One-hundred Aprils ago, a dream came true for Washingtonians: major league baseball returned to the city. Modern-day fans may dream the same dream, and they may be working as hard to win another big-league franchise for the District as the fans of 1886. But modern fans have not been as sorely tested as those of the 1880s. Washington's two major league teams had folded in 1884. A developer tried to build townhouses on the city's diamond. False reports got fans' hopes up half a dozen times in 1885 while they suffered though a season of minor league ball.
But a few Washingtonians were working to remedy the situation, using almost the same techniques as today. They haunted league meetings, touting Washington as a rich, baseball-crazy city. They collected money for nonexistent tickets to games on a hypothetical major league schedule. They coveted franchises that were losing money.
In the end, patience paid off. By January 1886, Washington had offers to join both major leagues -- the American Association and the National League. The Washington Nationals made their NL debut against the Philadelphia Fillies on April 29, 1886.
It was a different game back then. Pitchers stood only 50 feet from home plate. Many still threw underhand, and many fielders scorned gloves. A walk took seven pitches.
But one aspect of the game never has changed: money. Players complained about salaries and owners about costs -- all in an era when the top salary was $4,000 a year. And because teams split gate receipts, club owners always ganged up on teams that were bad box-office.
Money had cost Washington its two big-league teams in 1884. One team lost too much money to stay in an otherwise profitable league; the other turned a profit in a league that didn't.
The moneymaker, the Washington Nationals, belonged to a renegade league called the Union Association that died in the last days of 1884. The Nationals regrouped and joined a minor league that stretched from Norfolk to Jersey City.
Washingtonians loved the Nationals' homegrown talent and flashy blue uniforms trimmed with white. And Capitol Park was profitably located near four streetcar lines at the corner of Independence and New Jersey avenues.
Business in the Capitol often stopped so workers could hang out windows to see games, but enough fans paid the 25-cent admission to make the Nationals a going concern.
Their manager, Mike Scanlon, and president, Henry Bennett, started trying to achieve major league status even before the 1885 season began. Each time the major league owners met, Scanlon and Bennett hovered, hoping to muscle a failing franchise out of the way.
The prospective victims included the Providence (R.I.) Grays and the New York Mets, who in 1884 had met in baseball's first interleague championship series. In less than a year, both had fallen on hard times -- particularly the Mets, who had moved from the old Polo Grounds in Manhattan to a landfill on Staten Island. Another tottering club, the Buffalo Bisons, was to be replaced by a franchise farther west.
But the 1885 rumors of the Mets' and Grays' deaths were greatly exaggerated. In April the American Association could not get the last few votes necessary to ax the New York team. The National League held up its plans to demote the Grays and Bisons four times that year.
The NL delay came in part because owners were unable to decide between Washington's proposal and rival bids from Baltimore, Brooklyn and Cincinnati. Opinion divided over whether the District had enough fans willing to pay 50 cents to see a game. In August 1885, NL President Nick Young declared that Washington was just not "a good 50-cent town" -- a kiss of death, as far as many were concerned.
But Chris Von Der Ahe, colorful owner of the St. Louis Browns, saw advantages in Washington: "There is a class of patron here that does not exist in any other city in the country. I refer to the department employes. They leave their desks, I am informed, about 4 o'clock in the afternoon and the question then resolves itself, 'How shall I fill in the time before dinner?' "
While the debate raged, the Nationals played out an enjoyable season. Bob Barr, one of the team's hometown boys, pitched the city's first no-hitter. The Nationals beat the Richmond Virginians by four games for the league pennant. "Baseball stock is booming," The Washington Post reported. "Many men who would not give a dollar to establish the Nationals now itch to get hold of some stock."
There was bad news that summer. In June a developer bought the left-field piece of Capitol Park, which the Nationals had been renting from a streetcar company. He announced plans to build a block of "modern" townhouses on the site in 1886.
That prospect inspired Scanlon to make the major leagues commit themselves. At the end of the season, he noisily made plans to give up Capitol Park, sell the team's equipment, and let his players go.
Several clubs offered him unspecified "inducements" to wait a little longer. The District, it turned out, was considered one of the last untapped areas of solid baseball interest. In November, each league independently offered to admit the Nationals in 1886.
Scanlon and Bennett, suddenly in demand at league gatherings, shuttled between Washington and New York comparing offers. But a Philadelphia court made the choice for them. A few days before Christmas 1885, the Mets won a court order preventing their ouster from the American Association. "Valuable rights of membership cannot be taken away except for cause," the court ambiguously decreed. The Mets spent two more years losing money on Staten Island.
Scanlon and Bennett took the NL offer and, on Jan. 16, 1886, the league made it official.
In preparation for the 1886 season, the Nationals added talent from the defunct Providence team. New Nationals included curve ball artist Dupee (Wizard) Shaw; Paul Hines, the first man to win baseball's triple crown, and, eventually, a rookie catcher named Connie Mack.
Unfortunately, new talent was not enough. Although the Nationals were Washington favorites for years, they left the NL cellar once in four seasons. In 1886, they finished behind even the NL's other expansion team, the Kansas City Cowboys. Long before the American League's hapless Senators, Washington was first in war, first in peace, and last in the National League.