For the Senators, 'tis another losing season

By Robert G. Kaiser
Friday, December 25, 2009

I grew up in post-World War II Washington, a segregated Southern city famous for its godawful baseball team, the Washington Senators. Older readers will remember the wisecrack from the first half of the 20th century: "Washington, first in war, first in peace, last in the American League." Usually true.

My Christmas story begins in 1953. I was 10 and an eager though talentless student of the trombone, taking lessons at the Bethesda Music and Arts Center. One day my teacher introduced me to Leon Brusiloff, a short, rotund man who spoke with a funny accent that I realized years later was Russian. Brusiloff needed young musicians to play in the Metropolitan Police Boys Club band that he directed. I don't remember how I was initiated into that fraternity, but soon I was going downtown to the Municipal Center at 300 Indiana Ave., the same one that houses police headquarters today, one night a week for band rehearsals. Why were boys from Bethesda being recruited for this Washington organization? Because we had white skin, alas. There were no black boys in the band then, a measure of the community standards of the day.

I occupied the very last chair in the large trombone section, and I loved it. We wore Norman Rockwell outfits for our public performances that featured blue trousers with wide red stripes down the outside of each leg. We played in parades. We played once for Haile Selassie, the emperor of Ethiopia.

For reasons mysterious, Brusiloff had struck a bargain with Clark Griffith, the baseball player-turned-team owner of the Senators. Brusiloff would bring the band to Griffith's big house to serenade the Griffith family with carols early on Christmas morning. In return, Griffith would give each young musician a single ticket to the bleachers for the following opening day in April. Thus was Christmas morning 1954 disrupted for about 70 families whose sons played in the band.

My mother thought this was an appalling intrusion on our Christmas rituals, but I insisted on taking part -- I couldn't let down the band! It was still dark when the band assembled outside. We saw the sun rise. We played our carols. We went home. My two younger brothers, still eager believers in Santa Claus, were deep into their loot by the time I returned.

I guess this was my first introduction to the workings of the Washington favor bank. Brusiloff obviously saw some benefit in ingratiating himself with Griffith; some of my bandmates (but not all) saw a benefit in the ticket for opening day. I never collected the promised favor, because in March of 1955, weeks before opening day, my family moved to Albany, N.Y., where I quickly realized that it would be sensible to give up the trombone. Clark Griffith died in October 1955 at 85 -- weeks after the Senators' season ended: 53 wins, 101 losses, last place in the standings.

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