Correction: An earlier version of this article said Ted Williams managed at Griffith Stadium.
As sports towns, Washington and Boston share few connections. Ted Williams became the greatest hitter of all-time at Fenway Park; he managed a dreadful team at RFK Stadium. In Boston, grandparents and parents pass down rooting interests. In Washington, grandparents only had one professional sports team to root for that still exists.
And yet, any city with four professional sports teams — which Washington has been for a decade now — will be judged against Boston. The Hub has claimed five championships over the past decade of professional sports, and its teams have won at a higher percentage than any other city’s. Boston’s history and success may be nauseating to outsiders. It also makes it a natural measuring stick.
The comparison will inevitably lead to the nature of the two cities: Parochial Boston creates prideful, borderline maniacal fandom, and transient Washington yields a city with disparate rooting interests whose passions lie in politics. While there is some truth to those superficial strokes, they don’t fully explain the disparity. The larger difference lies in deeper reasons, dating back generations.
The character of the cities matters less than the formation and history of their respective sports landscape. Few can speak with more wisdom on the subject than former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who graduated from Archbishop Carroll, attended Providence from 1960 to 1964, and played for the Boston Celtics from 1964 until 1966 before he returned to coach in Washington.
“Washington is getting there,” Thompson said. “This town now, you see and hear things. refreshingly so. People have something to argue about and fuss about in the barbershop. In Boston it’s always been that way. Here, we had the Redskins. I just think we’re catching up. We’re coming from behind as far as generations.”
In Boston, the professional sports landscape has been stable for 55 years, ever since the Patriots formed in 1960 and joined the Red Sox (1901), Bruins (1924) and Celtics (1946). Its sports teams endure like the New England coastline or the Green Mountains. There is no explanation for how they got there. They just are.
In Washington, there has been constant evolution. The Senators lasted from 1901 to 1971 and then left the city without major league baseball. The Bullets did not move from Baltimore until 1973, and the Capitals did not exist until 1974. For two years in the early 1970s, the Redskins were the only professional franchise based in Washington.
The one constant has been the Redskins, but their permanence never provided simplicity. They are viewed today as the one unifying entity in a bifurcated city, burgundy and gold able to trump red vs. blue. Once, though, they divided the population. Or, more accurately, they pushed a swath of it away.
“You talk to a lot of blacks, they’re a lot of Cowboy fans, particularly the older generation,” Thompson said. They rooted against the Redskins because owner George Preston Marshall staunchly refused to integrate his team. Until Bobby Mitchell arrived in 1962, after pressure from the Kennedy administration, the Redskins were, in the words of Shirley Povich, “burgundy, gold and Caucasian.”
With its fraught history with racial tension, Boston may not seem like the right foil for Marshall’s outlook. Even in the sports realm, the Red Sox became the final team to integrate, in 1959. But during Thompson’s time in Boston, black players filled the Celtics’ roster, and the city backed them on the court. Racial divisiveness in Boston permeated society but rarely infected teams.
“I’m not saying that Boston was heaven for black people,” Thompson said. “But [Bill Russell] was there on the team to be able to say what he felt.”
And so, the Redskins dominated the professional sports scene in Washington, but their practices violated a giant chunk of the populace. If you were a 10-year-old in Washington in 1972, you would be 53 now. At that time, you wouldn’t have had an NBA, MLB or NHL team in the city, and your family may have hated the football team on principle.
Things are different now, obviously. But the generational passing of sports devotion implanted in Boston hasn’t had time to take root in Washington.
“The thing that has changed a lot [in Washington] from my perspective is, a lot of blacks feel included now in the strong feeling of the city as it relates to teams,” Thompson said. “Before, in Boston, when I was there, I thought it was more a sense of belonging with the teams, a sense of community with the teams. I think Washington has become that now. Years ago, I don’t think a lot of the community were included.”
Along with societal differences, pure location matters, too. Aside from pockets in western Massachusetts and central Connecticut, people born in New England have little geographic choice of which teams to support. One can safely assume a Celtics fan will be a Patriots fan and a Red Sox fan will root for the Bruins. In and around Washington, even non-transplants may contain mixed geographic allegiances.
Outside Verizon Center on Wednesday, two packs of fans waited out first intermission smoking cigarettes. Half of them wore Bruins jerseys, the other half Capitals sweaters. One black-and-gold-clad fan chided the Caps fan about the Redskins. He shook his head, rolled up the right sleeve of his Capitals jersey and revealed a tattoo on his elbow: a Raven.
On the morning of a big game in Boston, everybody is on the same side. It can feel like the entire region is mobilizing for war. If you’re a Nationals-fan high school student in, say, Howard County, the kid next to you in class may be amped for the Orioles game.
The makeup of Washington dictates the feel of the city as a sports town, too. The populace changes with each election, and so many people who live here are really from somewhere else.
“You see games where adults wear other teams jerseys, because that’s where they’re from,” said former Maryland coach Gary Williams, who coached at Boston College in the 1980s. “They still wear their team’s gear. That doesn’t happen in Boston.”
Pitcher Curt Schilling once described the Boston baseball season as “a 162-game NFL schedule.” Every summer morning brought with it fresh analysis and, after losses, sharpened knives. In Washington, like every city, NFL football dominates discussion and media. In Boston, it happens like that in every sport: Imagine four Redskins seasons, on constant loop, and you have an idea of Boston fandom.
“I think Boston fans are spoiled with the amount of championships they’ve had in all four sports in the last, whatever it is, 10 or 12 years,” said Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik, an avid sports fan who played at Boston College. “It’s crazy. I don’t think any city compares to it.”
Players who have performed in both cities more recently detect a similar vibe in regard to loyalty. Donte’ Stallworth, a retired wide receiver who played for the Redskins and Patriots, said he could not escape pervasive Nationals chatter in the weeks before opening day. The fan base may be more splintered in Washington. But those who root for the local four support their teams as much as a typical Boston resident would.
“The common theme with both cities is that the fans are with their team 100 percent,” Stallworth said. “I do think that both fans are very, very passionate. The city of Boston has had a little more fun watching their teams play lately. They won a bunch more championships. When I was in Boston, it’s just, you just expect to win there.”
It will take a long time for that expectation to settle in Washington. But the Capitals and Wizards are about to start playoff runs, the Nationals are defending division champions and odds-on World Series favorites, and the Redskins . . . just, uh, hired a new general manager. Can D.C.’s fan base ever grow as unified as Boston’s? Probably not. Can it move in that direction? It already has.
“They’re ready to fight you to argue about the problems that the teams have,” Thompson said. “That’s good. It gives you something to argue about and fuss about, which is good, because you won’t be arguing about something more serious. That’s what sports does. You would think they’re talking getting the cure for cancer. That diversion is a healthy diversion.”
And that is true in any city.
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Interactive graphic: Compare two cities side by side