- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 26, 2000

In the frustrating campaign to restore the national pastime to the nation's capital, advocates often speak of the city's baseball tradition. Now new evidence of that tradition has appeared, and it documents a period starting more than 40 years before Washington became a charter member of the American League in 1901.
Resting in the archives of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., is a scrapbook detailing the exploits of the "National Base Ball Club of Washington" from 1859 to 1870. The yellowing pages represent a tremendous historical find and, perhaps, a tremendous asset for those who claim baseball belongs in Washington and always has.
The scrapbook was donated recently to the Historical Society by Miller Young of Damascus, Md., whose great-grandfather, Nicholas Young, was a founding father of the National League in 1876 and its president from 1885 to 1902. The book was assembled by Edmund French, a government clerk who played for the first "Nationals" team and became the club's president in 1862. Much later French gave the scrapbook to his friend Young a meticulous historian for safekeeping.
Now let's flash forward to 1999. Miller Young has sold his house in Bethesda, Md., and two friends, author Henry Thomas and antique dealer Blair Jett, are rummaging through dusty artifacts in his attic. The threads of baseball history run even deeper here: Hank Thomas is the grandson and biographer of Walter Johnson, the greatest pitcher in baseball history and the greatest Washington athlete ever. So let's have him pick up the story:
"Blair let out a yell, and I went over to see what it was. He had found a stack of incredible letters relating to baseball 135 or 140 years ago. And underneath it, in a box, was the scrapbook."
So why didn't Miller Young rush off to the nearest memorabilia show and pocket $50,000, $100,000 or maybe $1 million for this rarest of baseball finds? Well, he's a baseball guy one who has coached youth teams for decades and who honors the memory of his great-granddad, who died in 1916.
"I didn't want some collector to have this sitting on a shelf," Young says. "It belongs to the citizens of Washington, and the Historical Society seemed an appropriate avenue to give it to them. Besides, my goal is to get Nick into the Hall of Fame, and this can only help."
Nick Young's plaque should have been in Cooperstown when the museum opened in 1939. Although a succession of figureheads were president of the National League in its early years, former amateur player and manager Young ran it as secretary-treasurer from an office on 16th Street NW until officially getting the job. Inexplicably, two of the figureheads politician Morgan Bulkeley and businessman William Hulbert are in the shrine and Young isn't.
Forgive this worthwhile digression. Let's open the scrapbook for a peek at base ball back when it was two words.
The first game under modern rules was played in Hoboken, N.J. otherwise notable as the birthplace of Francis Albert Sinatra in 1846. By the time of the Civil War, clubs abounded in the East. In Washington, the Nationals recruited players mainly from federal employees looking for something more interesting to do than studying figures in ledgers.
What you have to understand is that base ball was still a gentleman's game, not that far from from its cricket antecedents in England. After a game, the visiting players didn't hop on a wagon and head for the train station. Instead, they were wined and dined like athletic royalty.
Take, for example, a "complimentary dinner" held by the Nationals for the Athletic of Philadelphia at the National Hotel on July 2, 1866. No cold cuts here. The menu included "spring chicken" [whatever that was], sweetbreads, tongue croquettes and lobster salad." Perhaps the Nationals were in awe of these A's, who were playing at a time when future Philly baseball patriarch Connie Mack was 3* years old. Earlier, the Philadelphias had dispatched the National Club of New Jersey 114-2.
Guests at such dinners received engraved invitations and wore colorful pennants identifying them as jocks. Of course, there were toasts even to members of the press. And on Aug. 30, 1866, one visiting aggregation was hailed and sailed on what the ticket described as "a moonlight excursion" by water.
There is much, much more of the same, but you get the idea. Way back when, the social niceties seemed every bit as important as the games.
It's also fun to prowl through newspaper clippings. An 1862 article refers to a contest on "beautiful grounds" south of the president's mansion." That doesn't seem strange at all; games are still played on the Ellipse.
Another clip I liked called the quality of play "fair to middling" perhaps, then, a new cliche. Players usually were described as "Mr." So-and-So. And a box score from 1865 noted that "Mr. Warren performed the duties of umpire in a very satisfactory manner."
Unfortunately, the scrapbook's delicate condition does not permit it to be handled by the public, but photographs of selected pages may be seen at the Historical Society, 1307 New Hampshire Ave. NW (Call 202/785-2068, extension 111 for information.)
The book's greatest ultimate value could be in reinforcing, for too many rockheaded owners and officials, the idea that baseball was and again should be a vital part in the life of our city. Fred Malek, who heads an ownership group trying to restore the game here, puts it very well: "The scrapbook is the first chapter in the rich tradition that binds baseball and the nation's capital. We hope to write the next chapter."
So let's leave it at that and keep our fingers crossed. Although the song wasn't written until 1908," do I hear somebody humming, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game"?

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide