Hard as it may be to believe right now, there was a time in this city when baseball -- pigheaded, greedy baseball -- was the bridge between the races.
In the 1920s, the Senators were the only game in town, and their ballpark, Griffith Stadium, stood at the heart of a neighborhood that was the pride of black America. U Street was the Black Broadway, where Duke Ellington played and Billie Holiday sang. Howard University spawned many intellectual stars of the Harlem Renaissance. The area now called Shaw was the incubator of flourishing black-owned businesses.
In the center of all that, the Senators -- a segregated operation on the field -- had a surprisingly strong following among black Washingtonians. "The colored citizens devoutly rally to the local American League club," wrote Howard University sociologist William H. Jones in 1927. "Here, as in no other phase of their recreational life, contacts between the races suffer less restrictions. . . . There is comparatively no conscious segregation and the races mingle freely."
My favorite eyewitness to that period, Hal Jackson, was the 1940s version of Donnie Simpson, Rock Newman and Marion Barry rolled into one D.C. celebrity. Jackson was a baseball-crazed kid intent on making a name for himself, even as a black man in a white man's town. Jackson saw the Senators as his ticket. He finagled his way into games by volunteering to pick up trash. Inside, he made his way to the broadcast booth, where he'd watch Senators announcer Arch McDonald.
When the Homestead Grays, Pittsburgh's team in the Negro League, started playing at Griffith, Jackson climbed to the roof -- management barred blacks from working in the press box -- to sit with sportswriter Sam Lacey, who narrated the game to the crowd. Soon, Lacey let Jackson handle some announcing.
Jackson hungered to be on the radio. There were no broadcasts of Negro League games, so in 1939, Jackson went to WINX, then owned by The Washington Post, and made the case to the station manager for putting Grays games on the air.
The manager told Jackson, matter-of-factly, "No [racial epithet] will ever go on this radio station." Steaming, Jackson made his pitch to other stations in town, to no avail. He resolved to find a back door to his dream.
Working incognito through a white advertising agency and a sponsor, Jackson bought the 11-11:15 p.m. slot on WINX for $35 a show. The station knew only that it was getting a news and sports interview show titled "The Bronze Review." The white executives had no idea that "bronze" was then the classy term for "Negro."
On the show's first night, Jackson and his guest, Mary McLeod Bethune, President Roosevelt's director of Negro affairs, waited in a car outside the station until 15 minutes before airtime so management wouldn't see who was coming. When Jackson and Bethune walked in, shocked staffers called the manager to stop the program. But he couldn't be found, and the show, and many more, went on.
After Jackson became the radio voice of baseball in Washington, he was thronged wherever he went. That helped him take a central role in the nascent civil rights movement. He and U.S. Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York started meeting for lunch at whites-only restaurants. "When we got there," Jackson recalls, "they had to bow, had to let us in because he was the congressman and the whole staff knew me. He loved it. I loved it."
In 1949, Jackson organized a successful picket against tony Connecticut Avenue shops that sold to black customers but barred them from dressing rooms and restrooms.
Jackson went on to become a radio mogul, a black pioneer in a white industry. He believes to this day that sports is a powerful tool blacks can use to pry their way into the white power structure.
The Senators remained retrograde on the playing field, integrating only in 1954. But Mark Judge -- author of "Damn Senators," a memoir about his grandfather, Senators player Joe Judge, and the 1924 World Series -- notes that black Washington repeatedly rose above the racism of baseball's owners to embrace the team as a point of civic pride.
That's the choice Linda Cropp, the D.C. Council chairman who stands between Washington and baseball, faces right now: Ride to higher office on a wave of spite or bring us together. History teaches the right answer.