In this era when brick and ivy baseball parks replicating the beauties of bygone days are rising across the country, a little gem as lovely as any will be dedicated tonight at 7 in Bethesda and will be opened to the public with a game Saturday evening. It has only 606 seats, just a few rows abutting the diamond. But it is exquisite. It is named Shirley Povich Field, appropriately.
Baseball is the game Shirley Povich loved first, and the love only grew. It was the primary game of his youth, in the beginning of this century. His writing life began and ended with baseball. His first byline in The Washington Post appeared in 1924 above a baseball story, as did his last one on June 5, 1998, the morning after he died of a heart attack at age 92. Anyone who knew Shirley, or felt they did from reading him, might be struck, as I was, walking toward a gorgeous field through an arched entranceway and looking up to see the silver block letters above it: Shirley Povich Field. Of course. This is as fitting as can be.
No one loved the game more, which is perfectly safe to say. He knew the legends and helped give life to their deeds which he witnessed: the Washington Senators' only championship, in 1924; their last pennant, in 1933; Gehrig's farewell speech; Mantle's drive over the Griffith Stadium bleachers in left center field; Larsen's perfect World Series game, in 1956. But he thrilled just as much to his own children growing up with the game. He never forgot a boy in a baseball uniform who met him at an airport and carried his suitcase. Sandlot kids meant as much to him as the mighty and the famous. So, rightly, Povich Field stands uniquely among baseball's far larger commercial enterprises because of its honesty of purpose: The value of sports in the development of young people spurred its builders to begin to improve baseball and softball fields in Montgomery County and the District.
In his writings about the game and other subjects, he gave us life lessons. Their enlightments were unobtrusive. And so is this little ball park. Red brick, green chair-back seats. Dugouts. During an exhibition game the other night, it offered an intimate experience of baseball sights, sounds, feelings. Shirley kept ahead of the times, but an enduring image of him is that of a gentle and wise man at the ball park, in discourse with players, when games were played exclusively during daytime. Shirley Povich Field evokes that era, of straw hats and summer days.
Its location, in Cabin John Regional Park off Westlake Drive, is similarly appropriate. The field also celebrates Walter Johnson, the Senators' greatest player, who lived nearby in Bethesda. No pitcher ever has thrown a baseball faster than "The Big Train," which also can be said with certainty, because Shirley said so. Shirley Povich Field is home to the Bethesda Big Train, a team that plays in June and July in the Clark C. Griffith Collegiate Baseball League, which uses wooden bats that can help a player who might be fortunate enough to go on to the pros and have to make the transition from the aluminum bats used in college to wood. Povich, Johnson and Griffith -- that's Washington baseball.
Shirley and Walter were friends. They used to sit on Johnson's porch and talk baseball. As big and strong as Johnson was, he was as gentle as the smaller Povich. Johnson pitched with an abiding fear that he might hurt a batter with a fastball. It made him all the more remarkable as a pitcher because as fast as he was, he always threw with care. "When I became a sportswriter one of my rewards was watching this great pitcher and respecting this great man all the rest of his years," Povich wrote in his 1969 autobiography, "All These Mornings." He also respected two of the game's forefathers, Connie Mack and Clark Griffith (not to be confused with Calvin Griffith, who moved the team). Shirley at 92 still unfailingly referred to them as Mr. Mack and Mr. Griffith.
He'd talk about them and Johnson often when he'd stop into the office in his later years, always dapperly dressed, with necktie and fedora. He was current, too, and correct, as ever. "Cal will know when to break the streak," Shirley said. That was his quiet tribute to Ripken. And Ripken did know.
Shirley's career as a writer was, in a way, like the baseball careers of Gehrig, of Kaline, of Clemente, of Walter Johnson and so many others. Just as those diamond greats played their whole time in one town for one team, Povich was happy to do all his writing in one place for one newspaper. I don't believe he would be comfortable being remembered by a ball park, with, say, a retractable roof or a corporate name. 3Com Povich Field? As he used to say, a small home is best.
CAPTION: Baseball field honoring Post sports columnist Shirley Povich will be dedicated today in Bethesda.
CAPTION: Shirley Povich Field is home to the Bethesda Big Train, a team named after Walter Johnson's nickname. Povich befriended the Senators' pitching great.