Q&A With Bob Levey
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, April 3, 2001; Noon EDT
"Levey Live" appears Tuesdays at noon EDT.
Your host is Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This hour is your chance to talk directly to key Washington Post reporters and editors, local officials and people in the news.
Today, Bobs guest is founder of the Washington Baseball Historical Society, Tom Holster.
One hundred years ago, the Washington Senators first took the field. Thirty years ago they stepped down to become the Texas Rangers. On the night of what was to be the Senators' final game, angry Washington fans stormed the field resulting in a forfeited game. Today, emotions still run high among Washington baseball aficionados. Join Levey and Holster as they take on the topic of baseball in Washington.
Holster formed the Washington Baseball Historical Society in 1996. He publishes a quarterly newsletter, Nats News, and has organized five reunions of former Senator players including Ted Williams, Frank Howard, Roy Sievers and Pedro Ramos. The Society has over 500 members in 43 states and three countries.
Holster grew up in Falls Church and Centreville, Va. He is married and has four children and one grandchild.
The transcript follows.
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Bob Levey: Good afternoon, Tom, and thanks for joining us. Bring us up to date, please, on the latest twists and turns about getting someone else's team here. Are the Expos still a live possibility? The Devil Rays? The Marlins? Or is Washington still behind such "virgin" cities as Nashville and Las Vegas?
Tom Holster: Nice to be here. The Expos are still and excellent possibility. The Twins as well. A lot depends on the resolution of financial issues within baseball. The Expos are hurting.
Fairfax, Va.: On Friday, the White House said President Bush would help bring baseball back to Washington. As president of the United States and as a former owner of the Texas Rangers, how much clout does he have? Is it possible we might have a team by the time his term ends (2005 at the earliest)?
Also, how does this high level support affect the strategy of the two groups trying to bring baseball back?
Tom Holster: It never hurts to have the Big Kahuna behind us. Of course, Nixon also supported keeping the team here to no avail. So we'll have to see.
Who was your favorite Senator player and why?
Tom Holster: Frank Howard without question. Loved seeing those homers.
Bob Levey: One of my favorite memories of 1960s Washington was going to a Senators game one night, sitting in the upper deck (the cheap seats) and seeing Secretary of State Dean Rusk sitting nearby. He was chomping a hot dog and drinking a beer. Just a regular guy taking in a game with his son. Do you think we'd see "celebrity Washingtonians" doing this nowadays if a team were ever to return here?
Tom Holster: I think if we get a team it's going to be incredibly popular and so we'll have plenty of celebrities and everybody else wanting to make an appearance.
Arlington, Va.: It's unfortunate that in real life some things, even if you wish really, really hard for them, will not happen. You get to a point where continuing to believe that this impossibility will occur is a waste of energy and counterproductive. There is no way in heck that Peter Angelos will let D.C. have a team. This is a fact. The O's attendance, in the face of a poor team, disillusionment with ownership and the eventual retirement of Cal, will decline, making it even more of a certainty that Angelos would prevent competition.
I honestly think that to continue to string people along on this is dishonest and unhealthy. And it makes people who generate these quarterly "there's still hope" media stories look stupid. We've been without a team for nearly 30 years. Accept it, move on.
Tom Holster: The economic situation in baseball and its resolution will eventually outweigh what one owner like Angelos could do to prevent what is good for baseball as a whole. No body would say that it's a done deal, but there's always reason for hope.
Bob Levey: Please comment on a major Bob Levey fear: That George W. Bush's previous job as president of the Texas Rangers will actually reduce Washington's chances of getting a new team. Reason: He'd have to favor either the D.C. ownership group or the Northern Virginia ownership group, and he wouldn't be comfortable with either. Am I barking up the right tree here?
Tom Holster: As a resourceful politician, I think George W. would know who to support when the time comes. I think having him in our corner can only help.
Herndon, Va.: D.C. metro area folks have recently been trying to get a MLB team to our city, but have been thwarted by the owner of the Orioles.
Northern Virginia has a minor-league team, the Cannons. Maybe, instead of looking to BUY a team, we can turn them into a MLB expansion team. Could that be a way around the problem?
Tom Holster: At this point, I think expansion is out of the question. Our best hope is the relocation of an existing team. Northern Virginia may be the better location vis-a-vis proximity of the Orioles.
Bob Levey: Baseball has been gone from D.C. so long that I suspect fewer kids are playing the game -- and those who are playing it are playing it less well. You agree?
Tom Holster: I definitely agree. Without heros to look up to, the kids' imaginations suffer. Right now soccer is king. But that can change.
Washington, D.C.: Tom: If we get baseball back in D.C., after an initial surge of interest, who's to say that our attendance won't end up being just as bad as it was 30 years ago? Look at all the empty seats at the Wizards games. Look at the Caps when they're losing (and remember, the MCI Center has only 18,000 seats). The only losers this town seems to support are the Redskins, and in baseball, you lose more than you win. We may not be as transient a city as thirty years ago, but we're still incredibly fickle.
Tom Holster: The important thing to remember is the change in the demographics. We're a much larger city now. The key will be putting a competitive team on the field, smart marketing, and holding costs down for the fans.
Bob Levey: One of the reasons the Senators failed here (twice) is that people were reluctant to come downtown at night, into what they perceived as a crime-ridden city. But MCI Center is doing relatively well, and its crowds are mostly white and suburban. Do you think the MCI example will help kill off that old perception about crime in D.C. at night?
Tom Holster: I think it's a good example of the changing attitudes toward downtown. Again, it depends on the marketing of the team.
Laurel, Md.: What kind of public transportation existed at Griffith Stadium?
Tom Holster: Streetcars! Driving was accomplished by parking in neighborhood yards for a couple bucks.
Bob Levey: "Damn Yankees" is my favorite musical, not least because the Senators win the pennant. How long would it take for a real, new Washington baseball team to do what the Senators do on stage? After all, the Marlins won in Year Four, I think it was. Could we expect the same here, or will we have to endure 15 years of mediocrity?
Tom Holster: It depends on the ownership. If they're willing to spend the money, anything's possible. "Damn Yankees" is my favorite musical too, for some reason.
Bob Levey: Tom, you mentioned a minute ago that we are different city than we were 30 years ago, and I agree with you. But since most of our growth has occurred in Northern Virginia, doesn't that load the dice in favor of the ownership group that wants to build a stadium near Dulles?
Tom Holster: My personal feeling at this time is that Northern Virginia has the better shot. The population is there, and if the stadium is located correctly on a metro line along the river, it can adequately support the whole region.
Arlington, Va.: One of the fears that I have if Washington does get a team is that they'll go the corporate route the way that the Orioles did when they moved into their new ballpark and people who want to go to see a game or two end up in left field watching the game on a TV. I think because the Orioles went that way is the reason their attendance is declining.
Tom Holster: One thing that's evident of being a baseball fan of many years, is that the game has changed tremendously. The money involved has created the corporate environment. It's no longer possible to be the mom and pop organization of the Griffiths. But imaginative ownership can lessen the impact of that.
Arlington, Va.: How often do you hold your reunions? What are some of your favorite moments from the gatherings?
Tom Holster: We have yearly reunions generally in February. We've had over 50 former players attend. In November '98, we put on the '69 Senators reunion. My highlight was Ted Williams speaking to the group at breakfast. A true icon. When he entered the room, it was like the president of the United States had come in.
Bob Levey: To me, the perfect Senator from the 1960s was a catcher named Jim French. He couldn't really hit, he couldn't really throw, he couldn't really do much of anything. Yet the fans loved him. What ever happened to him?
Tom Holster: Jim French is taking the bar exams in Chicago to be a lawyer. He attended our '69 reunion. He was a real scrapper. Tom Boswell wrote a column over 20 years ago in which he related an incident in which French turned a routing foul pop up into "the battle of Samonthrace." Even in a losing cause, it was 150 percent with French.
Washington, D.C.: You said that a Virginia location for a ballpark should be along the river -- where are you thinking? Is there any real estate available that would be convenient?
Tom Holster: I've heard rumors, though I have no inside information, that the former location of the Twin Bridges Marriott, north of Crystal City, has been considered.
Bob Levey: RFK Stadium is all but abandoned now, and every conversation about a new baseball team assumes that a new stadium will be built -- either near Chinatown or near Dulles. But couldn't RFK be retrofitted with enough sky boxes to make it a happy choice? After all, the subway stops right at the front door (all right, 200 yards away).....
Tom Holster: That would be too economical in this day of mega-million, publicly-financed Taj Mahals.
Beltsville, Md.: As a recovering Orioles fan (Go Diamondbacks!) I have been truly disgusted by what Angelos has done to fans of the sport.
I hesitate to go to Keys or Baysox games because I'm afraid it would signal some type of support for the team from up North.
What can I -- as an interested Washington-focused baseball fan -- do to encourage a team to locate here?
Tom Holster: This is my personal opinion, but I think the Orioles have been in a tail spin from the time Angelos took over. And I think he failed to see the benefit of having a team in Washington. Supporting the minor league teams in the area, I think can only help our prospects. We're baseball fans after all.
Bowie: A few Negro baseball questions:
Is it true the Homestead Greys out-drew the Senators some years?
When was the Greys last season?
Who was the first Af-Am player for the Senators?
Tom Holster: I have heard this, though hard data is scarce. They were a much better team than the Senators during their time spent here, boasting Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard -- both Hall of Famers.
Colesville, Md.: Baseball -- as a whole -- seems to be declining. The glitz is with the NBA, the money is with the NFL, and the new interest seems to be with MLS and the NHL.
Baseball has been socked with the strike difficulties, problems with the umps, an ever-widening strike zone and teams that appear to buy their championships.
With the face of baseball suffering so, why does Washington need to be saddled with yet another sports team?
Tom Holster: Interestingly, with all of baseball's much publicized problems, attendance is at an all-time high. There's nothing here that can't be fixed.
Bob Levey: The Northern Virginia ownership group is a group. So is the D.C. ownership group. Would it help our chances for another team if the money all belonged to one person?
Tom Holster: Baseball loves to see a well-capitalized effort with as few bodies as possible. But in the real world, an ownership group of several individuals is the more likely scenario.
Arlington, Va.: There's been "reason for hope" now ever since 1972 when the Padres were rumored to move here. It's misguided, and to consider that we'll get a team only as a reaction to economic downturn (great) or when the owners decide to act in the collective interest of the game (uh, that will happen -- NEVER) is delusional.
Tom Holster: There's no question that Washington has been left at the altar many times. And it's always easier to take the pessimistic view. I myself, am not a wild-eyed optimist, but circumstances are truly much different now than they have been in the past.
Bob Levey: The baseball world is agog over the contract given to Alex Rodriguez by the Texas Rangers. Heck, he makes almost as much as a newspaper columnist now......
Of course, cynics like Bob Levey are thinking that the Rangers can pay all those bucks, but they still have never won anything since they moved from RFK in 1971. Does it give you a sneaking sense of satisfaction to know that the Rangers are the same losers in Texas that they were as the Senators here?
Tom Holster: Baseball always feels they can afford these things because, like the gas company, they can pass it on to the consumers. But seriously, baseball needs to open their books in such a way that the union and fans can get a true picture of things.
Logan Circle, D.C.: Why is Northern Virginia still a possibility for locating a stadium and team. Isn't it obvious by now that the stadium needs to be in the heart of a city. No one enjoys sitting in traffic, driving to the middle of nowhere, with no restaurants or other amusements within walking distance.
No more FedEx Fields!
Tom Holster: Sentimentally speaking, I think the stadium should be at 7th and Florida Avenue. But things have changed. And wherever the stadium is eventually located, it needs to be in the position to serve the region as a whole. Otherwise, the franchise won't be successful.
Beltsville, Md.: Isn't there a way to get the two "groups" together?
I've always felt that if they were unified, our chances would improve dramatically.
Tom Holster: I agree with you. A united front is always best. But with big personalities involved, it's not always possible.
Bob Levey: My vote for the name of the new team: The Washington Buzz. Hey, it fits in a one-column newspaper headline.....
Your favorite name?
Tom Holster: What's wrong with NATS? Same number of letters.
Bob Levey: Camden Yards keeps winning tons of praise for being an authentic in-town stadium. It has spawned similar in-town stadia in Cleveland, San Francisco and Denver. So doesn't that mean that downtown D.C. is the logical place to "site" the next D.C. team?
Tom Holster: I think Camden Yards is the nicest new stadium in baseball and is a large reason for the Orioles' success. Washington would be wise to imitate.
Bob Levey: Here's the bad dream I keep having: We get a new team (from Montreal, from thin air, I don't care where), and just as we're about to get all duded up for opening day, there's a six-month strike (again). Tell me it's just a dream, Tom.......
Tom Holster: Wish I could, but that's baseball. They could pay me half what they make. I'd never strike. Promise.
Bob Levey: I'm a member of the Emil Verban Society -- a group of Chicago Cubs fans who revel in the horrors of that team, and the horrors of that once-upon-a-time outfielder (he nearly got killed by every fly ball he ever came near).
Shouldn't the Washington Baseball Historical Society go the same route -- honoring a player who was terrible, and who therefore epitomized the Senators? Someone like Hamhanded Hank Allen? Or Hideous Julio Becquer?
Tom Holster: The Senators had legions of "Emil Verbans" and we loved them all. So we try to be all encompassing by just being the Washington Senators' Historical Society!
Bob Levey: The last time Washington was close to getting a new team, fans could reserve season's tickets (and demonstrate their potential support) by escrowing $100 or so in an interest-bearing bank account. That effort was pretty successful, as I recall. Anything like that going on now?
Tom Holster: At this time, neither group has a season ticket promotion in place. Maybe if we get closer to securing a team, they'll implement that promotion. It was successful in the past.
Bob Levey: Hey, here's the solution: We persuade Jordan that he can't fix the Wizards, and we put him in charge of the Washington Senators-Nats-Buzz-Whatevers. Would that do it?
Tom Holster: But wouldn't there be a danger of the franchise being relocated to Chicago?
Bob Levey: On that fateful night in September, 1971, when the Senators played their final game at RFK, they forfeited because fans rampaged around the field. Was this a spontaneous outpouring of grief, or were souvenir hunters looking to grab a piece of the infield and later sell it for 15 bucks?
Tom Holster: Maybe $15 bucks in 1972. The memorabilia market today would put those things a little higher. I'm sure the fans were made up of both souvenir hunters and folks just looking for an excuse to be rowdy.
Laurel: Whatever you do, don't put Michael Jordan in charge of baseball promotion.
He might try to PLAY!
Tom Holster: He might fit in with a long tradition of anemic Senator hitters.
Bob Levey: Since TV money is the cornerstone of any sports franchise, and since we have the 7th largest market in the U.S., isn't that enough right there to get us a team?
Tom Holster: Washington has long had the demographics to justify having a team. Unfortunately, facts were not always the most important consideration.
Baltimore, Md.: In RE: to the name of the team, it has to be something uniquely D.C., how about the D.C. Unindicted Co-conspirators?
Tom Holster: The roster only allows 25 players.
Bob Levey: Sportscaster Warner Wolf used to claim that the Senators failed here twice because the hot dogs were never hot. Any truth to that?
Tom Holster: The great secret is that ball park hotdogs never were very good. But that's what your dad would eat when he was there. It's tradition.
Bob Levey: Does the Washington Baseball Historical Society have an archive of Griffith Stadium memories? I was never inside that hallowed park, but I have never heard a bad word about it. Have you? Has the Historical Society?
Tom Holster: We don't have a place that houses memorabilia, but among our members, there's a lot of history out there in basements and closets.
Beltsville, Md.: Would the Baltimore-Washington Olympic bid for 2012 help/hinder/have no effect on an attempt to get a baseball team?
Tom Holster: I think any opportunity we have as a region to show our huge interest in sports is a good thing. Fans here have gotten a bad rap.
Bob Levey: Many thanks to Tom Holster for fighting the good fight and for joining us today. Be sure to join us next Tuesday, April 10, when we'll take a look at Washington's other favorite sport -- road rage. Our guests will be two authors who have written a book that analyzes the causes of it. That discussion will begin, as "Levey Live" always does, at noon Eastern time.
Thanks to Tom Holster, and to
everyone who joined us.
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