HELLER: Tribute paid to D.C.’s bygone ballpark
The Minneapolis lawyer stood at the outdoor podium and waved his hand in the direction of Howard University Hospital behind him on Georgia Avenue NW.
“Right over there is where it happened,” Clark Griffith II told his audience. “Right over there is the tree in center field where Mickey Mantle hit two mammoth home runs on Opening Day 1956. Right over there is where he hit a ball over the bleachers in 1953. And right over there is where Mickey Vernon singled to left field to win the batting title on the last day of the season in ‘53.”
Momentarily at least, Griffith had returned home. A century after the facility that became Griffith Stadium was erected on the site and 50 years after the last game there, the hospital at last was unveiling a marker and exhibit emphatically attesting that major league and Negro League teams had performed on the premises.
Griffith is the namesake and grandson of the baseball Hall of Famer who became manager of the Washington Senators in 1912, bought the club a few years later and ran it until his death in 1955. Clarkie, as he used to be called, also is the son of Calvin Griffith, the bad guy who inherited the franchise and moved it to Minnesota in October 1960.
As the sun shone Saturday on what he called “a beautiful day for a ballgame,” Griffith was acknowledging that the team’s roots - and his own - were in the Northwest Washington neighborhood where it played for 60 seasons. And, of course, recalling its finest moment and only world championship.
“We should not forget that the most exciting and improbable World Series ever happened right here,” Griffith said, pointing once again. “And the hand of God was at work not once, not twice, but three times.”
The Senators and New York Giants were tied 3-3 in Game 7 of the 1924 Series when divine forces apparently intervened. One Senator hit a foul popup that the catcher dropped when he stumbled over his mask. A second hit a ball to shortstop that was muffed. And a third slapped a routine grounder that struck a pebble and bounced over the third baseman’s head as the winning run scored and bedlam ensued.
“Today somebody would have run onto the field, grabbed that pebble and auctioned it on eBay,” Griffith said with a smile.
A decade or so ago, Howard University Hospital announced plans to honor Griffith Stadium, where the Negro League’s fabled Homestead Grays also played and where the Redskins lost the 1940 NFL title game to the Chicago Bears 73-0, among other notable events. A small plaque was erected in the hospital, but nothing else ever came of the idea.
This time, though, officials at the hospital and Cultural Tourism DC have hit a figurative grand slam. As pedestrians and motorists proceed along Georgia Avenue just north of Florida Avenue, they’ll encounter a 7-foot-high signpost marker that relates the history of Griffith Stadium and shows eye-catching photos of Senators pitching ace Walter Johnson and Grays slugger Josh Gibson, among others.
In a room near the hospital’s entrance, many other pictures are on display, along with accompanying text. All this effectively reminds visitors to the area that Washington’s sporting center once lay along what is now the Georgia Avenue/Pleasant Plains Heritage Trail.
So after too many years when memories of Griffith Stadium were confined merely to the minds of senior citizens, the old ballpark finally has gotten its historical due. Long before it yielded to D.C. (later RFK) Stadium as the city’s principal playpen, Griffith Stadium was a decaying dump. But to those of us who grew up watching games there, it was unmistakably our dump.
“There are a lot of reasons why this finally happened,” said Linda Harper, executive director of Cultural Tourism DC. “But I think the main thing was that the time is right. Washington has a baseball team again, and that has renewed interest in baseball and its history.”
For which: Amen, brother.
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