Baseball's return to Washington marks a fitting occasion to correct one of the greatest flaws of modern baseball -- the obsession with the home run. After all, Washington is guilty of playing a pivotal role in the long-ago deification of the long ball.
It happened in 1955, when the fortunes of Washington baseball were at an ebb. That year Clark Griffith -- the owner of the Washington Senators, "the Moses of Washington baseball," the man who brought the city to three World Series -- died. But not before the Washington Senators had registered their lowest day of attendance in history -- 460 fans on Sept. 7, 1954, in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics.
After Griffith's death, his nephew, Calvin, took over the franchise. But his uncle had left only $25,000 in the team account, so faced with this lack of funds, the younger Griffith made two moves, both bad.
First, he struck a nine-player trade with the Red Sox. To a man, the former Red Sox bombed in Washington.
Then Griffith decided that if he didn't have players who could bring some game to the stadium, he would bring the stadium to the game. He did that by installing a screen in left field to cut the distance of a home run from 400 feet to 350 feet.
The screen had the desired result of making the batting stronger in the 1956 season -- for visiting teams. In 1955 the Senators gave up 99 home runs; in 1956 they gave up 171.
This largely forgotten episode in baseball history was nonetheless shocking.
What other sport allows changes that make a team's job easier? No one widens the goal posts in football or enlarges the hoop in basketball. Yet as players have gotten stronger and healthier, baseball has made its fields smaller while expanding its reliance on pampered designated hitters.
When the Expos come to the District, we should play real baseball again by making it much more difficult to hit a home run. Instead of 350 feet for a homer, make it 500 feet. That would bring back the game of stand-up doubles, triples and inside-the-park homers. And fans might stay awake.
A 500-foot home run would be a big deal, deserving of a little flamboyance -- maybe a Washington Monument replica that rises out of center field, complete with fireworks. The point would be that Washington could show the rest of the country the path back to real baseball.
The Senators played nail-biting ball and broke attendance records when they won the World Series in 1924. During that season -- excluding the World Series games -- the team logged exactly one home run at home -- and it was inside the park. The only reason that changed in the World Series was that Clark Griffith installed temporary bleachers to meet ticket demand, making the stadium somewhat smaller.
Even with those bleachers, however, Griffith Stadium was huge: 407 feet down the left field line, 421 feet to center field and 320 feet to right field, the last defended by a 30-foot wall with a scoreboard.
My grandfather, Joe Judge, played his entire career at Griffith, holding down first base for Washington from 1915 to 1932. He played a game that was about singles, bunts, fielding and defense.
Gramps was described by Baseball magazine as "a wrist hitter." His bat weighed 37 ounces, and he choked up on it about four inches. "When he swings, he gets a quick swap of his wrist behind the blow," said Baseball magazine.
This was the stance of a slap hitter, someone who could drive out singles, doubles and triples but not home runs -- especially not at Griffith. In fact, Judge hit only 71 homers in his 17-year career.
My grandfather was not a fan of the long ball. In 1959 he published a piece in Sports Illustrated headlined "Verdict Against the Hall of Fame." In it, he argued that the Hall of Fame was letting in players who didn't deserve to be there -- particularly sluggers.
"Today many so-called sluggers couldn't steal a base if they were alone in the park," he wrote. "[W]hat we have is an association of specialist businessmen investing their specific talents and carefully watching their own special interests."
My grandfather was a complete player. He had a .298 batting average, 2,352 hits, 433 doubles, 1,034 runs batted in, 1,500 double plays and 1,301 assists. He led the American League in fielding five times.
We need his like again.
So bring on the Expos, but first, push back those fences. Then, sit back and watch the stands fill up.
-- Mark Gauvreau Judge