Picking the National’s team name all by design
By John Kelly,
Whenever stories about the National League East Champion Nationals mention the last baseball team from Washington to be involved in the postseason, they invariably refer to the 1933 Washington “Senators” in the American League. I contend that they were also known as the “Nationals,” or “Nats” for short.
I recall as a young guy in the 1930s sitting with my buddies on one of our porches in Southeast D.C. and listening to Arch McDonald broadcast home games of the Nats from old Griffith Stadium or from the studio of WJSV. Arch would strike a gong: once for a single, twice for a double, and, much to our delight, four times when it was a home-team home run.
I believe the team was not known officially as the “Senators” until the expansion team was formed in 1961, replacing the talent-loaded team absconded to Minneapolis by Calvin Griffith.
— Bill Allison,
Oh, for a simple name like the Yankees. The truth is that for decades, Washington’s professional baseball team answered to two names: the Nationals and the Senators. Or four, if you add the Nats (beloved by headline writers) and the Griffmen, in honor of manager/owner Clark Griffith.
Phil Wood, MASN’s “Nats Talk Live” host and the font of all D.C. baseball knowledge, said there was a team in Washington in the 19th century called the Nationals. When the American League was started in 1901, the city’s new franchise was called the Washington Senators.
“But because of the old name, people still called the team the Nationals,” Phil said. “Eventually more people were calling them the Nationals than the Senators. If you look at old stationery up to 1956, it says ‘Nationals.’ ”
Pre-1957, the names were often used interchangeably. The Post could refer to the Nationals in the body of a story while mentioning the Senators in the photo caption.
“If you go back and look at old baseball cards from the ’30s and ’40s, half would say ‘Senators,’ and half would say ‘Nationals,’ ” Phil said.
“Even in the 1950s. Look at the 1955 Topps card for Roy Sievers. It says ‘Washington Nationals.’ ”
Then something happened. That something was Charlie Brotman, now a famed local PR guy, but in 1956 he was the newly hired stadium announcer for Washington’s major league ballclub.
“They said in addition to this, we’d like you to be the editor and publisher of our press guide and programs and our yearbooks, all the printed matter for next year,” Charlie told Answer Man. “I said ‘Terrific. Now I have a question: Who are we?’ ”
Charlie had to put the team’s name on the cover. But which name? Should it be the Senators, the Nationals or the Nats?
Calvin Griffith, Clark’s nephew and adopted son, told Charlie, “Just work it out.”
The graphic artist that Charlie was working with was Zang Auerbach, brother of basketball coach Red Auerbach. Charlie asked Zang what sort of eye-catching illustration he could do if the team was called the Washington Nationals.
“Nothing,” Zang said. “It just lays there.”
But with the “Senators,” there was a world of possibility. The team could be anthropomor-phized. An artist could come up with a caricature of an old-time Senator who would be throwing balls, batting and catching.
And, thus, the cover of the 1957 yearbook features a gloved, cigar-chomping Colonial-style figure in a wind-up, the word “Senators” emblazoned in red above him. The fellow is reminiscent of another sports logo Zang Auerbach designed: the leprechaun of the Boston Celtics.
“And that’s how we became the Senators in 1956,” Charlie said. “It sounds so outrageous that someone could come up with the name for a major league team that way.”
Said Phil Wood: “Charlie Brotman probably had more to do with renaming the club the Senators than anyone else.”
Charlie, how do you feel about the Nationals’ success this season?
“I feel like champagne,” said Charlie, 84, “and I’m one of the bubbles.”
Have a question about the Washington area? Write firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.