Imagine a world in which Washington, D.C., hadn’t gone 34 years without a baseball team. That concept was a virtual inevitability in 1973.
Two years removed from the expansion Washington Senators bolting to Texas to become the Rangers, hope prevailed throughout the city that Major League Baseball would return sooner rather than later.
Joseph Danzansky, who owned several D.C.-area Giant Food grocery stores at the time, along with attorney Marvin Willig and dentist Robert Schattner — the inventor of Chloraseptic and Sporicidin — led the charge to bring baseball back to the District.
After failing to buy the Senators from owner Bob Short for $9 million, Danzansky agreed to purchase the San Diego Padres from C. Arnholt Smith for a record price of $12 million in May 1973. The sale and relocation of the Padres was unanimously approved by the other 11 National League owners on Dec. 6, 1973.
President Richard Nixon was so excited about the idea of baseball returning to D.C., he wrote a letter to National League President Chub Feeney that September.
“I just want to cast my own vote in favor of returning major-league baseball to the Nation’s Capital,” the commander-in-chief wrote. “You can be sure all of us in the Washington metropolitan area would enthusiastically welcome a National League team.”
Peter Bavasi, who was appointed the team’s new general manager, had moved to D.C. in late-November as a “one-man advance team” to get the prospective owners up to speed on the Padres operations and to prepare the club for the future. “I wasn’t there very long, maybe two weeks, before I was called back to San Diego,” Bavasi said in an email interview last month.
The Padres were so close to becoming Washington’s baseball club that Topps produced a 1974 set of baseball cards of San Diego players with “Washington Nat’l Lea.” printed on them. Minor league pitcher Dave Freisleben even modeled prototype road uniforms with “Washington” emblazoned in red lettering across the front. The jersey and pants were light blue with collars, sleeves and a waistband adorned in red, white and blue. The hat featured a blue back and white front with a thin red block “W” with a star on the top right.
Freisleben, who pitched 27 games for the Class AAA Hawaii Islanders of the Pacific Coast League in 1973 and went on to lead the Padres in wins and ERA as a rookie in 1974, wasn’t concerned about the potential move. He recalled the Washington uniform occurrence as being fairly simple.
“I just wanted to get to the big leagues and I didn’t care if it was San Diego or Washington,” Freisleben said in a phone interview last month. “I didn’t really care. They said go take a picture. I took a picture and that was it.”
For Freisleben, who is now a fishing charter captain based out of San Leon, Tex., those photos and the concept of moving to D.C. became a distant memory after a while. Then he began to receive fan mail with those photos.
“I never really talked to anybody about it,” Freisleben said. “I just had a picture taken and 15 years later, all of a sudden that picture started showing up and people are sending ‘em to me in the mail. I’d show my wife, my kids and they said, ‘What is that?’ I said, ‘Well, that was when we thought we were moving to Washington and I had a picture taken.’ I had some people, they had two or three of them. They’d send me one and told me to keep one for my scrapbook.”
The photos, taken by late San Diego reporter/photographer Larry Littlefield, are the only two known to exist. One of the many quirks of the photos — including the visible elbow-high wall outlet — is that Freisleben posed with a bat even though he was a pitcher. He doesn’t remember why he was asked to pose with a bat but said half-jokingly, “I was a pretty good hitter in the minor leagues.”
Joseph Danzansky’s son, Stephen, who worked as one of the lead attorneys involved with the move, kept that uniform in a closet in his house. Stephen asked his children if they wanted to keep the uniform. After being told no, he donated it to current Nationals owners Ted and Mark Lerner. The uniform, along with a different hat, is on display at the Norfolk Southern Club in Nationals Park.
“They weren’t outstanding in terms of design but the only thing I cared about was the name Washington across the front of it,” Stephen Danzansky said last month. “That’s all we really cared about. You can always change the uniforms.”
Stephen says ownership preferred the name “Nationals” as the club’s identity. The Nationals nickname was used interchangeably with Senators until the late 1950s. “We didn’t want to call it the Senators because it had such a bad connotation,” he said.
“I do recall that in private chats ‘Nationals’ was the front-running name,” said Bavasi, who worked as a consultant with the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission in the early 2000s to help bring a major league team to Washington. “ ‘Pandas’ was discussed, but just as a brief passing thought because a pair of the animals were housed at the National Zoo, a gift at the time from China to President Nixon.”
In terms of leadership, Joseph Danzansky quickly named California Angels designated hitter Frank Robinson as his top choice to manage the new Washington club even though the Padres were still managed by former Senators infielder Don Zimmer at the time.
“I’m very flattered [Danzansky] feels that way,” Robinson told The Washington Post in late May 1973, adding, “Washington has proven it will draw people when it has a capable team.”
As fate would have it, Robinson became the first manager of the Washington Nationals when the franchise moved from Montreal in time for the 2005 season.
The new Washington club was slated to open the 1974 season at RFK Stadium against the Philadelphia Phillies on April 4 at 2:30 p.m. The franchise was going to be the first National League team to play in D.C. since the Washington Senators club that played at Boundary Field from 1892 to 1899.
The dream of the Padres moving to D.C., however, proved to be short lived. Smith was in financial trouble and the city of San Diego threatened to sue for $84 million for breaking the San Diego Stadium lease. Smith sold the team in January 1974 for $12 million to McDonald’s mogul Ray Kroc, who kept the team in San Diego. Smith was sentenced to three years in jail in 1979 for income tax evasion and grand theft but would later only serve seven months.
Little did local baseball fans know it would be three more decades until a team would call the District its home. It wasn’t for a lack of effort, though. Ted Lerner unsuccessfully attempted to buy the Baltimore Orioles in 1975 and the San Francisco Giants in 1976. When former Washington Redskins minority owner Edward Bennett Williams bought the Orioles in 1979, the prevailing wisdom was that he wanted to move the team to D.C. when the team’s lease with the city of Baltimore expired in 1980. Four years after Williams bought the club, the Orioles won the World Series.
Major League Baseball considered Washington, D.C., as a National League expansion candidate in 1991 but opted for Miami and Denver instead to create the Florida Marlins and Colorado Rockies. Three years later the Virginia Baseball Club, led by William Collins III, was a finalist for expansion along with Tampa Bay, Phoenix and Orlando. MLB chose Tampa Bay and Phoenix, where the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks, respectively, would set up shop.
Virginia Baseball Club reached an agreement to buy the Houston Astros in 1995, but then-Astros owner Drayton McLane backed out after believing he wouldn’t receive enough votes from MLB owners to move a team out of one of the nation’s largest media markets. Virginia Baseball Club planned for the team to play at RFK Stadium for two to three seasons before moving into a new stadium near Dulles Airport. A proposal to build a retractable-roof stadium now known as Minute Maid Park was approved and kept the team in Houston.
Collins agreed to buy the Montreal Expos in 1999 and reportedly offered $168 million for the team in 2000 but did not hear back from MLB. The Expos eventually made its official move to D.C. in late 2004 to become a franchise quickly embraced by this baseball-hungry fan base. For more than a generation of D.C. baseball fans, America’s pastime was a thing of the past. That almost wasn’t the case in 1973.