- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

As of this week, one of Washington’s two biggest jock-related needs will be filled. The sports wing of the gorgeous City Museum, opening for public inspection Friday, gives the District at long last a proper place for honoring its rich and diversified athletic history.

Now all we require is a major league baseball team, but that’s another, far sadder story.

The City Museum, across from the new Washington Convention Center in the former Carnegie Library at 801 K St. NW, is a sparkling delight. And the “Sandlots to Stadiums” sports exhibit, crammed smartly into fewer than 2,000 square feet on the second floor, stands as a tribute to the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., which runs the museum, and guest curators Frank Ceresi and Carol McMains. As well, of course, to the thousands of athletes within.

Any fan of the games people play should enjoy the presentation. “Actually, we could have filled up the whole museum with sports,” says Susan Schreiber, the Historical Society’s vice president for programs. Until the day when somebody does that, the City Museum should suffice nicely.

And for native Washingtonians, this is an especially welcome journey through one’s sports memories and associations. For instance …

The first baseball game I saw was on Opening Day 1949, when 88-year-old Connie Mack (formerly Cornelius McGillicuddy) sat in the visitors’ dugout attired in black suit, black fedora and high-necked collar as his Philadelphia Athletics did battle with the Senators. The aged Mack is not on display at the museum, but we do see him as a catcher for the old Washington Nationals of, naturally, the National League in 1888 — tall, skinny and impossibly young at 27. (For the record, Connie batted a skinny .187 in 85 games that season as the Nats slunk home last with a 48-86 record.)

Nearby is a picture of Mack’s team playing the Chicago White Stockings at someplace in the District called the Swampoodle Grounds — a fitting name considering that the Nationals were dogs before and immediately after the turn of the century.

Because baseball is the oldest organized sport played in Washington, there are more displays of rounders than anything else. A scrapbook dating to 1859 includes baseball clippings and memorabilia. And a replica of a Currier and Ives cartoon shows Abe Lincoln vanquishing his political opponents and saying, “You must have ‘a good bat’ and strike ‘a fair ball’ to make ‘a clean score’ & ‘a home run.’” Obviously, Abe had no use for good-field, no-hit types.

In modern times, more or less, much space is properly devoted to the 1924 Senators, who won Washington’s only World Series championship. A huge cutout shows the immortal Walter Johnson starting the windup that helped yield 416 victories in 21 seasons with the Senators. Also on display is the ball that hit a pebble and bounced into left field, giving relief pitcher Johnson a 4-3 victory over the New York Giants in the 12th inning of Game 7 of the ‘24 Series. For visual proof, there is a shot of Muddy Ruel rounding third and heading home with the winning run.

Students of local sporting history know that Washington was home to another marvelous team — the Homestead Grays, who dominated Negro League play in the late ‘30s and early ‘40s, when baseball and nearly everything else was segregated. Josh Gibson, the Grays’ slugging catcher, achieves belated equality with his own oversized cutout. And there are two green seats from Griffith Stadium in front of a picture in which the Grays stare down the opposition.

Ah, yes, Griffith Stadium — the unlovely dump at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW where the Senators and Grays played. One picture sure to make 21st century fans shake their heads shows fans waiting in line to buy reserved grandstand tickets — at a piddling $1.50 each.

Other sports, too, have their day in the spotlight. Redskins fans can gaze at the only known football autographed by the 1937 team that won an NFL title in its first season here. A program from the Redskins-Eagles “Pearl Harbor” game of Dec.7, 1941, is signed by all-time quarterback Sammy Baugh under the words, “I was there.” Photos of the famed Redskin band and the leggy cheerleaders are on view, as well as Darrell Green’s jersey and shoes he wore in his final season of 2002.

Nor is basketball slighted. There is tiny Turner’s Arena at Third and M streets NW, where assorted boxers and ‘rasslers shared space with Red Auerbach’s short-lived Washington Capitols of the late ‘40s. We see Spingarn High School’s 1955 yearbook with a photo of Elgin Baylor, future NBA star and the best hoopster to come out of the city.

In fact, high schools are given more than a fair shake. A glass case protects basketballs from championship teams at Dunbar (1923) and Armstrong (1955), the latter including the name of Willie Wood, who grew up to be an All-Pro defensive back for Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers. A picture captures big smiles from Morgan Wootten and Joe Gallagher, who turned out superb teams for decades at DeMatha and St. John’s, respectively. And there is a huge Clark Griffith Trophy presented to McKinley Tech’s championship baseball team of 1933 — a year the Senators also won their last pennant.

There is more, so much more, to enjoy. One of the museum’s nice touches is a “Fans’ Scoreboard,” where visitors can write their own memories of sports in Washington and leave them on display for others to read. And a trip through these soon-to-be hallowed halls is sure to bring those memories flooding back.

Regrettably, Washington’s teams haven’t always emerged victorious, as the old-time sportswriters used to say. But with “Sandlots to Stadiums,” the City Museum has itself an enormous winner.

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