In 1937, when Dizzy Dean came to Washington for the All-Star Game, he was perhaps the greatest player, and certainly the zaniest, in baseball. At 27, he’d just finished first, second and second in the NL MVP voting the previous three seasons. He’d won 30, 28 and 24 games.
All eyes in Griffith Stadium were on him, including the eyes of 11-year-old Ted Lerner, who kept score in a program with President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the cover, baseball held high over his head. Lerner scribbled notes left-handed in every margin and in all directions, covering almost every vacant inch.
Early in the game, Earl Averill crushed a line drive off Dean’s foot. When Dean was told that his big toe was “fractured,” the Hall of Fame Cardinals right-hander said, “Fractured, hell, the damn thing’s broken.”
“I was there at Griffith Stadium. I saw it,” said Lerner, now the Washington Nationals’ owner. “Dizzy Dean was never the same.” Ol’ Diz won just 16 more in his life. He came back too soon and blew out his arm. That sad injury may be the most famous all-star moment ever.
But to a boy like Lerner, that whole scene, the celebration of baseball and all its greatest players on the same field — his team’s home field — was magical.
“The streetcar to Griffith Stadium cost three cents. Discounted because I was a student. The all-star ticket was 25 cents. Not sure how I bought it,” said Lerner, later an usher at Griffith Stadium. “But I certainly do remember the game.”
To make sure he never forgot it — the scorecard had Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, Lefty Gomez, Jimmy Foxx and Hank Greenberg (and that’s just the AL team) — Lerner kept his program for 78 years, had it framed and still keeps it in his office to this day.
On Monday, boy to 89-year-old billionaire, the circle was completed. MLB’s new Commissioner, Rob Manfred, came to Nationals Park to announce that Washington would host the 2018 All-Star Game. For added symmetry, that year marks nearly a half-century since the District last had the game, in 1969.
“God willing, my dad will see it,” said Nationals President Mark Lerner, who has been the point man on the project. “We desperately wanted him to see it and to honor him.”
Passions are born early. And the Lerners know Ted’s. Mark estimates that it took the family “five minutes” after they got ownership of the franchise to start lobbying then-Commissioner Bud Selig to give D.C. a Midsummer Classic.
“So Ted kept the scorecard for 78 years. I guess it must have meant something to him, right?” said General Manager Mike Rizzo, laughing. “Ever since I got here all I’ve heard from the Lerners is ‘the all-star game, the all-star game.’ This is like the crown jewel for them of what they could bring to the city, what it would mean for the city. It was ‘city, city, city.’ All of them are born and raised here. They identify with it.”
“We should get [Ted Lerner] to do another scorecard in three years,” said Bryce Harper, who homered and singled Monday in a 3-1 Nationals loss to the Mets.
Next to playoff games and a World Series, Lerner has viewed an all-star game as his benchmark that Washington has truly returned to the big leagues in first-rate style.
With its five-day Friday-through-Tuesday festival atmosphere, city-wide buzz, parades, Futures Game, Home Run Derby, the All-Star Game itself, free-of-charge displays and mammoth FanFest at the convention center, it’s baseball’s attempt to turn a major city into a marathon baseball celebration during what would otherwise be a fairly sleepy week in July.
“We’re delighted for the people of D.C.,” Mark Lerner said. “It’s a big thrill.”
From now until 2018 you’ll hear estimates of what the all-star game is “worth,” in terms of added revenue for city businesses, in additional tax dollars, in recognition for the city and, perhaps most important, as a catalyst for development on the Southeast waterfront. After all, urban revitalization of a moribund, desolate part of the District was the top civic and sociological justification for bringing back a team to Washington and building it a city-financed ballpark.
Everybody will guess a number. Here’s what matters: They are all very nice numbers. Cities fight over the all-star game for a reason. It adds value.
The New York City Economic Development Corporation estimated a “total economic impact of $191.5 million” for the 2013 game at the Mets’ Citi Field. But New York always pulls in twice the all-star benefits of any other city. In recent years, Kansas City and St. Louis estimate benefits of about $60 million to the local economy. Last year’s game in Minneapolis may be between $27 million and $55 million.
So, nobody knows. But, in this century, as MLB has learned how to milk — sorry, “expand the appeal of” — the extravaganza over several enjoyable (and profitable) days, no town’s ever said it was sorry it got an all-star game.
“There are a lot of cranes in the ballpark area right now. Over the next three years, there are going to be a lot more,” Mark Lerner said. “By 2018, Half Street [which connects the Metro station to the main left field entrance] should be done or almost finished. That’ll make this area really special.”
Cranes and the Lerners go together, too. So, as much as their concerns for the city are genuine, their business will be happy, also. (Happy enough to pay, voluntarily, for late subways?)
You can assume the Nats are pleased that Baltimore, which also wanted the 2018 game, didn’t get it. The two teams are locked in a multi-year battle over re-setting Washington regional cable TV rights for their MASN broadcasts. MLB has, at times, sided with the Nationals’ position in that dispute. Now, in a break from tradition, one league — the NL — will be awarded four straight all-star games (2015 through 2018). The AL will even bat last, as if it were the home team, in 2018.
Is this, in part, an MLB thumb in the eye to Orioles owner Peter Angelos? Maybe.
Take your pick of reasons to smile. There are plenty. And if you know someone who will be 11 years old in 2018, teach them how to keep score.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.