The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The baseball fan whose anger once helped nudge a U.S. Senate race

Bill Holdforth, known as Baseball Bill, helped defeat Bob Short's 1978 run for U.S. Senate. (Ricky Carioti/TWP)
3 min

Former U.S. senator David Durenberger, a Minnesota Republican who died this week at 88, had an unusual ally when he first won his Senate seat 45 years ago: a D.C. bartender who was still angry at a rival candidate for moving the Senators out of town.

Bill Holdforth had worked as an usher at RFK Stadium when the Senators played there, a time he often described as the best years of his life. That ended when team owner Bob Short moved the team to Texas for the 1972 season, only to sell the renamed Texas Rangers two years later.

Short, who had run unsuccessfully for Congress in 1946 and then served as the Democratic National Committee treasurer during Hubert Humphrey’s losing presidential bid against Richard M. Nixon in 1968, eyed a political comeback after baseball. In 1978, he mounted a campaign for U.S. Senate in his native Minnesota. But Baseball Bill, as Holdforth was known, had other ideas.

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He and his friends formed “Baseball Bill’s Committee to Keep Bob Short out of D.C.,” which raised $3,500 in a backyard fundraiser, a textbook underdog effort against a candidate who would spend more than $1 million of his own money on the race. Baseball Bill’s group pooled its money strategically into a single Minneapolis newspaper ad, which ran on the Sunday before the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party primary. It read in part:

Don’t Be “SHORT” Changed. Bob Short WAS a Senator. In fact, he was the Washington Senators, the American League Baseball Club. He purchased the team in December 1968. He moved the team to Arlington, Texas, at the end of September 1971. We in our Nation’s Capital were left without a baseball team. We were “short changed.” In two days you people of the great state of Minnesota must make a decision. Bob Short held our trust for three years, and we were SHORT CHANGED. So, before you vote Tuesday, please consider these facts about Bob Short as we know him.

The ad then detailed what it said was a list of Short’s broken promises as owner. And it compared him unfavorably with Minnesota giants such as Humphrey, Vice President Walter Mondale, and former senator and presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy:

Seventy-one years of baseball tradition meant nothing to him. Minnesotans have a tradition of sending men of national stature like Humphrey, Mondale, and McCarthy to the U.S. Senate. Does Bob Short’s record measure up? We think not. He took something precious from our community. He broke our hearts.

In a twist, Short was running in a special election for the seat of his close friend Humphrey following Humphrey’s death in office in January 1978.

The ad had this kicker: “P.S. You can keep Cal Griffith, too,” referring to the owner who moved the first Senators team to Minnesota in 1961. They were replaced by the expansion Senators, the team that Short moved to Texas a decade later. (D.C. fans had a real grudge against Minnesota — first for taking the original Senators team, then having a Minnesotan move the second one.)

Short won the primary anyway, setting up a general election matchup with Durenberger, a moderate Republican. A week later, Holdforth once recalled in an interview, his group got a call from Durenberger’s campaign, asking for permission to make copies of the ad and distribute them at Minnesota Vikings football games. “So we said, ‘Sure,’ ” said Holdforth, who died in 2017. “We made it clear we wanted to see Short lose.”

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After Durenberger defeated Short, he made sure to pay Baseball Bill a visit.

“I remember he was just one of those guys that I had to go meet,” Durenberger once said in an interview. “I wanted to go see my buddy, Baseball Billy! When I met him, I thought wow, how can you miss this guy? He’s really a larger-than-life character. I’d never seen a bartender quite that big. He didn’t make any bones about it — was he a big David Durenberger supporter? No. His goal was to keep Short out of Washington, D.C. And he was happy that I was available to do it.”

Durenberger said Baseball Bill helped erode Short in the eyes of Minnesota voters. “The campaign was taking advantage of every anti-Short thing they could take advantage of,” he said. “The guy had a lot of negatives, and they wanted to increase it — so Baseball Billy was one way to do it. It was an easy way of saying, ‘Folks in Washington don’t want Bob Short any more than people in Minnesota want him.’ ”