After last week’s column on the 1955 Capital Transit strike, Answer Man was bombarded with emails from readers eager to point out that he had made a mistake. How, they asked, could the strike have forced the postponement of a Nationals game when the baseball team back then was called the Senators? Had Answer Man, seemingly so infallible, been wrong?
Well, no. To explain why not, Answer Man will borrow heavily from a column he wrote in 2012 on this selfsame subject.
[In 1955, a strike shut down D.C. public transportation. Here’s how people coped.]
Here’s a snippet from Bob Addie’s July 31, 1955, Washington Post sports column mentioning the postponed game: “It may have been only coincidence but the day after the Nats cancelled their game with Kansas City because of the transit strike, Louis E. Wolfson offered to surrender his franchise and liquidate the Capital Transit Co.”
A-ha, you say, it didn’t say “Nationals.” It said “Nats.”
True. But as tempting as it might be to think that Nats came from SeNATors, it actually came from NATionals. And that’s a very old name, indeed. Among the professional baseball teams that have called Washington home, one in the 19th century was called the Nationals. When the American League was started in 1901, the city’s new franchise was called the Washington Senators.
“But because of the old name, people still called the team the Nationals,” said Phil Wood, host of radio’s “Nats Talk Live” and an encyclopedia of D.C. baseball knowledge.
The names were virtually interchangeable.
“If you go back and look at old baseball cards from the ’30s and ’40s, half would say ‘Senators,’ and half would say ‘Nationals,’ ” Phil said. “Even in the 1950s. Look at the 1955 Topps card for Roy Sievers. It says ‘Washington Nationals.’ ”
So did Harmon Killebrew’s.
What’s weird is that Sievers’s 1954 card says “Washington Senators.” And the 1956 set of Topps team cards say either “Washington Nationals” or “Washington Nats.”
Newspapers of the time also went back and forth, although The Washington Post seems to have favored “Nats,” while the Evening Star was more partial to “Senators.” Both papers would often refer to the team simply as “Washington.”
The team officially changed its name to Senators in 1956, prompted by Charlie Brotman, who at the time was the newly hired stadium announcer for Washington’s major league ball club. (The team played its home games at Griffith Stadium, named after owner/manager Clark Griffith, who inspired another nickname: the Griffmen.)
Charlie was asked to produce printed materials for the team: press guides, programs and the like. When it came to symbolizing the team — depicting its ethos in illustrations — he was stumped as to what a National was. A Senator, on the other hand, was easier to envision.
He worked with artist Zang Auerbach, brother of basketball coach Red Auerbach, to create a gloved, cigar-chomping, Colonial-style senator for the team’s 1957 yearbook. From then until its departure for Minnesota in 1961, the club was known as the Senators. The Senators was also the name of the expansion team that played in Washington from 1961 to 1971, before moving to Texas and becoming the Rangers.
When it became clear in 2004 that Major League Baseball would allow the Montreal Expos to move to Washington, the little matter of a name came up. The Washington Expos wasn’t really going to fly, even if someone could argue that the team was named after the dry-erase markers found in meeting rooms all over town.
Mayor Anthony Williams was against reviving the Senators moniker, since the District didn’t — and doesn’t — actually have any voting representatives in the august upper chamber. He favored the “Grays,” the name of the Negro League team that played in Washington until 1950.
Interestingly, the Grays also played their home games in Pittsburgh. No one is quite sure how the Grays — which started out as the Blue Ribbons, a group of Pittsburgh-area steelworkers who played recreationally in the early 1900s — got their name, although the best guess is that it came from the color of the team’s socks.
As for the name of Washington’s professional football team, let’s not even go there.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.