As Major League Baseball spring training swings along in Florida and Arizona, dejected fans in the nation's capital are preparing to endure another season without a home team. Sadly, Washington's biggest baseball event may be President Bush's T-ball league on the White House lawn.
While Washington residents await the day when the game's best play in its backyard, Brad Snyder reminds us that there was a time when Hall of Famers regularly showcased their skills here, and they didn't play for the city's major-league team, the Senators. Snyder's book, "Beyond the Shadow of the Senators," tells the story of the Negro League's legendary Homestead Grays, who called Washington home during the 1940s. Snyder, who researched the Grays for nearly a decade, highlights some of the best but least-known players in history, and presents an intriguing argument that Washington, not Brooklyn, was the logical setting for the integration of the major leagues.
The Grays, whom Snyder calls "the greatest baseball dynasty that most people have never heard of," began in 1910 as a recreational outlet for black steelworkers in Homestead, Pa., just outside Pittsburgh. When black professional baseball took off in the 1920s, the Grays established themselves as a powerhouse, and won eight of nine Negro National League titles between 1937 and 1945.
Of the 18 Negro League players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, nine spent some portion of their careers in a Grays uniform.
Unable to turn a profit in Pittsburgh, the Grays negotiated with Senators' owner, Clark Griffith, to play games at Griffith Stadium when the Senators were out of town. Starting in 1940, the Grays moved many of their home games to Washington.
At first the city's black baseball fans responded with a collective yawn. But the team's talent, which included the heavy hitting Josh Gibson and first baseman Buck Leonard, proved too good to ignore. In 1943, Gibson hit more home runs in Griffith Stadium than all his white counterparts on the Senators combined. One Chicago Tribune writer called Leonard "the greatest first baseman I have seen on any club, black or white."
World War II and numerous visits by famed pitcher Satchel Paige sparked the Grays' Washington success. The war opened new jobs to blacks and gave them more disposable income to spend on baseball. The colorful Paige wowed Washington during numerous visits, and fans poured through the turnstiles.
While the Grays were enjoying their halcyon days, the Senators were sinking. Griffith's team was thin on talent, and he had neither the money nor the inclination to invest in the latest trend - a minor league farm system. Instead he added Cuban players. Black baseball writers such as Sam Lacy and Wendell Smith asked Griffith the obvious question: Why not sign the Grays' stars who played in his park?
Besides the Senators' need for players, Griffith Stadium was located in the middle of a thriving black neighborhood. The city had a large and affluent black population that would have filled the stadium to see one of their own in a Senators' uniform. But Griffith, committed to baseball's traditions, would not be swayed. He had a strong business interest as well because he made substantial money renting his stadium to the Grays. The conservative owner signed a sanitation department worker and a one-legged pitcher, but no Leonard or Gibson.
Jackie Robinson, of course, broke the color barrier in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was eight more years before the Senators added a black player, Carlos Paula - another Cuban. Said the Pittsburgh Courier: "Mr. Griffith would give Washington fans dark players from other lands, but never an American Negro!"
The team moved to Minnesota in 1961, and Washington replaced them with another version of the Senators that same year. Eleven seasons later, the new Senators were gone as well.
Snyder suggests that had Griffith signed one of the great black players, the Senators might still be playing in Washington today. While that's anyone's guess (Jackie Robinson's Dodgers did leave Brooklyn, after all), Snyder offers up another wrong that is more easily righted. Washington, the city of monuments, has no plaque or statue to commemorate the Grays' legacy. As the nation's capital prepares to spend millions trying to seize its baseball future, surely it can scrape together some spare change to reclaim its baseball past.
Entertaining and engaging, "Beyond the Shadow of the Senators" is a welcome addition to a genre in need of fresh stories. Snyder's history serves as a cautionary tale for a city still struggling to overcome its racial divisions.
• Brent Kendall works for The Washington Monthly.