It was a rainy night in Boston late in the summer of 1971 when the owners of the American League teams voted to allow Bob Short to move his Washington Senators to Arlington, Tex. I was covering that league meeting for the now-defunct Washington Daily News.
Shirley Povich, the revered columnist of The Washington Post, called the approval by the AL owners (the Orioles voted against the move) the “highest form of treachery.”
“Not to have the national pastime in the nation’s capital after 71 years is as low as you can sink,” Povich said. Grabbing me by the arm, which was his way of emphasizing a point, he said, “This will not stand.’’
And he wrote: “The Washington Senators are no more. . . . They showed utterly no concern for the Washington fans, who were asked to support last-place teams by paying the highest prices in the league. . . . For Washington, the wound is deep.”
A year later, in 1972, I landed a job with The Post and in 1975 I became the newspaper’s sports editor at 35. By that time Povich was two years into retirement before he told me he would “retire retirement” and accepted my offer to write four columns a month, or more when the mood struck him.
Many of Povich’s columns over the following 23 years would angrily decry the loss of Major League Baseball from his adopted home town and chronicle the city’s efforts to find a replacement team through expansion or relocation.
In a silent but unyielding personal boycott he never again went to another opening day. Anywhere. Nor would he cover or attend the few “exhibition” games at RFK Stadium, some even involving Earl Weaver’s powerhouse Orioles teams of the 1970s. Or those Cracker Jack “Old Timers” games, one of which featured Povich’s friend, 75-year-old Luke Appling, homering over a 200-foot left field fence in 1982.
“Exhibitions,” Povich would dismissively say. “We’re not Chattanooga,” once a stop on the Senators’ barnstorming trip after spring training.
The Post, on the other hand, had an obligation to cover baseball. That meant treating the Orioles as a “regional, close-to-home” franchise, sending reporters up the parkway and often on the road to cover them.In those 33 years of no MLB team in Washington, The Post also continued to cover efforts by a number of potential owners and city officials to return major league baseball to the nation’s capital, or to Northern Virginia.
Each time a team needed a new stadium, or improved lease agreement, or more fan support, Washington was the straw dog. The Padres almost moved here in 1973 (Washington Padres baseball cards were printed), but at the last minute remained in San Diego. San Francisco flirted with us, as did Oakland and the Chicago White Sox. Each time, Povich instructed us to call a Washington developer, Ted Lerner, to see if Lerner was interested. He seldom called back, but decades later he would buy the Nationals.
Finally, in 2004, the bankrupt Montreal Expos, by then owned by MLB, needed a place to move. RFK was available, with city officials agreeing to build the team a new stadium. So the Montreal Expos, with no large, passionate fan base to protest, became the Washington Nationals for 2005. There was no other option, Commissioner Bud Selig, told Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who stalked away with a sweetheart TV deal.
But baseball was back. A .500 team under Manager Frank Robinson made a lot of fans happy that first season, with hundreds of losses to follow that resulted in the opportunity to draft stars such as Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Drew Storen.
Which brings us to the present: a place in MLB’s postseason — unknown to Washington since 1933. When Gio Gonzalez won his 20th game at Nationals Park two weeks ago, some of my friends who had watched Calvin Griffith move a promising Senators team to Minnesota in 1960 and experienced the gloom of the expansion Senators moving to Texas a decade later, began a joyful Google search to find that the last Washington pitcher to win 20 games was Bob Porterfield in 1953. I’ve rarely seen such pleasure from people looking at an iPhone.
“This is the greatest baseball season of my life,” said a lifelong Washingtonian, who had been a regular at Griffith Stadium and RFK. He spoke for many.
While Povich boycotted opening day, he did attend some Orioles games, once accepting a pregame honor from Angelos and covering Cal Ripken Jr. breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive game streak. Still, he always said it wasn’t the same as covering your own team. So when he had a near-fatal heart attack outside the press box elevator before an O’s playoff game in 1997, he was thrilled to be leaving a Baltimore hospital the next day.
“That would have been unfortunate,” Povich mused with a sly grin at the thought of spending his final day in a ballpark, covering what he always referred to as “another city’s” team.
Povich died in June 1998, the day he wrote his final column at the age of 92. He did not get the opportunity to see Davey Johnson manage Gio, Zimmerman and the rest this season. They were his kind of guys.
George Solomon was the sports editor of The Post from 1975 to 2003. He is the director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, where he also teaches.
More coverage of the Nationals and MLB:
Boswell: The year baseball went National
Transcript: Hamilton on the Nationals, and more
Video: The story of the Nationals