Thousands flock to Nationals Park today for Opening Day. Bats will crack, balls will fly, players will break records, and the crowds will cheer. Baseball season is upon us again. The National League’s Washington Nationals are a far cry from their humble beginnings. They’re no longer a team of transplants from Montreal, slugging away at anything that moves past home plate at RFK Stadium. The team is now a group of major-league calculating heavy hitters, playing in their own ballpark, ready to take the pennant. They’ve come a long way since 2005. They’ve come an insurmountably longer way since 1901, when the team first played D.C.
In fact, Major League Baseball itself has come a long way since then. America’s favorite pastime was once a very different sport. For starters, the American League was just getting off the ground, adding an additional eight teams to the National League’s eight. Most games were played in wooden ballparks, not stadiums. There weren’t any radar guns to clock the speed of fastballs. The players were revered, but not to the same standards by which modern ball players are celebrated. Also, all of the players on the field were white.
This is a simple fact of baseball. Die-hard baseball fans are generally fascinated with the statistics and history of the sport. Curiously, segregation, and the effect it had on professional baseball is rarely discussed in the open. You’ll hear people talk ad nauseam about Babe Ruth’s or Ty Cobb’s batting averages, but you’ll seldom hear about players like Josh Gibson. Gibson was never a household name because he never had the chance to play for the a Major League team, simply because he was Black. It is an unfortunate, but unavoidable truth that for its first eighty years, Major League Baseball was a segregated sport. Washington, D.C., despite it’s historically significant Black population, was no exception to the Major League’s rule.
At a time when the sport swept the country, Washington, D.C. fully embraced baseball. Amateur leagues sprung up all over the District, counting on their rosters teams like the United States War Department’s “War Dogs.” Toward the end of the 19th Century, there were dozens of teams, pickup games, and chances to see the early, great days of baseball. By 1901, the District became a charter town for the brand-new American League, contributing their Washington Senators to the roster. This team (which lost 113 games in its first season) was comprised entirely of white players, despite playing all their home games on a field geographically next door to Ledroit Park and Howard University.
The old wooden ballpark, Boundary Field, burned down in 1911, and was replaced by a concrete-and-steel behemoth, dubbed Nationals Stadium (Later re-named Griffith Stadium in 1923, after Senators owner/manager Clark Griffith). This stadium sat on W st. where Georgia Avenue becomes 7th. Every United States President from Taft to John F. Kennedy threw the first pitch at Griffith Stadium.
Though the only players on the field for Major League games were white, Griffith Stadium allowed semi-pro Black teams to play games when the park was not otherwise in use. These games, though not “professional,” would still draw significant numbers during each season. One such team, the Grays, hailing from the Pittsburgh suburb of Homestead, was known to frequently draw crowds at Griffith Stadium larger than the Senators could.
Segregation had a direct effect on not just who was on the field, but also who was allowed to even watch the game in the park. While whites enjoyed seats in the stands, colored individuals made do with the seats in right field. The wooden planks used as seats got bleached white by the relentless D.C. summer sun. Seats like these are where the word “bleacher” comes from, by the way.
The second-class citizen treatment blacks suffered during the early 20th Century did not deter their inclusion into the sport, though. 1920 saw the emergence of the National Negro League, which thrived up until its dissolution in 1931. This is the first time in the history of the United States when professional Black athletes approached a playing field on par with whites. By 1924, the Eastern Colored League and the National Negro League agreed to a World Series, identical to that of the all-white National and American Leagues. All ten games played in the Colored World Series were played in stadiums, not second-rate parks. This “Golden Era” of the Negro Leagues is an integral chapter in the history of baseball, and the United States.
By 1947, though, things began to change. Jackie Robinson, formerly of the Kansas City Monarchs, was signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first Black American to play Major League Baseball. It is important to remember that while he set a precedent by breaking the “Color Line,” he was only one Black player in an all-white league. Eventually, other teams caught on, signing more and more Black players to their rosters. The Senators, however, refused to sign any Colored players to their team until 1954, when Cuban-born Right Fielder Carlos Paula was signed. Clark Griffith said “Nobody is going to stampede me into signing Negro players merely for the sake of satisfying certain pressure groups.”
Curiously, 1954 would become the beginning of the end for the Senators. The integrated St. Louis Browns were moved to Maryland, and re-named the Baltimore Orioles. Apart from their segregationist policies, the Senators were an insufferably poor team. Crowds began commuting to Baltimore to see the new team play. By 1960, Calvin Griffith, nephew of Clark, decided to move the Senators to Minneapolis. The team was re-named the Twins. When he was asked why he decided to move, Griffith replied, “You only have 15,000 blacks here. You’ve got good, hard-working people here. Blacks don’t go to ballgames.”
The American League was initially opposed to the move, but later compromised and agreed, provided a new expansion team, also called the Senators, would play. This team would go on to play ten seasons, before moving to Arlington, Texas, under their new name, Texas Rangers. Baseball games stopped at the quickly collapsing Griffith Stadium in 1961. The new version of the Senators played games at DC Stadium (later named RFK). The park was finally demolished in 1965. In a somewhat ironic turn of events, the land that once held Griffith Stadium got a new tenant in 1975: Howard University Hospital.
It’s easy to take baseball for granted in this country. It is, after all, America’s pastime. There’s something uniquely universal about a baseball game; we all know what it’s like to hear the crack of a bat. What we sometimes forget, much in the same way we forget about a lot of unpleasant historical facts, is the struggle some had to endure in order for us to enjoy a ballgame as we know it. Griffith Stadium was a monument to racist ideals, and a stubborn refusal to change in the face of a progressive world. It was textbook example of Jim Crow laws perverting something that ought to be enjoyed by all Americans.
This season, as the District pours into Nats Park, it would do us all well to pay a visit to the Ring of Honor, and take a look at the former Homestead Grays players who once took the District by storm. Josh Gibson hit 800 home runs in his seventeen-year career. Jayson Werth has only hit 219 since 2002.