In Howard Bryant’s “Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston,” the Boston Red Sox’s futility for many years is traced to their failure to integrate. In Washington, the price of not fully integrating was steeper and in many ways inexcusable; the Senators knew of the talent in their own back yard and still passed on the game’s best black players just as Robinson, Roy Campanella, Paige and Larry Doby were scooped up by the Dodgers and the Indians.
The entire American League, of course, was glacially slow to change. But the Senators of the 1950s and 1960s, in particular, missed out on an entire generation of black superstars that came to dominate the major leagues — Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson.
You wonder if there’s not a direct correlation to those early days and why baseball again left Washington in 1971 — really, why there hasn’t been a baseball postseason here in more than six decades. As Shirley Povich wrote so aptly, “The Griffith family operated a corner grocery store in a supermarket era.”
Either way, there were indeed memories beyond the shadow of the Senators, and some of them live in the mind’s eye of Wilmer Fields’s widow in Manassas.
“The Grays were the tops, they really were,” Audrey Fields said. “They’d play at Griffith on the weekends. Sometimes on Thursdays, too. They were so good. Blacks and whites would come to see them and cheer. Oh, what a time.”
Wilmer Fields died in 2004, one of the last players for the Negro League’s greatest team to pass.
Here’s hoping he and the Grays will be given their due the next time the last pennant in Washington is mentioned. It’s a small acknowledgment, maybe a trifling detail some might not bother with. But it’s an important one.
For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.