Friday, July 30, 2004

With the Washington area seemingly on the verge of getting (or not getting) a major league baseball team, local educator Christopher Rehling has a timely suggestion regarding its name.

Senators? Forget it.

Nationals? Nah.

Rehling’s choice is the Washington Grays, by way of honoring the old Homestead Grays — the marvelous Negro League team that won eight pennants in nine years before disappearing with the rest of black baseball in the early 1950s.

At 31, Rehling isn’t exactly a grizzled old-timer who saw the Grays play. But as a student of baseball history, he appreciates what they meant to the city at a time when segregation was a way of life throughout the Washington area and the nation.

“I know the name thing is a long shot,” said Rehling, a D.C. resident who has been in touch with Winston Lord, executive director of the Washington Baseball Club. Lord says the prospective ownership group “definitely wants and plans” to honor the Grays somehow.

“That’s what we’re looking for, regardless of what happens with the Expos,” Rehling said. “Perhaps there could be a monument or memorial on the grounds of Howard University Hospital, too.”

Ah, yes, Howard University Hospital, on the site of Griffith Stadium at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW, where the potent Grays and usually impotent Senators played. Several years ago, the hospital had a press conference to announce that a memorial to the stadium would be created. Nothing has happened since, at least on public fronts, and calls to the hospital reveal only that the idea has been put “on the back burner.” In other words, forgotten.

Rehling seems more sincere about paying homage to Washington’s baseball past. Among other things, he has set up a Web site ( where fans can sign a petition urging adoption of the nickname.

A native of Dayton, Ohio, Rehling got the idea after visiting the Smithsonian’s Baseball As America exhibit several months ago. Then he read “In the Shadow of the Senators,” a wonderful history of the Grays by D.C. author Brad M. Snyder, and was irretrievably hooked by the exploits of Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and other outstanding players who were denied entry into the major leagues before 1947 because of their complexion.

“Then I began to e-mail my friends, and eight or 10 wanted to help,” Rehling said. “Now we have 300 people signed up, and we’re trying to reach out to all fans. … I’m an optimist, and so I think it’s possible that a team could be called the Grays.”

Rehling contends that Washington’s acceptance of the Grays (who also called Pittsburgh home) hastened the obliteration of organized baseball’s color barrier when Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Montreal farm club for the 1946 season. A year later, Robinson went up to the Dodgers, Larry Doby joined the Cleveland Indians and the major leagues became truly for all Americans for the first time in the 20th century.

“In recent years, Major League Baseball has attempted to recognize and honor black baseball, as in 1997 when it retired Jackie Robinson’s number 42 for all teams,” Rehling said. “Our organization is not only calling for a new team to be named the Grays but also for a museum and educational outreach program. … We believe that by using baseball and its history as a commonality, we can open necessary and constructive discourses on race.”

During their heyday in the 1930s and 1940s, the Grays frequently outdrew the Senators at Griffith Stadium — not a particularly difficult achievement. The ballpark was located in a black neighborhood, and Senators owner Clark Griffith often donated it for community events. But the idea of using black players on his club apparently never occurred to baseball’s legendary Old Fox, who was born in the 1860s and very much was a product of his times.

The Senators didn’t sign their first black player, a deservedly obscure Cuban outfielder named Carlos Paula, until 1954. One of sports’ great ironies is that the Senators and Redskins, in a predominantly black city, were among the last baseball and pro football teams to employ African Americans.

Rehling’s effort to properly recognize the Grays would at least partially offset those old slights. Whatever form such an honor takes, it is long overdue.

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