Sombody named Fred Watts, in a recent effusion Sports Illustrated decided to print, has written in so many precise words that, (1) Washington is a lousy baseball town, (2) always has been lousy baseball town and, (3) probably always will be a lousy baseball town.
With that testimonial to Washington, in triplicate, author Watts quickly invites the strong suspicion he is a Baltimore baseball fan. Also, that he is quite jumpy about all the recurrent talk that sooner or latter the Orioles may move the 40 miles south, maybe sooner.
So he is alerting the Orioles' new owner, Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, not to be a nincompoop; baseball will not go in Washington. Apparently he does not want the Orioles to leave Baltimore, ever, ever, ever, and in his dread, frantic Freddy has dumped on Washington without charity. One of the bards long ago recognized his kind of anxiety. "Nothing is meaner to live with," was the description.
He has lined up, for Williams, all the evidence in a neat row. In the 18 seasons (1954-71) when the Orioles and Senators were playing 40 miles apart, Baltimore outdrew Washington every year -- "smothered 'em." Whereas the Senators drew over 770,000 only twice, the Orioles never dipped that low and drew more than 1 million eight times. Baltimore attendance was 60 percent higher.
Ergo, it would be bad business to move the Orioles to Washington. He thinks.
But there were other available exhibits it did not serve Watts' purpose to emphasize.
For instance, while Baltimore fans were getting heady stuff from the Orioles for most of those 18 seasons -- four pennants, two seconds, three thirds -- Washington fans were being asked to support rag-tag teams that climbed as high as fourth only once, and fifth once. A last-place finish by the Senators was almost a seady custom. In only half of those 18 seasons did the Senators escape it.
In relation to the quality of the team, the comparative attendance figures Watts cites provide not only damning evidence against Baltimore but absolute proof of Washington fans' passion for baseball.
There are some figures Watts would prefer to suppress. When the Seantors' fans finally had something exciting to cheer, a fourth-place finish under Manager Ted Williams in 1969, they drew 918,106 fans -- only 140,000 fewer than Baltimore team that was winning the pennant. And the next year a lastplace Washington team drew 824,789 fans, against the 1,023,037 of the Orioles who were winning a third straight pennant. That does not make Baltimore look good, and speaks of Washington's incorrigible demand for baseball.
For most of the years Watts cites, Washington fans were abused by the penurious ownership of Calvin Griffith; the know-nothing baseball presence of Pete Quesada, who finally sold out at a profit in a deal that also left the fans richer for his retirement; and the artifices of Bob Short, a truck-company owner who barged onto the scene, bollixed it with bad deals and then bolted to Texas.
Anyway, a proper question to ask is when did Baltimore become a great baseball town, or even a good one? Before 1979, the Orioles were in four World Series and sometimes playing to 9,000 and 10,000 empty seats. It s hardly the mark of a town mad about its baseball team.
There are even worse figures to condemn Baltimore for what it sometimes has been, an apathetic/pathetic baseball town. They played the last two games of the American League playoffs in 1969 to 17,000 and 11,000 empty seats in Memorial Stadium; in 1970, to 25,000 empty seats for the third and deciding playoff game against Minnesota; in 1973 to 11,000 empty seats in one game and in the 1974 playoffs to as many as 28,000 empty seats for a single game. Shameful.
The defense for Washington could rest right there, but there is at least one other fascinating figure. Back in 1946, a Washington team by merely finishing fourth put the entire city in such a tizzy it drew 1,027,215 fans, a few thousand more than Baltimore did when the Orioles were winning a pennant 25 years later. That memory and Washington's new subway now leading to the mouth of Kennedy Stadium could look awfully appealing to Mr. Williams.
Baltimore, as a hotly desirable city for a baseball franchise, may have been put in simple perspective during the past year when its pennant-bound team was sold to Williams for $12 million. Months later, the hopeless, last place Mets who finished 35 games out of the lead in the NL EAST, fetched a $20 million purchase price.
And Watts also has done Washington a terrible disfavor by saying that it is also true that Washington holds the record for most major league franchises that year, one from the American Association, one from the Union Association), 1889, 1899, 1960 and 1970.
Simply untrue. The same official encyclopedia of baseball that gave Watts his history points an even more outraged finger at Baltimore as the gravesite of the most big league franchises: seven, not including the next one.