Washington baseball fans, those tortured and brave souls, have learned to be resilient and supportive despite a history of losing franchises, the departure of two major league teams and a number of close calls in pursuit of another team that brought only heartbreak.
Of all the near misses, one clearly seems to sting the most. In 1973, less than two years after the second incarnation of the Washington Senators moved to Texas, the struggling San Diego Padres appeared on the verge of collapse. Joe Danzansky, a Washington businessman, along with several partners agreed in December 1973 to buy the Padres, a last-place team with little fan support, from C. Arnholt Smith. For three sweet weeks, Washington had a baseball team again.
Padres general manager Peter Bavasi, who would have followed the team to the District, was sent to Washington to begin the process of relocating the team. Bavasi already had a manager in mind, Frank Robinson -- yes, the same one -- then nearing the end of his playing career with the California Angels. But given a three-week deadline by major league officials, Danzansky couldn't finalize the deal, and as quickly as the Padres had arrived, they were on their way back to San Diego.
"They had worked very hard to close the deal," Bavasi wrote in an e-mail, "but it wasn't meant to be."
Bavasi flew back to San Diego and the team was bought by McDonald's magnate Ray Kroc, who kept the Padres in Southern California. Washingtonians were left with only black-and-white photographs, fading memories and a long history that dated from the 19th century.
Washington's first baseball teams, the Olympics and the Nationals, were established in 1871 and 1872, respectively. The Olympics played just 39 games over two seasons in the National Association. But different versions of the Nationals played in the National, Union and American associations from 1871 to 1884, and a new team, the Statesmen (who were sometimes called the Senators), was established and played in the American Association from 1891 to '99, compiling a 454-788 record. After the 1899 season the team was bought out by the league for $14,500 and eliminated.
The formation of a new league, one that would challenge the mighty National League, was in the development stages in 1900, and the Washington Senators became a charter member of the upstart American League, beginning play in 1901. The first 11 years of the franchise were disastrous. The team was 610-1,008 and never finished above sixth place in the eight-team league. But in 1912 Clark Griffith, a former pitcher for Chicago and New York who accumulated 237 career wins, bought 10 percent of the team and was named manager. That year, the team had its first winning season, and by 1920, Griffith had controlling interest of the team.
The perennial losers, with future Hall of Famers Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, Bucky Harris and Walter Johnson, won their only World Series in 1924, and won AL pennants in 1925 and 1933.
At the same time, groups of black baseball players, who were prohibited from playing in the majors, began to align themselves with successful black businessmen and established the Negro national and American leagues in 1933 and 1937.
Until then, several black baseball teams had attempted to establish themselves in Washington but failed. The Washington Mutuals originated in 1865 but didn't last long. The Washington Capital Cities, of the League of Colored Baseball Clubs, started play in 1887, but folded just two weeks into the season. The Washington Potomacs lasted just through the 1925 season. The Elite Giants played in Washington in 1936-37 but moved to Baltimore. In 1938 the Washington Black Senators had the worst season in Negro leagues history, a 1-20 record, and never played again.
But Washington remained a popular city among black baseball players because ballplayers on those traveling, independent teams could always expect to find a decent hotel room and a hot meal.
"The one good thing about Washington, was that it was a major league city at that point, despite whatever success the Senators had there," Raymond Doswell, executive curator of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, in Kansas City, Mo., said. "They had a stadium and they had a crowd. It was a great town and historically, good culturally for teams to go into. The Negro league players enjoyed traveling to the large cities. It was a nice respite from the in-between communities."
The popular Homestead Grays, with Hall of Famer and Negro leagues legend Josh Gibson, found a part-time home in Washington. Owner Cum Posey formed an alliance with Griffith, allowing the team to play at Griffith Stadium for a fee. The Grays, who also played home games in Pittsburgh, flourished during their time in Washington, winning nine straight pennants and two of their three World Series from 1937 to '45, often outdrawing their white counterparts. Jackie Robinson broke Major League Baseball's color line in 1947 and integration ended the Grays' dynasty. The team disbanded in 1950.
The Senators, at this point, were struggling again. By the end of the 1950s, the team drew almost half of the league average. Calvin Griffith took control after the death of his stepfather Clark in 1955 and began the process of relocation. In October 1960, despite a request from president Dwight Eisenhower, the team announced it would move to Minnesota. But before the league allowed Griffith to move the team, MLB agreed to award Washington an expansion team.
In November 1960, the new Washington Senators were bought by 10 local businessmen for $3 million. They were just as bad as the old Senators, losing 100 games or more their first four seasons and never finishing higher than sixth in the 10-team AL.
In December 1968, the treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, Bob Short, bought the team and soon after hired baseball great Ted Williams as the manager. Under Williams the team was a bit better, but still finished no better than fourth in his three seasons in Washington.
In 1969, Williams led the team to its only winning season (86-76) in Washington, but after two more second-division finishes, Short moved the team to Arlington, Tex.
The Senators had been such a failure that during his three weeks in Washington, Bavasi, the Padres former GM, was advised by fans, politicians and the media to "do the direct opposite of what the Senators had been doing and we should be fine."
In trying to find a fan base for the relocated Padres, Bavasi asked a former Senators executive for a list of season ticket holders. The executive chuckled, and then told Bavasi to look in a file cabinet hidden in a storage room in the deepest, darkest part of RFK Stadium.
"I did find that file and after scanning it I know why Joe had chuckled," Bavasi wrote. "The paid season ticket list was less by half than the complimentary ticket list."
Tom Holster, former president of the Washington Baseball Historical Society, said he remembers being able to walk up to Griffith Stadium and buy seats near the field. But he said Washingtonians shouldn't be blamed for not showing up.
"Considering the quality of play on the field, I think we did pretty well," Holster said.
A small, but dedicated group of fans remained angry at Short for several years.
"I was devastated," Holster said. "For about three, four years I was a rabid fan. I think my parents thought I was nuts."
Danzansky never lost hope he could return baseball to his home town. He was so certain he would find another team to play in Washington, he gave his camel-hair winter coat to Bavasi, who had borrowed the garment during his stay in D.C., and sent along the following note: "Peter, keep this coat, you'll need it when you come back east to run our club some day."
Bavasi recalls that Danzansky was half right.
"I did need that coat," Bavasi wrote. "A few years later I signed on as president of the expansion Toronto Blue Jays."
Washington remained without a team for 33 years.