Two games scheduled for Thursday, including the Nationals’ opener against the Reds in Cincinnati, were postponed until Friday by rain, foiling Major League Baseball’s plan for all of its teams to begin the season on the same day for the first time since 1968. The last time it happened wasn’t by design, but as a result of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that followed in cities across the country, including Washington, D.C.
The Astros, Reds and Senators were scheduled to begin the 1968 season by hosting games Monday, April 8, four days after King was killed in Memphis. On Sunday, April 7, the Senators announced that their traditional presidential opener would be rescheduled for Wednesday.
“The Washington Senators today rescheduled their opening game for Wednesday out of deference to the Tuesday funeral of Dr. Martin Luther King,” The Washington Post’s George Minot reported from Louisville, where the Nats were scheduled to play two exhibition games against the Red Sox on their way home from spring training in Florida. “The Senators had previously shifted the opener with the Minnesota Twins from Monday to Tuesday, following the slaying of Dr. King. The new postponement came at a time the city was in the midst of racial turmoil.”
“People are going to have to learn to understand each other,” Nats catcher Paul Casanova told The Post after King’s slaying.
The Senators canceled their final exhibition game against the Red Sox and returned to D.C. on Sunday afternoon. In his book, “Ted Williams and the 1969 Washington Senators,” Ted Leavengood wrote that “while respect may have played a part” in the Senators’ decision to postpone their opener, “of equal concern was the ability to restore order in the city where riots were taking a visible toll. … As the Senators flew into National Airport from Louisville, the dense smoke rising from Washington could be seen as the plane circled the city. The players were glued to the windows as they drew closer to the scenes of chaos and destruction lying just beneath them.”
MLB Commissioner William Eckert left the decision of whether to postpone games during the first week of the 1968 season to individual teams. Like the Senators, the Reds and Astros decided to postpone their openers until Wednesday. Every team scheduled to host games on Tuesday immediately followed suit, except the Dodgers, even after their opponent, the Phillies, announced they wouldn’t play on the day of King’s funeral. “Under the rules, the game can be forfeited and we will be fined,” Phillies General Manager John Quinn told reporters. “But we have made our final decision. We will not play.” The Dodgers eventually decided to postpone their opener until Wednesday.
In an effort to stay sharp after winning the Grapefruit League title with a 17-8 record, the Senators held a secret practice Monday at the University of Maryland’s Shipley Field. They did so without infielder Eddie Brinkman, who was in the Armory across from D.C. Stadium after being activated as a member of the D.C. National Guard. The Post reported that the Nats “put on an eye-popping display for students, clearing the short fences with ease and planting balls deep into the football practice field beyond.”
While Opening Day at D.C. Stadium sold out more than a week earlier, the riots that rocked D.C. cast a pall over the game and led to uncertainty about what sort of crowd would show up.
“We might draw anywhere from 4,500 to 45,000 people; your guess is as good as mine,” a team official told The Post.
As late as Tuesday night, there were rumors that the game would be pushed back another day.
“The game is on for today,” Minot reported in Wednesday’s Post. “Barring an eleventh-hour postponement dictated by the Army, the Senators and Minnesota Twins will start the 1968 baseball season at 1:30 o’clock this afternoon at D.C. Stadium.”
As expected, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey attended the game in place of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The Post reported that the former U.S. Senator from Minnesota “accepted in good grace the boos” as he walked to the Twins’ dugout to greet his favorite team.
“For his ceremonial pitches, the Vice President took something off his fast ball and lobbed a pair of new baseballs to the clustered players fronting the White House box,” The Post’s Shirley Povich wrote. “His two pitches fell into the hands of coach Nellie Fox and outfielder Hank Allen, both of whom made leaping grabs to rob the unsuspecting pitcher, Bill Denehy, who was poised for the catch on each occasion but was too trusting of his skulking teammates.”
As for the game, Dean Chance threw a four-hit shutout in a 2-0 Twins win. Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison — a pair of former Senators from the team that left for Minneapolis after the 1960 season — provided Minnesota’s only runs with a pair of solo home runs off Nats starter Camilo Pascual. The Senators’ sixth consecutive loss on Opening Day came before the smallest Opening Day crowd — 32,063 — in D.C. Stadium history.
“Thirteen thousand ticket holders either lost their way or opted for some other activity, deciding they didn’t like crowds this week,” Povich wrote. “There were patches of empty seats in all sections of the park that, curiously, had been sold out for weeks.”
In his history of Washington baseball “You Gotta Have Heart,” Frederic J. Frommer wrote that Brinkman watched the game from the stands in his army uniform. “The game’s going on, and I’m trying to concentrate, and he’s hollering at me,” Senators first baseman Frank Howard told Frommer. “I’m thinking, if we have to depend on this guy to save us, we’re in deep trouble.”
“We wanted to win this one real bad,” Casanova said after the loss. “We wanted to show them we have a good club.”
The Senators didn’t have a good club. They lost the next night, 5-4, before a paltry crowd of 1,086. Washington finished April with an 11-7 record and was only three games out of first place but lost six straight after the calendar turned to May and settled into 10th place for good by mid-June.
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