John Kelly
John Kelly
Columnist

Nick Altrock: A life rich in the stuff of D.C. baseball lore

Fifty years ago Wednesday, the last baseball game was played in a drafty old heap on Florida Avenue NW called Griffith Stadium.

On Sept. 21, 1961, the Senators fell to the Twins, which must have made for some uncomfortable irony, seeing as how the Twins had been the Senators a year before. Only 1,498 people bothered to show up to watch Washington lose, 6-3.

(Associated Press) - In September 1961, the last baseball game was played at Washington’s Griffith Stadium, and Nick Altrock, who had played there decades before, said goodbye.

Nick Altrock was one of them.

Altrock was 85, and he was a sort of human bookend when it came to Griffith Stadium. He claimed to also have been at the very first game there, though whether he meant a game in the 1890s, when baseball was first played at the site, or in 1911, when the stadium was rebuilt after a fire, I’m not sure.

It could have been both, for Altrock had been a ballplayer. He was a southpaw from Cincinnati who entered the majors in 1898. He bested the Senators in August 1898, pitching for the Louisville Colonels. The Post reported: “Altrock will never burn the zephyrs with his speed. Such burners of the breeze as the twirling tornado Donovan manipulates are missing in Altrock’s book of kinks. But he is the proprietor of a curve that was under perfect control yesterday.”

Translation: Not much of a fastball, but Altrock could make the ball dance.

Altrock later played for the Chicago White Sox and was the winning pitcher in a 1906 World Series game. But he’ll always be associated with Washington and with Griffith Stadium, not for his play — though he continued to pinch-hit into the 1930s — but for his playfulness.

In 1912, team owner Clark Griffith hired Altrock as a “comedy coacher,” someone to entertain the crowds with amusing antics from the first base coach’s box. Altrock was a natural buffoon: auburn hair, a squished nose and a pair of ears that looked like the handles on a milk jug.

With a partner — first the Senators’ Germany Schaefer, finally with Al Schacht — Altrock engaged in broad physical comedy on the sidelines: pretending to golf, imitating the pitcher’s windup, wrestling with himself, reenacting Jack Dempsey’s prizefights. He and Schacht took to the vaudeville circuit, where Altrock reportedly earned more as a comic than Babe Ruth did as a ballplayer. (As is so often the case, the partners came to despise each other, their boxing parodies becoming increasingly real.)

Griffith Stadium was home to more than just the Senators. The Homestead Grays and other Negro league teams played there. So did the Redskins. (It was from Griffith that generals were summoned to their offices at the War Department during a Redskins game Dec. 7, 1941.)

Gordon Thomas has a seat from Griffith Stadium in his Arlington County basement. He’s a lobbyist and amateur baseball historian fascinated by the ballpark. “It was the site of so many memorable sports events,” he said. “And a number of community events were there: baptisms — a local church was across the street — Boy Scout jamborees. . . . It lives in a lot of our history.”

Altrock died the same year that Griffith Stadium was torn down: 1965. Today, the site is occupied by Howard University Hospital. The emergency room is roughly where the left field line used to be. Two artifacts are associated with the stadium: a memorial to Walter Johnson, which is now in front of the Bethesda high school that bears the Hall of Famer’s name, and a statue of Clark Griffith, which is in front of RFK Stadium.

Gordon would like to see Griffith’s statue moved to Nationals Park. I’d kind of like to see a statue of Nick Altrock.

The kindest cut

I’ve been called on to do many odd things in my guise as a local micro-celebrity, but few have been as odd as what I’ll be doing Wednesday evening at Union Station: shaving a woman’s head.

Well, not the entire head. I’m not a licensed hairdresser, so I think I’ll only be allowed to take a ceremonial swipe of the cranium with the clippers. But have no doubt: Dawn Talley will end up bald.

It’s part of “46 Mommas,” a shave-a-thon to raise awareness of childhood cancer, organized by the St. Baldrick’s Foundation. Forty-six women from across the country whose children have cancer will have their locks shorn. Dawn is from Little Rock. Her 10-year-old son, Elijah, has neuroblastoma. He’s lost his hair 11 times in the past five years. Dawn is losing hers in solidarity.

The event is scheduled from 5 to 9 p.m. We all get to see what Dawn’s scalp looks like about 6:15.

 
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