- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2001

And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green.

And the people played their crazy games with a joy I've never seen.

Frank Sinatra, 1973

The people at Howard University Hospital paid tribute to the city's baseball past yesterday and to its prospective future.

At the end of a daylong symposium about Griffith Stadium, constructed on the site at Seventh Street and Georgia Avenue NW in 1911 and razed in 1965, former D.C. Mayor Walter Washington issued a mock-serious challenge to Clark Griffith II, son of the owner who moved the original Senators club to Minnesota in November 1960.

"Mr. Griffith, you should take the lead in bringing baseball back to town," Washington said. Griffith, a Minnesota lawyer, has no connection with the sport these days, although he headed a group that made a bid to buy the Twins a couple of years ago.

Griffith smiled as Washington repeated the theme several times, then issued what could pass as an apology for father Calvin's perfidy in departing town.

"I'm sorry we left," he said. "I never fully understood why. It was a shock."

Griffith also invoked a local Curse of the Bambino: "A team will never return to Washington until the memory of Griffith Stadium [named after Clark I, his namesake grandfather and a baseball pioneer] is appropriately honored."

This not-so-innocent byplay took place in a room off the hospital's main lobby, where a permanent memorial to Griffith will be located. It was crammed with visitors and artifacts: old photos, schedule placard, Senators uniform shirts, dented Redskins helmet and a ticket sign telling fans they could watch the Senators play for as little as $1.50.

Executive director Sherman McCoy promised that the hospital will ascertain the precise location of the bases and establish appropriate markers, as well as another on Georgia Avenue NW in front of the facility.

Said Griffith, jokingly: "You might have to knock down a few walls [to find the site of the bases]."

McCoy: "You didn't hear me say no."

Washington, not known for oratory when he served as the District's first elected mayor, had the final word: "This stadium was not about just sports it was about bringing people together. This is sacred ground."

This bit of drama climaxed a day that included six panel discussions examining Griffith from different perspectives. Former Senators on hand included two-time American League batting champion Mickey Vernon, Chuck Hinton, Russ Kemmerer and Julio Becquer. Bobby Mitchell carried the ball for the Redskins, and former Green Bay Packers defensive back Willie Wood, a D.C. native, joined a discussion of football-related injuries. For one day, at least, all kinds of stars and would-be stars walked again on Mayor Washington's "sacred ground."

Mitchell, an All-Pro running back with the Cleveland Browns before becoming the Redskins' first black player in 1962, recalled gaining 232 yards against Washington in 1959 on a field at Griffith that he said was "short and crooked you couldn't tell what way you were running."

Mitchell, now an assistant GM for the Redskins, described being refused service in restaurants when he first came to town. "I never realized Washington was in the South," he said, "and I never wanted to be first [to break the team's color barrier]. But since then, you folks have been great. I thank God I was able to play in Washington."

Vernon, one of the Senators' most popular players ever, described facing and not seeing the lightning thrown by Cleveland fireballer Bob Feller as a rookie: "The first two pitches were called strikes. The next one was a ball, and the umpire said, 'Take your base.' I said, 'But that's only ball one.' He said, 'Yeah, but it hit your cap.' "

Baseball author John Holway opined that "the Senators had some good players [in the '30s and '40s]. If they could have signed a Josh Gibson or a Buck Leonard [two sluggers for the Negro League's Homestead Grays, who played out of both Griffith and Pittsburgh] they would have won pennants and they might be here today." Author Hank Thomas, Walter Johnson's grandson, noted that the immortal pitcher never had to face black players and added, "I'm sorry about that, but I have no problem defending [baseball's segregation policies] in the context of the times."

And so it went as the fans cherished and shared memories. Then broadcaster Phil Wood, always a vocal advocate for baseball's return, sounded a clarion call.

Asked if the area has a good chance of nabbing the Montreal Expos or another team, the well-connected Wood replied, "Everybody in baseball knows this is the last good available market… . Things are going on. I'd say next year is possible, and the year after that is a lock."

Let's hope he's right, because memories can only carry you so far.

In fact, to heck with hoping. Pray, brother.

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