Fifty years ago, on Sept. 21, 1961, the old and new Washington Senators met in the last baseball game at Griffith Stadium, the old ballpark at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue Northwest where Howard University Hospital now stands. In today’s age of rampant sports nostalgia, perhaps the biggest deal about the Griffith finale is that it was no big deal.
That Thursday afternoon, just 1,498 paying customers saw the Minnesota Twins, nearing the end of their first season in the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes after deserting D.C., defeat the hapless expansion Senators 6-3. One of the spectators was 85-year-old Nick Altrock, the famed baseball clown, who was a pitcher for the Senators when the place opened in 1911. But for the active players, this was strictly ho-hum stuff.
“There was nothing special about that game because it didn’t matter to me where I played,” recalled Senators catcher Ken Retzer, who had three hits that day and batted .340 in 16 games after his late-season call-up from the minors. “I was just glad to be in the major leagues.”
Every Washington fan of some vintage knows what happened 10 years later at RFK Stadium when the expansion club bid farewell before being shanghaied to Arlington, Texas, by carpetbag owner Bob Short. In the ninth inning, hundreds of spectators overran and tore up the field, causing the Senators to forfeit the game to the New York Yankees. In ‘61, however, Griffith’s death knell tolled silently.
“There were no eulogies, no ceremonies, no tears,” Bob Addie reported in The Washington Post. Columnist Shirley Povich put it this way: “A stadium was laid to rest. Not many showed up for the services, and the deceased was not much of a draw.”
Yet it was a mournful day for those of us who practically grew up there. Sure Griffith was a dump, but it was our dump.
We remembered riding to the park and feeling the heart beat faster when the streetcar turned onto Florida Avenue and the stadium’s light towers loomed in the distance. We remembered the smell of bread baking in the Wonder Bread plant nearby and the sound of Elder Solomon Lightfoot Michaux’s choir singing in his Temple of Freedom across the street. We remembered the taste of cold Briggs Pigs hot dogs and warm Cokes. We remembered the feel of 10-cent cardboard scorecards and the stubby pencils that came with them.
Memories like those last a lifetime. So what if the original Senators usually lost (they had four winning seasons from 1934 through 1960). We were young, the price was right (75 cents for a bleacher seat, $1.25 for unreserved grandstand) and this was baseball.
Games had been played at the site since 1891, when the park was known as Boundary Field because of its (then) outlying location. In 1911, the wooden structure was destroyed by a springtime fire and rebuilt with steel and concrete in just three weeks. Nine years later, the facility was renamed for Clark Griffith after the Senators’ manager bought a controlling interest in the club.
Griffith Stadium hosted World Series games in 1924, 1925 and 1933. The biggest moment in D.C. sports history unfolded in Game 7 of the ‘24 Series when a ground ball hit a pebble and bounced over the third baseman’s head as the winning run scored in the 12th inning to give Washington the only world championship in the franchise’s 61 seasons. The District’s two greatest stars shone on the premises, Senators fireballer Walter Johnson from 1907 to 1927 and nonpareil Redskins passer Sammy Baugh from 1937 to 1952.
Other notable events materialized at Griffith, too. St. Louis Cardinals ace Dizzy Dean suffered a broken toe in the 1937 All-Star Game, altered his pitching motion upon returning too soon and suffered a sore arm that ended his career at age 31. In 1940, the 4-year-old Washington Redskins were embarrassed by the Chicago Bears 73-0 in the NFL championship game. Heavyweight king Joe Louis TKO’d Buddy Baer in a 1941 title fight. The Homestead Grays won nine Negro National League pennants while playing part of their schedule in D.C. In 1953, Mickey Mantle slugged a pitch over the distant outfield bleachers to kingdom come, an estimated 565 feet.
Home runs of any length were a rarity at Griffith Stadium. Before the late 1950s, the left-field wall loomed an incredible 405 feet from home plate. It was just 328 feet down the line in right, but that wall rose a majestic 40 feet into space. The center-field barrier was no easy target either, curving willy-nilly around five row houses behind it.
By 1961, memories were all that remained from Griffith’s glory days. As it expired, most folks were looking ahead. D.C. Stadium opened for football just nine days later and for baseball in April 1962. Comparing dilapidated Griffith to the gorgeous new place with the gracefully sloping roof was like comparing a shack to a palace.
Grass and weeds overran the old ballfield until the park was mercifully razed in 1965. Shortly before, Senators promotions director Charlie Brotman suggested to his bosses that the club hold a “Griffith Stadium Day” and allow fans to carry away artifacts from the old structure. Brotman’s bosses scoffed at the idea, huffing and puffing, “That’s a terrible idea. Nobody cares about that junk. Take whatever you want, Charlie.”
Half a century later, four seats from Griffith’s Presidential Box rest in Brotman’s basement - seats upon which nine presidents, Taft to Kennedy, parked their posteriors before and after tossing out the first ball on Opening Day. To Brotman and a few others, the seats are truly historic, as was the long-gone ballyard that housed them.
Griffith Stadium R.I.P.
• For more of the author’s columns, go to dickheller.wordpress.com