Reviving Glory of D.C. Grays

By Off the BASN Sports Wire (by DALE EISMAN)
Updated: October 27, 2004

WASHINGTON — Sixty-one years ago this fall, with young Americans fighting and dying in Europe and across the Pacific, baseball first recaptured Washington’s heart.

The once-popular Senators had been doormats of the American League for years, watching their attendance drop to as few as 1,500 per game.

Their brightest stars had been called to war along with out-of-town legends like Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg.

But in 1943, fans flocked to old Griffith Stadium anyway. They cheered lustily as a future Hall of Fame first baseman and catcher, kept out of the military by back and knee ailments, rocked visiting pitchers and brought home a championship.

“They were the best baseball team of their time,” says Christopher Rehling, a fan and amateur local baseball historian.

But they weren’t the Senators. The Washington Homestead Grays, a Negro Leagues squad transplanted from Pennsylvania, featured players whom modern students of baseball generally agree were on a par with the best major leaguers but whose color kept them from competing with the likes of DiMaggio and Williams.

This October, as baseball fans nationwide celebrate another classic postseason and Washington prepares to claim another transplanted team as its own, Rehling and other volunteers are spearheading a drive to recall the Grays’ glory by bestowing their name on the former Montreal Expos.

In the midst of a war and a campaign for president, discussion and debate over the name for a baseball team seem especially trivial, some of those involved acknowledge. But Grays boosters argue that the choice of a name will send a message about the future of the national pastime – not only in Washington but across the country.

“It would be quite an honor,” said John “Buck” O’Neil, a Negro Leagues legend who played against the Grays as first baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs, perhaps the Washington team’s biggest rival. “The Grays meant so much to Washington, especially the black population.”

Negro Leaguers were “denied and unrespected for so many years,” said Stanley Glenn, who played against the Grays in the 1940s as a member of the Philadelphia Stars. For the new team “to come up and take a name from the Negro Leagues … it would be very fitting,” he said.

Other supporters argue the Grays name would give Washington’s club an instant following among black fans nationwide. And smartly marketed, they add, it could give baseball generally some much-needed buzz in urban neighborhoods, where today’s budding athletes are far more likely to aspire to greatness on a basketball court than a baseball diamond.

“It would be a major statement about Major League Baseball if the team is called the Washington Grays, ” said Richard E. Lapchick, who as founder of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society is perhaps the nation’s foremost expert on racial issues in athletics.

“We always talk about building a bridge across the racial divide,” Lapchick said. “Having the Washington Grays in Major League Baseball would be that bridge.”

“It’s righting a wrong,” asserted Brad Snyder, a lawyer and former newspaperman whose 2003 book, “In the Shadow of the Senators,” painstakingly tells the Grays’ story. “So often, we wish we could reverse history – this is as close as we’re ever going to get.”

Few cities honor the nation’s past as Washington , which seems to out-of-towners to have a monument at every intersection, and no sport is more history-conscious than baseball.

But the Grays and the Negro Leagues generally are unknown to today’s fans.

In the 1940s, however , the Grays were central to the struggle to integrate the major leagues.

Because they played in the capital, in the same park as the all-white Senators, they became a focal point for fans and civil-rights activists who wanted to break the color line.

While The Washington Post and the Evening Star, the city’s dominant newspapers, focused on the Senators and rarely covered Grays games, Baltimore-based sports columnist Sam Lacy campaigned to bring Grays stars such as first baseman Walter “Buck” Leonard and catcher Josh Gibson into the major leagues.

Lacy’s columns in the black-owned Baltimore Afro-American newspapers, which had editions in Washington and Richmond, carried on a running battle with Senators’ owner Clark Griffith. A founder of the American League, Griffith supported his team largely on stadium rentals paid by the Grays but steadfastly refused to hire black players.

Griffith was a regular at Grays games and Snyder writes that he once called Leonard and Gibson to his office and talked of integrating the Senators.

But the author argues that the talk was a ruse.

After ex-Negro Leaguer Jackie Robinson integrated the majors in 1947, Griffith passed up a chance to sign Larry Doby, who became the American League’s first black player. Then he watched other teams add blacks for seven years before integrating the Senators in September 1954.

In 1961, with Griffith dead and his nephew Calvin running the team, the family took the Senators to Minnesota, renaming them the Twins.

He moved “when I found out you only had 15,000 black people here,” Calvin Griffith told a Minnesota audience years later. “We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”

Snyder argues that the Senators’ racial history should weigh heavily against efforts, tentatively endorsed by Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, to revive the Senators name for the new team.

“The Senators are such a symbol of what’s wrong,” Snyder said. “I don’t think we want to build on that legacy.”

There is more to the Senators’ history than their dismal record on race. The team’s heroes include pitcher Walter “Big Train” Johnson, one of only two men to win more than 400 games, and slugger Harmon Killebrew, who hit 573 home runs, seventh all-time.

Selig, known for his reverence for baseball history, has suggested that Senators or Nationals – as the Senators sometimes were called – would be fine names for the reborn Expos. And Fred Malek, a former Nixon administration official who is leading one of several potential ownership groups, also has expressed a preference for the Senators.

There have been other suggestions – some serious, like the Diplomats, Statesmen, Generals, Partisans – and some comic, like the Exposes, Taxmen, Filibusters, Unindicted Co-conspirators.

Selig’s preference could be pivotal. Major League Baseball, which has run the team in Montreal for the past three years, has put it up for sale and wants the new owners to select a name.

But closing the deal could take months, and an MLB spokesman said last week that Selig might announce at least a temporary name after the World Series, so the team can begin marketing for 2005.

Grays enthusiasts are undeterred. They have recruited D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams to the cause – the team shouldn’t be called Senators until Washington actually has a vote in Congress, he argues – and have gathered more than 1,500 signatures of support on a petition posted on the Internet. They also claim support from two other possible ownership groups, one of which includes former Negro Leaguer Stanley Glenn.

Williams’ patronage of a $440 million stadium financing plan that seems a sweetheart deal for MLB might give him some leverage with Selig, Grays advocates suggest.

And the Negro Leaguers’ record on the field would give fans of all races more reason for hope than a new edition of the Senators, they add. While the Grays won eight Negro Leagues championships in the 1930s and ’40s, Washington was known famously in the majors as “first in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”

The Grays’ brightest star was Gibson. The catcher’s 11 home runs over Griffith Stadium’s left field wall, where it was 407 feet down the line, in the summer of ’43 were two more than the entire American League hit over that fence.

Gibson “can do everything,” Senators hurler Johnson once told The Post. “He hits the ball a mile. And he catches so easily he might as well be in a rocking chair.”

Close behind Gibson in fans’ hearts was first baseman and fellow-Hall of Famer Leonard – “the black Lou Gehrig” – who grew up in Rocky Mount, N.C., and played briefly for the Portsmouth Rebels in 1933 before joining the Grays. Twenty years later, he returned to Hampton Roads for a final season with the Portsmouth Merrimacs.

O’Neil, at 92 still an ambassador for the game, said he shares the enthusiasm of locals like Rehling and Snyder for a Grays revival. But he warned that it will take more than a memorable name to bring young blacks back to baseball.

“Kids are going to be interested in the game if you market the game to them and reach out and make a connection,” said Peter Roby, Lapchick’s successor as director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society.

The Grays name could help, Roby said, but more important will be the team’s active support of Little League and high school teams and its involvement in programs like RBI – Revitalize Baseball in the Inner City – an MLB-sponsored network of urban teams that uses today’s stars to introduce the game to city children , particularly minorities.

Minority participation in the team’s management also could be critical.

“As a white man who has studied race relations for the last 35 years, I know that unless some very politically and culturally astute African-Americans are involved in this, it probably won’t be as effective as it could be,” said Jay Coakley, a sports sociologist at the University of Colorado.

Snyder agreed. He dreams of statues honoring Gibson and Leonard, and Senators greats such as Johnson and Killebrew, outside the new park Mayor Williams intends to build along the Anacostia River, and he worries that the sport’s all-white and traditionally conservative owners will miss a historic opportunity.

“It makes so much sense, it will never happen,” he said.