ball, and the ceremonial pitch established a venerable tradition that still endures today.
It was in 1899, during the McKinley administration, that Washington's professional baseball team officially became known as the Washington Senators. The team had gone by various names, beginning with the Nationals, during its 40 years as an amateur and then later a professional baseball team. The moniker of "Senators" had been used informally and with increasing frequency in the last decade of the 19th century, and the 1900 Roger's Baseball Guide reflected the new name for the first time.
Woodrow Wilson was an enthusiastic baseball player as a boy and remained an avid fan until he died. In his last years Wilson was largely incapacitated by a stroke; watching baseball games was one of his few sources of enjoyment. He would have his chauffeur drive him to Griffith Stadium and park in the bullpen area, where he could watch the game in relative privacy.
Warren Harding liked baseball as much as Wilson did and became a fan and friend of a number of players, including Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. In 1922, during Harding's administration, the Supreme Court also showed its partiality to the national pastime, ignoring a mountain of empirical data and setting aside common sense to rule that baseball was a sport and not a business, and hence was not subject to regulation under the Interstate Commerce Clause of the Constitution. This exception, provided to no other sport, has been both helpful and harmful to baseball in the years since.
Silent Cal Coolidge maintained the link between the presidency and baseball, although his wife, Grace, was a more enthusiastic fan.
Herbert Hoover loved the game, as did Franklin D. Roosevelt. Clark Griffith, owner of the Senators, courted FDR assiduously, and the president patronized Griffith Stadium frequently in the years before World War II broke out.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, baseball commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis wrote to Roosevelt asking him whether professional baseball should continue while the country was at war. FDR responded in a letter to "My dear Judge" that, speaking personally, he hoped that the game would go on.
And go on it did. The draft or enlistment of over 500 major league players, however, meant that the sport's depleted team rosters had to be filled by the young, the old, the lame, the halt, and the nearly blind. Teenagers and retired players suited up again to keep the Washington Senators and other teams on the field, supplemented in some cases by truly amazing players with "special needs."
Among these was Bert Shepard, a pitcher for the Senators who was shot down over Germany while flying a mission as an Army Air Corps pilot. Shepard was taken prisoner by the Germans and had a badly injured leg amputated. Liberated in late 1944, Shepard returned to the States, had a new artificial leg made, and returned to the Senators, first as a coach and then as an active pitcher, playing in a number of games in 1945.
That year saw the end of World War II and the return of the president to the ballpark in the person of Harry S. Truman, who threw out the first ball at a Senators game on September 8, 1945, six days after Japan surrendered.
Truman and almost all of his successors were avid baseball fans. Dwight Eisenhower played professional baseball in the Kansas State League for the summer before entering West Point and during another summer while a cadet there. Ike played for money to help pay for his education using the pseudonym Wilson. Playing for pay was forbidden by NCAA rules and Ike had signed a pledge that he had not done so. Had his cover-up been discovered, he would have certainly been expelled from West Point, with who knows what impact on the course of history.
As president, Eisenhower was a frequent and enthusiastic attendee at Griffith Stadium, often scoring the game on his scorecard. It was during his administration that Congress held hearings on proposed legislation that would strengthen professional baseball's antitrust exemption.
In 1958 the Senate Commerce Committee held hearings taking testimony from a number of players, managers, and, in a legendary exchange with Senator Estes Kefauver, from Casey Stengel, the crusty manager of the New York Yankees. Casey testified in his best Stengelese:
I would say that I wouldn't know, but I would say the reason why they would want it passed is to keep baseball going as the highest baseball sport that has gone into the baseball sport and from the baseball angle. I'm not going to speak of any other sport. I'm not in here to argue about other sports. I'm in the baseball business. It's been run cleaner than has ever put out in the hundred years at the present time.
Undaunted by this sea of scrambled syntax, the chairman moved on to ask Mickey Mantle: "Do you have any observations with reference to the applicability of the antitrust laws to baseball?" In one of the classic ad-libs of all time, in a deadpan voice, Mickey stated, "Well, my views are pretty much the same as Casey's."
President John F. Kennedy is linked most closely with football, but he was also an enthusiastic baseball fan. Kennedy was the last president to visit Griffith Stadium and the first to visit the new D.C. Stadium (later named RFK Stadium after his brother, Bobby). JFK threw out the first ball to open the 1961 season on April 10, 1961, and in so doing ushered in a new style of ballpark.
RFK was the first multiuse stadium designed to accommodate baseball, football, and other sports; its nondescript doughnut design was soon copied in cities around the country. These sterile, forbidding stadiums, many with artificial turf, offended baseball fans and contributed to major league baseball's decline from the 1960s through the 1980s.
The trend was reversed by the spectacular success of Camden Yards, which opened in 1992 in nearby Baltimore. Camden Yards, with its old- fashioned look and downtown location, sparked a construction boom of similar ballparks that continues in cities from coast to coast. These ballparks have paid tremendous dividends for the owners and the game, drawing fans in droves and helping to revive baseball from the low reached in the aftermath of the 1994 strike.
Richard Nixon was perhaps the most knowledgeable baseball fan ever to occupy the White House. He frequented games throughout most of his life and was a keen student of the sport. Nixon and his son-in-law, David Eisenhower, compiled a number of all-time best all-star teams for various eras in the history of the game.
Gerald Ford played baseball in college, as did George Bush; both played for the Republican team in the annual congressional baseball game. Bush took Queen Elizabeth II to a game at Camden Yards and flew Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio to Toronto, where he and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney threw out dual first balls.
Jimmy Carter is remembered for playing softball with reporters and campaign workers during the 1976 campaign. As president, he declined to do the Opening Day honors and attended only one major league game, the last game of the 1979 World Series in Baltimore. The Pittsburgh Pirates won 4–1. Throughout the 1990s, however, Jimmy and Rosalyn became frequent game attendees, joining Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner and his wife Jane Fonda to cheer on the Braves in many playoff and World Series games. Carter even defied the forces of political correctness to defend use of the "tomahawk chop" by Atlanta fans.
Excerpted from The Nationals Past Times by James C. Roberts. Copyright © 2005 James C. Roberts. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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