Povich Rewind: Washington Without Baseball
By Beth Mechum
Shirley Povich’s greatest professional disappointment was Major League Baseball leaving his beloved Washington, D.C., after the 1971 season. Povich, who died in 1998 at the age of 92, did not live to see the now pennant-contending Nationals of 2017 move from Montreal to D.C. in 2005. Had he lived, he would know that with the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series last year, Washington has the longest championships drought of any team in the majors ( 92 years). His likely response: “Whose counting?”
After the Senators moved to Texas in 1972, Povich was emotionally involved in a number of attempts by Washingtonians to acquire a baseball team. He rejected the Baltimore Orioles’ claim that they were Washington’s team, scoffed at occasional exhibition games in Washington, and lamented his town’s fate when cities such as Toronto, Miami, Denver, Phoenix, and Tampa were awarded expansion franchises. He called them shells in comparison to the nation’s capital.
Root, Root, Root for the What Team?
[T]he major league baseball season opens tomorrow afternoon- and so what? For Washington, again, it is a joyless event. No team to call its own. No peanuts. No Cracker Jack, no nothing. Eleven years now, since a city was wiped off the baseball map. Eleven Silent Springs, eleven years of melancholy. Rats!
They did it to us in September 1971, on that night of infamy in Boston where 12 scoundrelly American League club owners, destitute of feeling for an old friend of 10 years, voted Washington dead as a baseball town. Those 12 owners, high and mighty with their anti-trust exemption, and low and despicable in their greed for a greener pasture, took the word of come-lately Robert E. Short, a baseball carpet-bagger, that Arlington, Tex., was a more deserving baseball town than the capital of the United States. Arlington? Texas?
Think of it: Toronto has big league baseball. Seattle has big league baseball. Arlington, Tex., and Montreal have big league baseball. Certainly we think of that. Envy has no holidays. Agreed that it is also sometimes tingled with malicious grudging.
Damnit, we’ve been banished from the mainstream. Six weeks of spring training has just ended. For most of the 26 cities there was exciting news of rookie phenoms who might hit .300 or even more: of kid pitchers who would be looking for 20 wins, at least 18, and of exciting trades in the making. But for Washington it was the 11th year of the spring training blahs. For Washington, spring training has become an alien rite. Nobody wears a Washington uniform.
We’re out of it. No more the Yankees to hate. In our detachment from the entire scene, the Yankees are no worse than anybody else. The Red Sox, Tigers, Cleveland and the A’s – they are mere team names in one of those divisions of the American League. Phantoms, who somehow appear regularly in the league standings.
For Washington those teams exist only on the television tube, playing a game that the Senators also used to play at Griffith Stadium and Kennedy Stadium before the wipeout. Oh, there was a promise by Bowie Kuhn that Washington would get another team as quickly as possible, as soon as the conditions permitted. We believed him. The new franchises went to Seattle and Toronto. What endearing friends Kuhn and the club owners proved to be. Even with beautiful Robert F. Kennedy Stadium available at low rent, and the new Metro trains ready to bring 54,000 fans to the very mouth of the playing field- the best transit agreement in any city anywhere – we got the brush.
They tell us now not to weep, and to go root for the Orioles. Some people do, but there is an understandable reluctance by most. The Orioles uniforms are badly designed. They don’t have W-A-S-H-I-N-G-T-O-N written across their chests. They are Baltimore’s team. They live in Baltimore. They eat and sleep in Baltimore, and play ball in Baltimore and are loved in Baltimore. They are Baltimore’s darlings, not Washington’s. And for Baltimore fans, the Orioles do not mean a 40 mile schlep each way.
At best, the Orioles offer an escape valve, a sneaked joint, a temporary high for Washington’s most addicted baseball fans. These are said to account for 10 percent of Orioles attendance. By the great bulk of Washington fans are not embracing the Orioles as the answer to their passion for the for the game, no matter how much we are told that the Orioles also belong to our town. Baltimore has custody. Surrogate heroes are not of the true flesh.
Today, when Take Me Out to the Ballgame is a glorious and meaningful chant in 26 major league cities, in Washington it will be only a song, for others. Or perhaps a memory of those heady years when the Senators won three pennants and had heroes named Walter Johnson and Bucky Harris, and Goose Goslin and Joe Judge and Ossie Bluege, and Sam Rice. And later, Earl Whitefield and Heinie Manush, and Harmon Killebrew and Mickey Vernon and Eddie Yost. And nine presidents of the United States came to the park. This didn’t count when they wrote us out of the big league lineup.
In another year, those American League club owners may repent or be brought to book by the Forces of Truth. In that vein, let’s hear it again from Sophocles, who once assured us “Time will catch up with guilt. Justice is never out of breath.” Stick in there, Justice and get us a team again. Living like this is maddening.
-April 4, 1982