“Well, that would be nice if they did,” Audrey said. “Because a lot of family members remember those players and that team. Wilmer very much liked playing for them.”
Wilmer did not pitch for the Senators in 1933, the year purported to be the last Washington celebrated a baseball postseason. As a black man, he wasn’t allowed.
No, he played for the Homestead Grays in 1948, one of the last seasons they enraptured Griffith Stadium fans and went on to win the final pennant race of the Negro National League and play in the last Negro League World Series. Fields, born and raised in Manassas, where his widow and son still live, threw a mean, tailing fastball 60-odd years ago. Hall-of-Famer Buck Leonard played first. Luke Easter manned left field. They both crushed the ball. Gas was 16 cents a gallon. A new home cost less than $8,000. Harry Truman was in the White House.
1948 — the year that should rightly be championed as the last time this town won a pennant.
“Josh was one of Wilmer’s best friends,” Audrey Fields says. “You heard of Josh?”
“Yes, Josh Gibson. He was a good player.”
Griffith Stadium was 405 feet down the line and 457 feet to dead center. Josh Gibson, the greatest home run hitter of his era — I’ve always thought of Babe Ruth as “The White Josh Gibson” — hit 11 balls over the wall to left and center for the Grays in 1943. The same season the entire American League, encompassing roughly 300 players, hit just 10 home runs over the left and center field walls of Griffith Stadium.
In Brad Snyder’s 2003 tome to the Grays, “Beyond the Shadow of the Senators,” you learn that the stadium, located where Howard University Hospital now sits, seated 27,000. But there were newspaper accounts of 32,000 at a game in 1942 featuring the great Satchel Paige, Cool Papa Bell, Gibson, Easter and Leonard.
“The stories of Josh Gibson the player were good, but who he was as a person were even better,” said Sean Gibson, the great grandson of the Hall of Fame legend, when reached by telephone Friday afternoon.
Sean is the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, a Pittsburgh non-profit. His life has been dedicated to ensuring people don’t forget who his great grandfather was.
The Nationals obviously haven’t — they erected a statue of Gibson three summers ago at Nationals Park along with statues of Frank Howard and Walter Johnson.
But selective memory has run amok in the last month. “Washington’s first postseason in 79 years.” How many times have you heard that? Yeah, well, it needs to be amended to 64 years. That’s last week’s anniversary of the Grays beating the Baltimore Elites, 3 games to 1, in the best-of-five series, which took place at Baltimore’s Bugel Field because Griffith Stadium was unavailable to rent.
“If people are writing articles about the last Major League Baseball team to represent Washington, sure, that would be the Senators,” Sean Gibson said. “But if it’s written, ‘the last time Washington had a playoff baseball team,’ then the Negro Leagues have to be in there. There’s no animosity if people keep only mentioning the Senators. They were two different leagues.”
Though Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, most African American players still played in separate, segregated leagues with their own pennants and World Series a year later. Baseball didn’t become fully integrated for another decade, and the Senators didn’t integrate till 1954.
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.