They won nine consecutive pennants in the old Negro Leagues, a record rarely equaled in sport. And, in the process, the Homestead Grays gave black Washington something special to cheer about.

Facing the driveway entrance to Howard University Hospital on Georgia Avenue, Ronald K. Crockett can see, in his mind's eye, the old baseball stadium. It is the summer of 1940, and dapper black men in suits and ties are socializing with women wearing fine hats and flower-print dresses, while children are crowding the turnstiles as game time approaches. Crockett can almost hear the streetcars rumbling by the ballpark, and smell the warm fragrance of fresh bread from the Bond and Wonder Bread bakeries. "Every once in a while, they'd be doing cupcakes," he says. "And that chocolate smell would really set you off."

"I'm just remembering this joint," says the gray-haired Crockett, dressed nattily himself now in a dark gray pin-stripe suit and wingtips. He is walking -- 50 baseball seasons later near the spot where he used to live, behind what once was the left-field wall of long-demolished Griffith Stadium, the cozy, quirky home of Clark Griffith's Washington Senators. Crockett is 56 years old now, a computer specialist at Howard University who wears wire-rim glasses. Back then, he was a little neighborhood kid who didn't need specs to spot the foul balls that curled over the stadium wall, setting off a scramble among Crockett and his friends to climb a chain-link fence to grab souvenirs.

He pauses a moment and savors his memories of the ballpark. But the team he envisions is not the sorry Senators, the perennial doormats of the American League. Instead, Crockett sees a winning team, an all-black team, playing in a segregated city, with fervent fans and a controversial white landlord who strongly opposed integrating the major leagues. He is remembering a team of champions -- the Homestead Grays. There, on the carefully manicured grass diamond, is slugger Josh Gibson hitting a tape-measure home run; Walter "Buck" Leonard nimbly picking up an errant throw at first base; James "Cool Papa" Bell stretching a single into a double; and the old man himself, Satchel Paige, performing his crowd-pleasing hesitation pitch.

While white Washington was laughing at the old vaudeville joke about the Senators -- first in war, first in peace and last in the American League -- black Washington had a team to be proud of. From the late 1930s to 1948, the city had the Grays, the premier club of black baseball. "They were the class of the league," says Monte Irvin of the rival Newark Eagles and later the New York Giants. "They were the Yankees of the Negro League."

THE GRAYS WERE AN UNUSUAL HYBRID TEAM WITH TWO home towns, splitting their home games between Washington and their birthplace in Homestead, Pa., a small town on the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh that was known for its huge open-hearth steel works -- and for the Grays. A group of Homestead steelworkers started a sandlot team around the turn of the century, developing into a powerful barnstorming club that played wherever it could draw a crowd and a paycheck in the early days of black baseball. In the 1920s, the Negro Leagues were organized, and by the 1930s, the Grays began their ascent to the top.

Rarely profitable, Negro League teams were always looking for greener ballfields. The Grays came to Washington because of its large black population and its history of good baseball teams such as the Elite Giants, who later moved on to Baltimore and developed future stars like Roy Campanella. The Grays started playing regularly at Griffith Stadium around 1937, renting the ballpark from Griffith when his Senators were on the road.

William O. Stephenson, 75, an avid baseball fan, came to Washington from North Carolina in 1937 to work as a government messenger and later as a clerk. At Griffith Stadium, Stephenson recalls, he found relief from a city dominated by the largely unwritten laws of Jim Crow. "Washington really was not that much different from where I came from," says Stephenson. "If I went shopping downtown and if I wanted to stop in a restroom, I couldn't do it. If I wanted to sit down and have a sandwich, I couldn't do it. But I could ride in a streetcar -- and I could go to Griffith Stadium."

The drab green two-tiered stadium stood near what was then the crossroads of Washington's black community at Seventh and T streets in Northwest. Down the street was the Howard Theatre, the social and entertainment heartbeat of the neighborhood, attracting the likes of Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Count Basie. The dream singers and swing kings, like the locals, knew all the neighborhood spots: Tim's hot dog stand, the All Sports Club, the Old Rose Social Club, the Back Stage Restaurant, the after-hours joints and crap-shooting dens, the eateries and billiard rooms, the large Victorian-style homes with rooms for rent.

Nearby Le Droit Park was a community where it seemed that everybody looked out for everybody. Drugs were mostly sold in stores, and the quickest way to easy street was hitting the number. All kinds of people -- maids, porters, doctors, teachers, neighborhood kids, old folks, rounders, holy rollers, citizens of the day and denizens of the night -- flocked to the best shows in town: the Howard Theatre performances and the Homestead Grays games. For $1, the young hustlers outside the stadium would park your car on a lawn or in an alley for a Senators or Redskins game; others, recalls Ronald Crockett (whose father wouldn't let him join in), would "watch" a car for a dime or quarter. The stadium was host to Shriners conventions, circuses, civic functions and religious revivals. Crockett recalls Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, the "Happy Am I" radio preacher from the nearby Church of God, marching his white-robed choir around the neighborhood before entering the stadium for a mass baptismal ceremony.

Sunday afternoon double-headers were a neighborhood ritual when the Grays were in town. Fans camped out at the stadium with picnic lunches, fried chicken and, sometimes, illicit bottles of whiskey. Crockett's father worked two jobs, so he rarely saw the Grays, but the youngster sneaked into many games with his neighborhood buddies. "We'd ask someone if we could go in with them. If you were not any taller than the turnstile, they'd let you in free." The mostly adult crowd was consistently enthusiastic and occasionally a bit tipsy, he recalls: "They were fun- loving."

News of the Grays' games was usually spread through the black newspapers, posters and word of mouth. "When the Grays came to town, the whole community would be excited," says Frank Sullivan, 54, a staff librarian at the Library of Congress, who used to pay a dime to ride the trolley to Griffith Stadium from his home near the Navy Yard in Southeast. "It was just like the Ringling Brothers Circus." He still remembers details of particular Grays games, like the time they pulled off a third-to-second-to-first triple play -- after which the crowd went wild for what seemed like 15 minutes. "After the game was over, the people would run out to the field and shake hands with the players, and they'd sign autographs . . . The atmosphere inside Griffith Stadium . . . was like a rock concert."

Satchel Paige of the Kansas City Monarchs was black baseball's Michael Jackson, sometimes drawing crowds that nearly exceeded Griffith Stadium's capacity of 30,000. Playing for the Grays in a 1942 exhibition game, Paige beat Dizzy Dean's white all-star team 8-1 before a huge crowd. Before the game, the fans fought in line for tickets, and someone placed a riot call to the police department. "But police arrived to find only that anxious fans had broken several windows hoping to speed up the sale of tickets," according to the Washington Times-Herald. It took four innings before everyone was seated and order restored.

BILLY COWARD WAS THE GRAYS' BATBOY IN 1946 AND 1947, and he fondly recalls his excitement as a teenager, working a double-header at Griffith Stadium and then sometimes riding on the team bus to Baltimore or Philadelphia for a third game at night. He idolized the sluggers like Luke Easter and Josh Gibson, known as the Babe Ruth of black baseball. "After they hit a home run, fans shook their hands on the way back to the dugout and gave them dollar bills," recalls the 58-year-old Coward, who helps direct recreational activities at Howard University. Reminiscing in his office about Gibson's batting prowess, Coward springs up and walks around his desk to re-create Gibson's distinctive stance. He sets his feet, pulls an imaginary cap down over his eyes, squares his shoulders and digs in at the plate. Then he wiggles his imaginary bat, staring down the pitcher as he waits for the pitch. Says Coward, "Josh was all business."

The Grays had a knack for making many things exciting -- even fielding practice. "They were colorful in everything they did," recalls former Grays player Bob Thurman. Even during practice, "they were bouncing around, whistling, hollering some, and everybody would be catching the ball . . . After infield practice was over, the fans would even clap," Thurman says. "The guys had so much talent, and they were having fun."

But there was a more serious side to Grays baseball: Many of the players were symbols of black excellence in a white-ruled world, and were respected as professionals. Outside the ballpark, the athletes were rarely seen without their coats and ties, and Frank Sullivan remembers them as role models for young people, the Michael Jordans of their day: "A lot of kids patterned themselves after the Homestead Grays."

"The games gave the young people some hope and something to look forward to," Sullivan says, "In those days, it made them better individuals. Kids appreciated things more than they do now. Going to the ballgame and just eating a hot dog and drinking a soda."

At Griffith Stadium, young Grays fans received lessons not just about baseball but about the facts of life in a segregated society. "My father said, 'Son, those players out there who are playing are just as good -- maybe even better -- than those in the major leagues,' " Sullivan recalls. "I asked him, 'Why aren't those players in the major leagues?' He replied, 'They're not playing because of a rule we have in our society called segregation.' " Sullivan remembers his father encouraging him to work hard because "things will change."

World War II proved to be the golden era of big crowds and profitability for black clubs. Thanks to nationwide gasoline rationing, "people couldn't leave Washington {on weekends} to go back home to the South to see their families," says the Grays' longtime first baseman Buck Leonard, 82, who has moved back to his native Rocky Mount, N.C.

The crowds also turned out because the Grays were winning as consistently as the Senators lost. From the late 1930s through the war, the Grays won nine straight Negro National League pennants (there also was an American League), a record rarely equaled in sport. When the Grays were at their peak, they sometimes drew larger crowds than the lowly Senators. So accustomed were they to winning, recalls Wilmer "Red" Fields, a Grays pitcher from Manassas, that after a rare defeat the team bus was "like a funeral."

Barnstorming their way across the eastern United States, the Grays, like most teams of that era, were a collection of straight arrows, cool professionals, gamblers, toughs and roustabouts, all living together out of a team bus with hard seats and a temperamental motor. It was often a rough life, traveling between small towns and half-empty stadiums, staying in "coloreds-only" hotels and boarding-houses, looking hard for entertainment. Leonard once joked to a reporter that the team's traveling motto was: "We let every town furnish its own women." In a rough-and-tumble atmosphere, Monte Irvin remembers, many players carried knives, even on the field. "Do you have your blade on you?" Irvin says one player would ask another. "I have my pants on, don't I?" would come the reply. The Grays nonetheless maintained a reputation for professionalism, recalls pitcher-outfielder Bob Thurman: "We didn't have any slouchy guys on the team."

AFTER WATCHING A GRAYS EXHIBITION game in Florida, Walter Johnson, the Sen- ators' all-time-great pitcher, was impressed. "There's a catcher any big league club could use," Johnson told Shirley Povich of The Washington Post in 1939. "He's worth $200,000 to any team. He hits the ball a mile and he catches so easy he might as just well be in a rocking chair. Too bad he's colored."

The catcher was Josh Gibson, who, along with Buck Leonard, made up the "Thunder Twins" -- top stars of the Negro Leagues. Leonard recalls that once, after a double-header, Clark Griffith called the two men to his office and asked if they would be willing to play for his Senators, even though the defection of star players to the major leagues might destroy the Negro Leagues. They answered "yes," Leonard recalled, but they never heard back from Griffith, who steadfastly maintained that the "time was not ripe" to put a black player in a Senators uniform.

Known as the Old Fox, Griffith was a wisp of a man who did not miss much when it came to baseball. A former pitcher for the Chicago Cubs, he was co-founder of the American League and brought Washington its only world championship in 1924. His contributions to baseball put him in the Hall of Fame. But as a staunch opponent of baseball integration, Griffith was a curious figure at the Grays' games. Black sportswriters, amazed at the old man's knowledge of Negro League players, implored him to sign the best talent. "I suggested he might be able to strengthen the Senators, which were a pathetic team," recalls Sam Lacy, who covered the Grays and at age 86 is still sports editor for the Afro-American newspapers. "Griffith said if he signed black players, 'It would destroy the Negro Leagues.' That was a cop-out. He and I both knew it."

Mention of Griffith's attendance at Grays games sends a fan like William Stephenson into a reverie. "When I was told that Griffith was there, I said, 'That's interesting. That's really very, very interesting. Look at how he could fill this stadium with Josh Gibson catching.' " Stephenson pauses and savors the delicious idea: "Hmmmmmm."

But that was as unlikely as a black man eating a sandwich at a downtown department store lunch counter. Black sports writers at the time referred to baseball as the "national pastime of bigotry." Near the end of World War II, the Senators further insulted black fans by ignoring their stars. Instead, they signed washed-up old-timers, 4-Fs who were disqualified from military service, and even a New York City Sanitation Department sandlot player named Eddie Boland.

Faced with the urgent need to replace players serving in the war, Griffith sent his scouts south -- all the way south -- to sign light-skinned Latin American ballplayers. "He was going to Cuba to look for good players, but he had good players in his own back yard," recalls Stephenson. "He said he wanted good ballplayers, but apparently he did not."

Griffith's attitude and black fans' reaction are a part of the story behind baseball's demise in the nation's capital. After Jackie Robinson broke the color line with the Dodgers in 1947, black fans in Washington soon realized that Griffith did not want to sign any Negro Leaguers. Many black fans shunned the Senators, or rooted against them as a result. "I never missed a game when the Yankees were here," says Stephenson. "We'd root for the Yankees because Griffith wasn't going to improve the club." In September 1948, the Washington Afro-American reported that 28,058 "wildly cheering" fans (about 60 percent black) rooted for Satchel Paige, now of the Cleveland Indians, as he defeated the Senators, 10 to 1. Long before Clark Griffith's son, Calvin, moved the Senators to Minnesota in 1961, the vast majority of Washington's black population already had abandoned the Senators.

When the Old Fox died in 1955, the Afro-American said in an editorial, "We wish we could shed a tear for Clark Griffith . . . But {his} contributions to baseball were accompanied by no desire to include us in it . . ."

At Howard University Hospital today, there are no plaques commemorating Clark Griffith or his stadium.

GROWING UP HALF A CONTINENT AWAY from Griffith Stadium -- without the aid of radio broadcasts or baseball cards -- Bob Thurman of Wichita, Kan., still knew about Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. "I'd get their names out of the Pittsburgh Courier," says Thurman, referring to the prominent black newspaper. A World War II veteran, Thurman was discovered playing baseball for an Army team in the Philippines. When asked by a scout if he wanted to play for the Grays, Thurman recalls saying, "That's where I want to play -- with Josh and Buck."

Interviewed at his modern duplex home on the outskirts of Wichita, the 72-year-old Thurman looks as if he could put on a uniform today: He is 6-foot-1 1/2, a broad-shouldered and muscular 215 pounds. Thurman played for the Grays from 1946 to 1948. Later, he was an outfielder and scout for the Cincinnati Reds. Today he is a storyteller, bringing memories to life in a slow, deep baritone: On a team full of characters, Frank "Groundhog" Thompson stood out. A scrappy little left-handed pitcher, "five feet tall -- maybe even shorter," Groundhog was not a pretty sight for opposing batters, Thurman recalls. He was built like a fire hydrant, and he was hare-lipped and "walleyed," which made it look like he was always throwing at the batters, instead of home plate, says Thurman.

Gibson ribbed Groundhog unmercifully, along with another pitcher named R.T. Walker. "R.T. was a ladies' man, but he looked like King Kong," says Thurman. "Josh would say, 'Now, I'm going to pick my all-ugly team. R.T., you're my right-handed pitcher. Groundhog, you're my left-handed pitcher . . .' But he couldn't finish because everyone would be laughing so hard."

The laughter masked a darker side of Gibson. A proud man whom Thurman remembers as hanging out with "class people," Gibson was shy and solitary. As a boy, Ronald Crockett remembers seeing Gibson sitting alone outside the clubhouse between double-headers; his uniform unbuttoned, Gibson was sipping something suspicious out of a small paper cup. Gibson had been in ill health for several years -- there were persistent rumors of alcohol and drug abuse -- when he suffered a stroke and died on January 27, 1947, at the age of 36. "When he knew he wasn't going to get well, he just wanted to die," says Monte Irvin.

To replace Gibson's bat, the Pittsburgh Courier reported, the Grays signed a "young natural" named Luscious "Luke" Easter, a 6-foot-4 1/2, 240-pound slugger, who arrived at the ripe age of 32, with a reputation for prodigious power and fearsome skills as a gambler. After a shaky start, Easter, an outfielder-first baseman, soon lit up Griffith Stadium and other ballparks with his electrifying home runs. In a 1948 game against the New York Cubans in the Polo Grounds, Easter became the first player ever to hit a home run into the center-field bleachers 475 feet from home plate.

Easter was a Ruthian figure off the field as well. Fun-loving, friendly and charismatic, he was a card shark, reputed to be a master of the marked deck. "He was kinda fast," says former teammate Willie Pope. "He'd wake up playin' cards and go to sleep playin' cards." Thurman loves to tell his David-and-Goliath story of how Easter finally met his match in Groundhog Thompson. Easter and Groundhog were playing cards on the team bus, when each accused the other of cheating. Easter threatened to slap the diminutive pitcher around until Groundhog pulled his knife. "If you try to hit me, I'll cut you down to my size," Thurman recalls him growling. "Groundhog made a believer out of Easter."

Of all the Grays' stars, Buck Leonard was regarded as the most even-tempered and professional. Once baseball segregation finally ended, Leonard, like Gibson, knew that he was too old to make the majors. Instead of hitting the bottle, however, the Grays' captain, a powerful left-handed hitter, just kept on hitting baseballs in the Negro Leagues. The Afro-American called him "probably the best-liked player in the game." Thurman adds, "You're talking about a class guy. All he did was work crossword puzzles. And everybody else would be in the bar."

RONALD CROCKETT WALKS DOWN AN alley behind the ruins of the Howard Theatre, where an odd-shaped, two-story brick building now stands on tiny Wiltberger Street. The building's windows and main entrance are sealed with bricks, like many other abandoned structures on the fringes of Le Droit Park. A heavily rust-coated sign above the building's entrance is barely distinguishable, but Crockett can make it out: "All Sports Club." Once known as the crossroads of the black sports world, the building is one of the few reminders left of the era of the Homestead Grays.

Old-timers around Le Droit Park, at Langston Golf Course, in bars and barbershops around the city still reminisce occasionally about the Grays. More often than not, the memories are fuzzy and the details vague. But the truth is that, in the end, even the black community did not care about the Grays.

In 1947, black fans -- with gas in their tanks and Jackie Robinson's Dodgers on their minds -- were proving Clark Griffith right: Integration was the beginning of the end of the Negro Leagues.

The Grays, whose consecutive pennant streak had ended, still fielded a winning, good-hitting, hustling club. But by 1948 they were playing before empty stadiums -- averaging only 2,000 fans per game -- and they were virtually ignored by a black press obsessed with Robinson.

Because of poor turnout at Griffith Stadium, the Grays went on the road in search of crowds for the league playoffs. In the last Negro League championship ever played, the Grays faced the Birmingham Black Barons, who had a teenage outfielder named Willie Mays. The Grays won the first game in Kansas City, and the teams split the next two games in Birmingham. Because of poor crowds, theymoved to New Orleans's Pelican Stadium, where Easter hit a grand slam in a 14-1 Grays win. On October 5, the Grays broke open a tie game with four runs in the 10th inning to take the title. Black newspapers devoted a few paragraphs to the game. "I don't think people very much cared," says Stephenson, the Grays fan. "By then, a World Series had been played with a black man on the team."

Meanwhile, financial difficulties mounted; the team lost about $45,000 in 1947 and '48 and then pulled out of the Negro National League, which soon folded. The Grays barnstormed for another year as an independent club, while the Negro American League lingered on, producing future stars like Henry Aaron and Ernie Banks until it finally dissolved in 1960.

Perhaps the saddest part of the Grays' final season was their last game at Griffith Stadium. As usual, the Grays won, with captain Buck Leonard getting a couple of hits and being honored by the fans, who showered the Grays' leader with accolades and gifts -- suitcases, sports clothes and money. But only 6,000 people showed up for the game.

"We still don't realize what an important part of the community the Grays were," says Crockett. "Josh was people. Buck was people. They didn't act like big shots or big stars. They were just down-to-earth, regular fellas. We still don't realize what a good thing we had."

Daniel Cattau, a New York writer, is working on a book on the Negro Leagues.