Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The best professional baseball team in the District’s history probably wasn’t the original Washington Senators, whose generally unfortunate 60-year history was punctuated by a World Series championship in 1924 and American League pennants in 1925 and 1933.

Almost certainly, it was the Homestead Grays, who won 10 pennants in the Negro National League from 1937 to 1948 while splitting home games between Pittsburgh and Washington.

Of the first 18 former Negro Leaguers inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, nine played for the Grays at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Most prominent were catcher Josh Gibson and first baseman Buck Leonard, known respectively as “the black Babe Ruth” and “the black Lou Gehrig” during those days of almost total segregation in baseball and society.

Because statistics and attendance figures were haphazardly recorded in the Negro Leagues, it is difficult to quantify the Grays’ impact on Washington baseball. In his fine book “Beyond the Shadow of the Senators,” local author Brad M. Snyder notes many black fans chose primarily to attend Senators games despite the team’s low standing in the late ‘30s and the ‘40s and being allowed to sit only in the right-field pavilion at Clark Griffith’s decrepit stadium, located in a predominantly black neighborhood at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW.

Griffith, who owned the Senators from 1920 to 1955, was a contradictory figure where race relations were concerned. He donated his ballpark frequently for events involving the black community, but when it came to integrating the Senators he was no more liberal than most other white Americans born in the 19th century.

Despite pressure, notably from sports columnist Sam Lacy of the Afro-American newspapers, Griffith did not sign his first black player — a rather hapless Cuban outfielder named Carlos Paula — until 1954. That was seven years after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers and shattered Organized Baseball’s unofficial ban against blacks.

When asked about the totally pale complexion of his ballclub, Griffith usually shed crocodile tears on the need to preserve the sanctity of the Negro Leagues. More likely, his real reason for perpetuating segregation was the annual rent paid by the Grays — which often meant the difference between annual profits and losses for the shoestring Senators.

It remains a paradox that Griffith’s Senators and George Preston Marshall’s Washington Redskins, playing in a largely black city, were among the last professional teams to sign black players. The Redskins remained lily white until 1962, when the team traded for star running back Bobby Mitchell of the Cleveland Browns

Griffith proved correct in one respect: The integration of the majors soon killed off the Negro Leagues. The Grays’ players voted to disband after finishing the 1950 season with a 100-26 record. Of the team’s attendance in Washington and elsewhere after integration, Leonard said succinctly, “We couldn’t draw flies.”

In their final game at Griffith Stadium that September, the Grays defeated the Philadelphia Stars 7-1. The loser was none other than legendary Satchel Paige, who continued to pitch for black teams, though he had become a successful spot starter for the Cleveland Indians by that time.

It was a memorable finale for a memorable team.

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