Once again, there will be no game in Washington when the baseball season begins, on Monday. They've taken away our team, twice. Scarcely a trace of the Senators remains. But one of the most poignant reminders is a painting which hangs in the Phillips Collection. They can take away the team, but they haven't been able to take away the painting.
It's called "Night Baseball." It was painted by Marjorie Phillips, whose husband Duncan founded the museum on 21st Street NW. It captures the essence of the game:
Joe DiMaggio is at bat against the Senators under the lights in old Griffith Stadium. The year is 1951, DiMaggio's last. The pitcher is in motion, about to deliver the ball, and DiMaggio -- the little figure at the plate is unmistakably DiMaggio -- has his bat back, his feet spread in his legendary wide-open stance. You get the feeling he's going to connect.
Marjorie Phillips, now 90, recalled the other day at her Foxhall Road home that it was as if she had been inspired to new heights by DiMaggio to paint what she considers the best -- "the best by far" -- of her several baseball works. "I admired him tremendously," she said. And, as an afterthought, she added with a smile, "He was the only one I knew."
The stadium backdrop had excited her as well. She had been "thrilled" by the spectacle of the lights atop the grandstand and the multicolored shades of the sky as night fell. Until then, most of the games she had attended were daytime ones, so this "was so new to me."
She paused. The window was up part way, and a soft breeze escorted spring into her room. This is the time of year her late husband always awaited: he loved baseball, and the Senators with a passion. He had box seats behind the home team dugout at Griffith Stadium and often would take his wife.
"I wasn't a baseball fan before I married, but after I got going there I was fascinated," Marjorie Phillips said. Actually, she had no choice, if she wanted to be with her husband, and have a reasonably good time.
Their son, Laughlin Phillips, director of the collection, explained recently the extent of his father's feeling for the game: "He had strong ideas, for example, when a pitcher should be pulled. If one was warming up in the bullpen he would stand up with his score card, like Connie Mack, and try to wave him in."
One time his parents had a house guest, recalled Laughlin Phillips, "a very proper lady who knew nothing about baseball. He took her to the game. About the seventh inning she started to wear out. She simply got bored. 'And how many more innings?' she asked. 'Eleven,' he said. It was a doubleheader."
Marjorie Phillips passed the time by making small pencil drawings of players and the stadium. The earliest painting that grew from her sketches is "Ready for the Pitch," 1939. It's a closeup of batter, catcher and umpire, with a slice of Griffith Stadium in the background. Her last baseball painting was "Giants vs. Mets" from the '60s. "We just happened to be in New York," she said. Of course, her husband had to take her to the Polo Grounds.
Like DiMaggio in his last summer, she got the old New York park in its last baseball season. The painting is hung in the first-floor hall of her home.
But "Night Baseball" is the one she loves, as others have. When the poet Marianne Moore, who loved baseball, visited the gallery, she was so enthusiastic about the painting that Mrs. Phillips was tempted to give it to her. Then she remembered she had given it to her husband. "I sent her a print," she said.
Later, "Night Baseball" was included in an exhibition in San Francisco, and a representative of Wildenstein's tried to buy it for the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. There isn't that much baseball art. Compared with "Spanish artists' absorption with bullfighting" and "equestrian subjects by the British," Marjorie Phillips has said, few American artists have painted baseball. "It's surprising," she said, "since it is our national sport."
"Night Baseball" brings back Griffith Stadium: the green of the place, the double-decked stands, part of the left field bleachers, the light towers, the dirt path from the mound to home plate. The infielders are crouched, the umpire wears the now seldom-seen balloon chest protector that all American League umpires used to wear.
It says everything about the game. It's a reminder of the time we had a team.