The Confusing History of Baseball in Washington, D.C.
A SABR member examines the complex and confusing history of MLB in the nation's capital.
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Did you know…
. . . While MLB has a confusing history in D.C., the Negro Leagues had a similar confusing history, albeit much more successful. The Homestead Grays, originally based just outside Pittsburgh, began playing half their home games at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., in 1940, while the organization was in a stretch of winning 10 of 12 National Negro League pennants, including three Negro League World Series.
Those three World Series titles were in 1943, 1944, and 1948. Games 1 and 3 of 1943 were played in Washington, and the clinching Game 5 of the 1944 Series was played at Griffith. The 1948 Series was played in Kansas City, Birmingham (3), and New Orleans.
The Confusing History of Baseball in Washington, D.C.
By Gary Livacari
“Washington: First in war, first in peace…and last in the American League!” - San Francisco Chronicle columnist Charley Dryden
Before we put the 2023 World Series too far into our rearview mirrors, I thought this might be a good time to recall the history of baseball in the nation’s capital and how the city of Washington is intertwined with this year's World Series champion Texas Rangers, the Minnesota Twins, and even the city of Montreal.
There's understandably a lot of confusion about major league baseball in D.C. Which franchise version are we in now? The second? The third? Were they originally called the Senators or the Nationals? And just how do the Twins, Rangers, and Expos fit in?
Before we start, let's tackle the name: the team was officially known as the Senators from 1901-1904, then the Nationals from 1905-1955, then the Senators again from 1956-1960. But over this time, they were always commonly referred to as the Senators.
Let's start our review of Washington baseball history with the “original” Washington Senators. The National League had abandoned their Washington franchise in 1900, so when the American League declared itself a major league in 1901, they moved the Western League Kansas City Blues to Washington. Newly christened as the "Senators," they became one of the original eight American League teams.
The Senators began their history as a perennially losing team, at times so inept that the above quote by Charley Dryden turned them into a national joke. Then in the early 1910s, things started to change with the arrival of star players like Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, Joe Cronin, Bucky Harris, Heinie Manush, Joe Judge, and one of the game's all-time greats, Walter Johnson. During this period they were one of the league's more successful franchises, but there were no post-season appearances.
The team’s fortunes finally changed in the 1920s as they won American League pennants in 1924 and 1925, and the original Senators' only World Series championship in 1924, defeating the Giants four games to three. It's a classic World Series, always remembered for the Freddie Lindstrom "Pebbles Game" in the decisive Game Seven.
Another pennant followed in 1933 and this time a World Series loss to the Giants. This short-lived success was followed by more years of mediocrity which included six last-place finishes in the 1940s and 1950s.
Now let's fast forward to the "modern" era when the original Senators moved to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1960. Last April marked the sixty-second anniversary of the first game played by the Minnesota Twins, April 21, 1961. The Twins, formerly known as the original Washington Senators, lost their first game at Metropolitan Stadium 5-3. They drew 1,256,723 fans their first year in Minneapolis, much better than the previous year's attendance in Washington of 743,404, the worst gate in the American League.
Now here’s a quiz: Who beat the Twins – the former Washington Senators – in that first game? Would you believe me if I told you the Twins lost to…none-other-than…the Washington Senators?!
That’s right. Baseball – in its infinite wisdom – moved the original Washington Senators to Minnesota to become the Minnesota Twins due to falling attendance, while at the same time, starting an expansion team in Washington…named the Washington Senators! But wait…it gets even more confusing!
This “second” Senators franchise lasted in D.C. until 1972, when they also moved, this time to Arlington, Texas, where they became the Texas Rangers with Ted Williams as their first manager.
The city of Washington, D.C. was then without a team until the Montreal Expos moved there in 2005, and became - you got it! - the third and current incarnation of baseball in Washington, this time known as the Washington Nationals, a name that the original Washington Senators had sometimes used.
That begs the question, "Where did the Expos come from?" They were a product of the 1969 major league expansion. They were in Montreal for 36 years and posted a 2753-2943 record with no pennants. Of course, as we all know, the city of Washington finally experienced another World Series championship in 2019, with the current Expos-derived version of the team, the Nationals.
So let's recap: How many pennants and World Series championships are we talking about here connected to either the city of Washington or one of the Senators' franchises? The original Senators won pennants in 1924, 1925, and 1933, with a World Series championship in 1924. Then, after the move to Minnesota, the Senators/Twins won pennants in 1965, 1987, and 1991, with World Series championships in '87 and '91. The second version Washington Senators/Rangers won pennants in 2010 and 2011 and the 2023 World Series. The third installment Expos/Nationals won a pennant and World Series championship in 2019.
Are you confused yet? Well, I sure am...and you probably are, too. You'd have to be a baseball genius to keep this all straight. Anyway, I hope today's history lesson helps!
Gary Livacari is a long-time SABR member and the administrator/editor of the Baseball History Comes Alive website.
Of the top 10 players in bWAR who were born in Washington, D.C., only pitcher Johnny Klippstein ever pitched for a Washington team. The righty unceremoniously pitched in the inaugural 1961 season of the second iteration of the Washington Senators club, pitching to a 6.78 ERA over 42 appearances and 71 2/3 innings. He ended up pitching for the Minnesota Twins (the relocated FIRST Senators organization) from 1964-1966, making two relief appearances in the 1965 World Series between the Twins and the Dodgers.