The Old Ballgame in a New City
Thursday, April 14, 2005
Dean Phillips and Ron Gasbarri drove to the last game from Arlington in Dean's yellow '68 Charger with a protest sign made out of a bedsheet and bamboo they cut from Dean's yard.
John Folan, then a 37-year-old insurance man, drove up from Fredericksburg with his eldest son, John Jr., and his other three kids piled in a station wagon. He wound up with a foul ball he would keep for 34 years.
Benjamin McCall, who lived close enough to Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium to hear the crowd, was working two jobs, raising a family, and figures he probably was working that night, taking fans to the game in his cab.
The weather on Sept. 30, 1971, the last evening in the life of the Washington Senators, was overcast and blustery. And the city where the game took place seemed, at the moment, as forlorn as the departing team. Three years removed from devastating urban riots, and eight from the vanished glory of the Kennedy administration, the District was afflicted with urban blight, a not-wholly-deserved image as a dangerous place and the insult of losing its baseball team to what one columnist called "some jerk town" in Texas.
There was no Metro, no elected government, and few sophisticated places to dine or see a show. Union Station was crumbling and neglected. The famed Willard Hotel had been empty, closed and facing demolition since 1968. And while the District had some advantages that were almost unique among American cities -- including a strong black middle class newly empowered as the city lurched toward home rule -- outside perceptions were not good, and now the baseball team -- a pretty bad one at that -- was leaving.
"For the first time," recalled Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who had grown up here but was living in New York, "I had the feeling that Washington was not a first-class, major American city."
Tonight, the Nationals' home opener brings baseball back to the same stadium but a different Washington, a city more hectic, vain, wealthy, expensive and dynamic than it was three decades ago in a region that is far bigger, richer and more diverse. Whether the majority of people who now live here see the team as a symbol of Washington's arrival as a metropolitan area is unknown, but what is apparent is that the area's obvious attractiveness as a market in the end gave baseball no alternative but to return.
Washington has only three-fourths of its 1970 population but twice the economic output and per capita income. Its suburbs include counties that are among the fastest-growing in the country and once-sleepy town centers that have been transformed into edge cities with more square footage of office space than some American downtowns. Not all residents have benefited from the prosperity: Economic and social disparities have widened, and in the District the very gains that have lifted the city from its past have deepened old class and racial fault lines.
Two statistics illustrate the fundamental changes that have taken place in a place once known as a government town divided sharply into native-born black and white. When baseball left, 39 percent of the region's workforce was employed by the federal, state and local governments, compared with 24 percent today. And of the region's population then, less than 5 percent were born in a foreign country, compared with 17 percent now.
On the final day of September 1971, Washington was the ninth-largest city in the country. Its population of 756,000 was down about 7,000 from 1960 and still falling from the 1950s as white middle-class residents continued their departure for the suburbs, soon to be joined by black middle-class residents. But it was still robust enough to rank it well ahead of San Diego, Phoenix and San Jose. The Washington region had a population of 3 million -- the nation's seventh largest.
The city itself was a place heavily influenced and defined by the federal government, which in 1971 had bestowed a magnificent new arts pavilion -- the Kennedy Center -- and served -- that May -- as a magnet for one of the era's last and most tumultuous demonstrations against the Vietnam War.
On the Mall that September, there was no National Air and Space Museum, no National Gallery East Wing, no Hirshhorn Museum and no Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Dozens of soldiers still were dying in Vietnam each week, and the Pentagon on the day of the game issued a call for 10,000 more draftees.