Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich wrote of the owners: “Instead of holding Short to account for his outrageous operations in Washington, they rewarded him for those mistakes by letting him skip town.”
So that was that, many thought. Others thought differently.
Morris Siegel, the popular columnist for the Washington Star, growled, “We’ll have a new team in town in two years.” It didn’t take two years — more like 33 — and sadly neither Povich nor Siegel was alive to see the euphoric emotion from the more than 43,000 fans at Nationals Park last Tuesday when the Nationals defeated the St. Louis Cardinals, 7-4, to vault them into the first World Series in Washington since 1933.
In 28 of the 33 years Washington went without major league baseball, I was the sports editor of The Post, responsible for directing coverage of the attempts to bring the game back to a city that was a founding member of the American League for 71 years. Of course, the original Senators moved to Minnesota in 1961, replaced immediately by an inept expansion team, later to be owned by Short and moved to Texas.
The party line held by many in baseball was that Washington was not a baseball town and didn’t support the two teams that fled the city. It was a theory discounted by many, led by Povich, who until his death in 1998 at the age of 92 after a 75-year career at The Post believed his adopted city was getting a bad rap, the victim of terrible ownership (Calvin Griffith and Short) and other shortsighted club owners dominating the game.
“If you don’t have a big league ball team in town, you’re not a big league city,” said Povich, who retired as a full-time columnist at The Post in 1974 but returned as an underpaid (guilty) part-time columnist and sage adviser when I got the job as sports editor in 1975.
The Redskins were dominating the headlines as they had since 1969, when Vince Lombardi became their coach, replaced after his untimely 1970 death by George Allen in 1971. The Bullets, under Abe and Irene Pollin, were about to move to the District from Baltimore, and the Capitals were still a dream in their heads. Maryland basketball, under Lefty Driesell, was making waves. The Orioles were a short drive away, so who needs a baseball team?
“Washington needs a baseball team,” Povich said.
And the city almost got one, as early as 1973, when Joseph Danzansky, the president of Giant Food, signed an agreement to buy the San Diego Padres from C. Arnholt Smith for $12 million. In December 1973, the owners even approved the sale. Some dope (me) was assigned to write profiles of the Padres for a special baseball section, and the move seemed like such a sure thing that Topps produced trading cards of Padres players saying they played for “Washington” of the “Nat’l Lea.” The team’s general manager, Peter Bavasi , even made a trip to Washington to begin preparations for the move. But San Diego mayor Pete Wilson got involved. He convinced some guy who made hamburgers for a living (Ray Kroc of McDonald’s) to buy the team and keep it in San Diego.
For the next three-plus decades, teams and politicians played footsie with Washington, often using the city as a lever to better their own situations and obtain new ballparks. The San Francisco Giants were freezing in Candlestick Park, the Chicago White Sox had wandering eyes, and the Cleveland Indians were dying in an 80,000-seat stadium. Virginian William Collins reached an agreement to buy the Houston Astros in 1995. They would play two years in RFK Stadium and then move to a new stadium near Dulles International Airport. But the deal fell through; the Astros got a new stadium. Anytime a congressman wanted a mention in the newspaper, he or she just had to say Washington deserves a baseball team.
The killer for Povich, though, was the expansion process: Montreal (began play in 1969), Toronto and Seattle (1977), Miami and Denver (1993), Tampa/St. Petersburg and Phoenix (1998). No Washington.
“Denver,” an angry Povich wrote. “A shtetl of a city.”
“How can you call Denver a shtetl?” I asked.
“Shtetl,” he pronounced flatly, digging his fingers into my arm, suggesting someone on the sports staff should call his friend, a local developer named Ted Lerner, who he said has the money to own and keep a baseball team in Washington.
Some saw opportunities during the 33-year vacuum. For years during the 1980s, RFK Stadium was the site of an annual five-inning game called the “Cracker Jack Old Timers Baseball Classic” that featured Sandy Koufax (one batter faced), Bob Feller, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Warren Spahn and Joe DiMaggio. Some teams played exhibition games in the District, including the Orioles, Pirates and Cardinals.
Povich never attended any of those games, saying, “We’re not Chattanooga” (a frequent stop of the Senators’ moneymaking train on the way north after spring training). Nor could he figure out baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, a Washingtonian who might have helped his city but didn’t.
The Orioles were an odd case: a onetime powerful, exciting team, managed by Earl Weaver and featuring Cal Ripken, only about one hour from D.C., on local television and radio, covered by The Post, the Washington Star and later the Washington Times. In 1979, the team was purchased by Washington attorney Edward Bennett Williams, who for years also was the president of the Redskins. There was speculation Williams wanted to move the Orioles to Washington and a story in The Post that he hoped to play a dozen games at RFK Stadium in 1980. The story might have helped push Baltimore to build Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Eli Jacobs bought the Orioles after Williams’s death in 1988, followed by Peter Angelos. The Orioles always believed the Washington area was vital to their financial success and had the general support of commissioner Bud Selig. But when the Expos floundered in Montreal and Major League Baseball had to take ownership of the team, Washington was easily the best landing spot once the city agreed to finance a stadium.
Povich and his friend Siegel were huge believers in reporters and columnists keeping neutral postures when covering sports. They didn’t root, and Povich said he stopped “godding up” players in the 1930s. Somehow, though, both of them and a huge number of Washington baseball fans were smiling from above Nationals Park last Tuesday night.
George Solomon was assistant managing editor for sports at The Washington Post from 1975 to 2003. He is director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and a faculty member at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.