- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 14, 2004

The last game in the history of the expansion Washington Senators ended badly, even for a perennial loser.

On the evening of Sept. 30, 1971, at RFK Stadium, the Senators led the New York Yankees 7-5 with two out in the top of the ninth inning when hundreds of fans, angry over their team’s impending departure to Texas, swarmed the field.

The Senators had to forfeit. Then they left town.

Many still recall that game but barely remember that the same day, officials in neighboring Montgomery County studied a report disclosing that theirs was the first U.S. county to experience zero population growth. The finding pertained to declining birthrates and did not include migration.

Still, James Gleason, at the time Montgomery’s first elected county executive, was worried. The report might deter businesses from locating or investing there, the Republican executive said.



On top of that, the researcher who prepared the report predicted the county’s rapid development likely would diminish because of “rising housing costs” and “the slowdown of the growth of the federal government.”

As anyone who has battled traffic on the Beltway, Interstate 270 or Rockville Pike can attest, such fears were groundless.

In 1971, Montgomery County had 530,900 residents. Today’s estimate is 931,000. The other suburban counties also have become swollen with residents, commerce and traffic during the past 33 years. Downtown D.C. is vastly different, too.

Bob Short probably would be stunned. Mr. Short was the Senators’ owner who moved the team to the Dallas suburbs, then well into a growth spurt.

Mr. Short, who died in 1982, regarded Dallas, Big D, as everything Washington was not perceived to be: vibrant, with a booming economy, a town on the make. Fannies in the seats. He saw the same things more than a decade earlier when he moved the NBA’s Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles.

Even though signs of change were being seen and felt here, it was not obvious to many.

It is now.

Such fixtures as the Capitol and the Washington Monument still lord over the landscape, but the city abandoned by the Senators in 1971 only vaguely resembles the new home of the Expos, pending D.C. Council approval of a financing bill for a ballpark in Southeast.

Mainly, the District is much more than a city.

“When we played here, it was more like a small Southern town, even though it was the nation’s capital,” says Jim Hannan, who pitched for the Senators from 1962 through 1970.

“Now it’s very cosmopolitan, a very diverse region,” says Mr. Hannan, who was part of the ill-fated trade with Detroit in 1971 that brought a washed-up Denny McLain to the Senators. “There was no Beltway when I came here. Shirley Highway [now Interstate 395 in Northern Virginia] was a two-lane road. It was so different. Now all this high-tech is here.

“Washington was always insulated against recession because of the government, but now it’s reached its real status as a very dynamic area. There’s no comparison between where it was then and where it is now.”

More than high tech

Downtown and other parts of the District have been transformed. In 1971, residents and businesses could not wait to leave the District. Now they’re coming back.

At the same time, suburban counties such as Montgomery have exploded with retail, industry and newcomers. Virginia’s Fairfax County, closing in on a million residents, has more than doubled in population since 1971.

Once perceived as a haven of government workers, Northern Virginia has the nation’s highest concentration of high-tech jobs outside California’s Silicon Valley. Yet high-tech companies represent only 5 percent of all firms in the region.

Loudoun County, Exhibit A of the phenomenon known as the “exurb,” is the fastest-growing U.S. county since 2000, according to the Census Bureau.

Enough folks are moving there that the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority believes Loudoun to be a fine place to build a big-league ballpark.

Throughout the region, more people are staying put than ever before.

“Because of private industry, we’re not as transient an area,” says Bill Webb, researcher for the Greater Washington Initiative.

Veteran publicist and former Senators public address announcer Charlie Brotman, involved in numerous efforts to bring a team here, notes: “This isn’t the city of the ‘70s. This is the city of the 21st century. When you start thinking about Fairfax and Potomac and Gaithersburg and Manassas, these places used to be a thousand miles away. Now it’s a little hop, skip and a jump.”

Boomtown

With one out to go at RFK, as Senators pitcher Joe Grzenda prepared to face the Yankees’ Horace Clarke and fans massed for their assault, the transformation was well under way — within the city and beyond.

The so-called “white flight” to the suburbs had begun in most U.S. cities during the 1950s, and it happened in greater earnest in the District.

The downtown of old was disappearing, ravaged by four days of rioting that resulted in 13 deaths and 1,000 buildings damaged or burned down after the assassination in Memphis, Tenn., of civil rights leader Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968.

The action was occurring elsewhere. On Sept. 30, 1971, Xerox was discussing with Loudoun officials plans to construct a $30 million training facility on a 2,265-acre farm near the Potomac River, then the county’s largest commercial project.

Meanwhile, the Redskins, under first-year coach George Allen, were preparing to play the Dallas Cowboys and end a string of six straight defeats (which they did). The team had moved into a new facility off Route 28 in Centreville, and later would move farther out to Ashburn, Va.

Xerox came (and went), and suburban growth continued unabated: More businesses, more homes, more cars. The metropolitan area is now the nation’s fifth-largest market, with the gridlock, strip malls and subdivisions to prove it.

In 1971, many D.C. residents lived below the poverty line. That has not changed: The gap between rich and poor is greater than in most other cities.

Yet overall affluence has increased. D.C. Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat, notes “the wealth factor” both inside and outside city limits.

“The city has seen a real upsurge in consumer wealth, for lack of a better way to define it,” says Mr. Evans, a lawyer who helped negotiate the deal to bring the Expos to Washington.

Here’s a way to define it: A recent Forbes magazine survey ranked the area fifth nationally in “income growth.”

A different era

While Joe Grzenda and his teammates took flight and fans made off with the bases, chunks of turf and other souvenirs, motorists drove past the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue. Today, as a hedge against terrorism, that section of the avenue is a park and limited to pedestrian traffic.

A few blocks from where President Nixon worked unencumbered by scandal (it was eight months before the Watergate break-in), the movie “Shaft” logged its 15th week at the since-departed Town theater on New York Avenue.

Outside the Beltway in Rockville, Roth’s Parkway 3 advertised “three theaters under one roof.” Rock ‘n’ roll fans that day bought Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” album for $3.44 at various E.J. Korvette’s stores, now as defunct as vinyl phonograph records. A new Plymouth Cricket (“the his and her car”) sold for $1,915.

Shoppers, fewer than before, looked for sales at Garfinckel’s, Kann’s or Woodward and Lothrop department stores. Men could buy a double-knit suit for $89.95. Sun appliance stores were giving away a free wig with the purchase of a color TV. All those establishments, and countless others, are long gone.

But Metrorail was coming, as evidenced by the constant sound of jackhammers. The first stretch of the Red Line was still 4 years from completion, and construction continued nearly round-the-clock.

Metro was the District’s big dig, a seemingly endless project that clogged traffic on dozens of streets. Under a newspaper photo of Metro work that day was the caption, “A night time exposure shows traffic disruption on Connecticut Avenue.”

Metro now is a103-mile mass-transit artery carrying a weekday average of 700,000 commuters and visitors, and its absence is unthinkable.

The same Mr. Gleason who fretted over limits to Montgomery County’s growth also served on the first Metro board and was instrumental in the transit system that linked suburbs and city. Mr. Gleason today calls Metro “the No.1 achievement, if you will, of bringing a sense of permanence to the area, of expanding the horizons.”

A new image

On Sept. 30, 1971, and for a long time after that, downtown Washington remained scarred from the riots.

Only three years earlier, Senators shortstop Ed Brinkman, called to National Guard duty, was fired upon while patrolling city streets. The stream of business and residential migration to the suburbs had become a flood. Few thought about coming back, even to visit.

“Downtown was a ghost town,” recalls longtime resident Chuck Hinton, who played for the Senators and then coached the Howard University baseball team and worked for the D.C. Recreation Department.

Says historian Jane Freundel Levey: “The riots of 1968 overnight changed people’s attitudes toward downtown D.C. All of D.C. was now considered threatening. People were afraid. It was considered dangerous. Add to that the Nixon administration calling it the crime capital of the nation. We had a real bad reputation, and it lasted throughout the 1970s.”

Mrs. Levey is married to Bob Levey, who covered the riots as a young reporter for The Washington Post. Later, he would write a popular daily column devoted to life in the District and environs.

“I think what killed the Senators were the riots,” says Mr. Levey, now senior vice president for development at Washington Hospital Center. “I don’t think there’s any question that racial sensitivity murdered the [live] gate, particularly the gate that came downtown in cars at night.”

Frank Ceresi, author of “Baseball in Washington, D.C.,” says: “There was no Metro at the time and people, I think, were a little more hesitant to go to night games. [Senators manager] Ted Williams mentioned that. He told me he thought Washington is a great baseball town, but he thought the riots still had an effect.”

Today, fed by five Metro lines, downtown D.C. is a destination replete with restaurants, nightclubs, shops and hotels, a sports arena and a new convention center — all hard to imagine on Sept. 30, 1971.

Neighborhoods once scorned by outsiders — like the 14th Street corridor, ground zero of the 1968 riots — are considered trendy. Suburbanites are coming back to live.

“There has been a lot of wonderful developmental activity,” says Michael Stevens, president and CEO of the Washington Marketing Center, noting that 33,000 units of downtown housing have been built, renovated or planned. “This is a city in its ascendancy. We’re experiencing an economic renaissance unparalleled in its history. Not many cities can claim the number of construction cranes that we have.”

Says Mr. Levey: “I think a baseball team can be successful at RFK and at the new site in Anacostia, if it ever gets built, because the whites from the suburb would be more willing to come to the city at night.”

Jill Connors, exhibition curator of the City Museum, says downtown and the rest of the city finally are recovering from the riots.

“It was much more than economic devastation,” she says. “There was an image problem.”

When Mr. Nixon and Attorney General John Mitchell addressed the crime situation, the city was run by the federal government. A vague form of home rule existed, more concept than reality. A mayor and council had yet to be elected. (A case could be made that it would have been easier to build a ballpark then than now.)

Name of the game

As of Sept. 30, 1971, the nation’s capital was left with one professional sports franchise, the Redskins.

The Capitals were three years from their birth as an NHL expansion team. About 40 miles north of RFK, the Baltimore Bullets were preparing for another NBA season. Two years later, the team — owned by Abe Pollin and renamed the Capital Bullets — moved into the brand-new Capital Centre in Landover, north of the District and just off the Beltway.

In 1997, because of Mr. Pollin’s initiative and willingness to spend his own money, MCI Center was completed in the heart of Chinatown at Seventh and F streets NW as the home of the basketball team (renamed Wizards) and the Caps.

“I think the MCI Center showed that people will come in from the suburbs,” Ms. Connors says.

During the final days of the Senators, the forced integration of Alexandria’s T.C. Williams High School (and its effect on the football team) remained a raging issue. A hit movie, “Remember the Titans,” was made about it 30 years later.

In Vienna, a resident discussing that suburb’s growth in September 1971 was quoted as saying, “We feel we’re a little bit different, a little bit better and a little bit apart from the Washington conglomerate.”

Another resident, a member of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, told a reporter: “We’re a totally homogenous community. The growth we’ve had has added more of the same kind of people.”

It is not difficult to read between the lines.

The District became a predominantly black city in the late 1950s. Vestiges of segregation remained, and the local sports teams did little to end them.

The Senators were among the last major league baseball teams to integrate, in 1954. The Redskins, of whom the late columnist Shirley Povich once wrote “their colors are burgundy, gold and Caucasian,” were the last NFL team to do so, in 1962. When Calvin Griffith moved the original Senators to Minneapolis-St. Paul after the 1960 season, he was seeking a “whiter” fan base.

But times, and attitudes, have changed, sometimes for practical purposes.

“Obviously, people have become more enlightened because they’re coming back to the city,” says sports talk-show host Glenn Harris, a former Howard baseball player. “You see people in the U Street area, 14th Street, they’ve got dogs more expensive than cars. The name of the game ain’t white or black. It’s green, baby.”

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