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Mike Wise

The Game May Have Left, but the Memories Linger for the Old-Time Senators

By Mike Wise
Thursday, September 30, 2004; Page D13

On the night before baseball came back, Harmon Killebrew eyed the grainy, black-and-white photograph on his den wall. The picture was of him and Ike, taken at old Griffith Stadium on a humid summer afternoon 45 years ago.

"President Eisenhower called me over to his box seats and asked me to autograph a baseball for his grandson David," Killebrew, 68, said Tuesday night from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz. "I asked him to autograph one for me."

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Killebrew saw David many years later and asked the grown man if he kept that ball. "You bet I still have it," Ike's grandson said.

In June 1959, eBay was not around to auction off sentimental value, and the nuances and subtleties of the grand old game did not include arbitration and Andro. Back then, Washington had a baseball team. The Senators wore itchy wool and featured a young slugger nicknamed "The Killer," who hit 73 home runs his last two seasons here and never understood why he had to move to Minnesota in 1961.

"I always felt bad when we left," Killebrew said. "We were just starting to become a good ballclub."

About a decade later, Frank Howard felt the same pang. He was Killebrew's cleanup successor for the expansion Senators, a Ruthian figure who stood 6 feet 7 and weighed 255 pounds. In the upper deck of RFK Stadium he dented seats, which had to be repainted. Howard estimates he hit 20 baseballs 500 feet or more -- a pre-supplement Mark McGwire. He and the Senators moved to Texas after the 1971 season.

"I didn't want to go; I had my best years there," Howard said from his Northern Virginia home. "I knew the city and everybody in it. I knew every bar, every restaurant owner and every saloon keeper. And they knew me because I was thrown out of all of them."

Jim Hannan was a right-hander with a hard sinker and nasty slider for those Senators. Today he is a downtown Morgan Stanley stockbroker, carrying around two keepsakes from the past three decades: sappy baseball memories and a torch. At a 5 p.m. City Museum news conference yesterday, Hannan essentially got his girl back.

"I feel like a player again," said Hannan, 64. "It's like getting reactivated. You know, 'Put me in coach, I go the full nine.' "

You talk to the ones who stayed, the ones who left and the ones traded away like Hannan, who came back to live, work and put on free clinics for inner-city children last year at RFK with former Senators Chuck Hinton, Fred Valentine and Jim Coates.

You talk to enough of the old-timers, and you realize a major league team died in Washington 33 years ago. But it was survived by Killebrew, Howard, Hannan and others, men who kept believing the game would return.

"It's the national pastime; it belongs in the nation's capital," said Bob Wolff, 83, the Hall of Fame broadcaster who was the voice of the Senators from 1947 to '60.

Two, three years down the road, when the minor leaguers don't blossom and the great winter free agent still goes to the Yankees, you can get as jaded and cynical as you want. When you see a dilapidated D.C. neighborhood and public schoolchildren more in need of a new library than a $400 million monolith on a waterfront, it should be open season on city officials, everyone who chose image and identity over what truly ailed their town.

But today, when there is no going back on a deal to bring the Montreal Expos to Washington, the old ballplayers get their say.

"I don't know what they're going to call the new team, but I'd like to see them call 'em the Senators," Killebrew said. "It'd seem right."

Or maybe the "Singing Senators." Wolff, who strummed a ukulele on long train rides, coaxed some of the team into harmonizing one night. Roy Sievers, Jim Lemon and other Senators actually appeared on the "Today" show in 1958, crooning for a full 45 minutes. Ballplayers in a barbershop quartet on NBC. Honest.

You ask Wolff if he is interested in play-by-play work again, given that he still works part-time for a cable station on Long Island, the Madison Square Garden network, and is going on his eighth decade in the business.

"No, when my daughter started calling airplanes 'bye-bye Daddies,' I knew I needed to stop traveling," he said. However, Wolff said he will reprise the Singing Senators, but only if Jose Vidro and Livan Hernandez can sing or need spare cash. "Oh, I'm ready to come back with my ukulele."

On the day baseball returned, you also remember when it embarked on a three-decade hibernation.

The beginning of the end came in the fall of 1970, when Hannan was traded to the Detroit Tigers with Eddie Brinkman and Aurelio Rodriguez, the heart of the Senators' infield, and Joe Coleman, a good young starting pitcher. The Senators got four players in return, with Denny McLain as the linchpin. But McLain had nothing left by then. He lost a lot of games and the franchise became a lame duck long before Nixon.

Owner Bob Short, hung in effigy at the last game in 1971, was already positioning to go to Texas. His cash flow was so low, the Tigers gave him a $1 million interest-free loan.

"Ted Williams was managing us and we were turning it around, becoming a semi-contender," Hannan said. "But Short decided he could make more money leaving." The players knew the team was gone when they played an exhibition in Arlington, Tex., the day before their home opener in 1970.

"I thought five, maybe 10 years it would come back," Hannan said. "You'd hear about San Diego and Houston moving here. But every time, nothing. For a while, we believed. Then the belief just became hope.

"Having lived through these 33 years and this on-again, off-again deal, you just can't believe it. All of a sudden, we got a team. We're back."

You talk to enough of the old-time Senators, you realize baseball never left.

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