Monday, April 11, 2005

“It’s magnificent, just magnificent. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Outfielder Jim Piersall

“It looks like the Grand Canyon with seats.”

First baseman Dale Long

At the foot of East Capitol Street, hard by the National Guard Armory, D.C. Stadium glittered in all its pristine glory — clearly worth every cent of the outrageous $24 million it cost to build.

The date was April 9, 1962, and the expansion version of the Washington Senators was about to play the Detroit Tigers on Opening Day after having two exhibition games at the stadium rained out. The Washington Redskins and George Washington University had played football there the previous fall, but now President John F. Kennedy and 44,383 eyewitnesses were properly attesting that baseball’s newest playpen was suitable for the national pastime as well.

Seven years later, the stadium would be renamed in honor of JFK’s slain brother: Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Two years after that, the Senators would play their last game there. And far, far into the future, on April 14, 2005, a team called the Nationals would return rounders to the nation’s capital as thousands cheered.

None of this could be divined, of course, as Goldman’s Band and the U.S. Army Band performed before the game and motorists crawled through a massive traffic jam in hopes of reaching their seats before the hallowed cry of “Play Ball!” at 2 p.m. There were no tieups, however, on Interstate 295 or the Beltway and for a good reason: They hadn’t been built.

When most visitors were inside, snugly seated below the stadium’s roller-coaster roof, the attendance was the largest for a professional sports event in the District — and more than the Senators totaled for the month of September 1961 at antiquated Griffith Stadium. Overall, however, it ranked second to a throng of 49,690 for the City Championship high school football game five months earlier.

“The whole aura was amazing,” recalled Jim Hannan, then a 22-year-old rookie pitcher for the Senators. “Here I was just a few months after graduating from Notre Dame and up from Class B — I couldn’t believe I was there. The excitement was overwhelming.”

It grew when President Kennedy cranked up his right arm in his box behind the Senators’ dugout and tossed a ball into a massed assemblage of Washington and Detroit players, which is how first pitches were done back then. The resulting scramble ended with no one injured, perhaps miraculously, and Washington pitcher Marty Kutyna obtaining a presidential signature on the prize horsehide.

Then the Senators turned over hurling chores to a 29-year-old right-hander named Bennie Daniels, the first black starting pitcher for the Senators on Opening Day. Daniels would end his seven-year major league career in 1965 with a 45-76 record — including 7-16 in ‘62 — but on this day he was every bit as splendid as his surroundings.

Daniels yielded a single to Detroit’s Jake Wood on the first pitch, saying later, “I kind of fell off the mound, and there wasn’t anything on the ball.” After that, he totally tamed the Tigers, allowing just four more hits and striking out seven over nine innings as the Senators won 4-1.

The victory might have come even more easily had Daniels been a better fielder. He messed up a double-play comebacker hit by Al Kaline in the sixth inning with a bad throw to second and kicked a roller tapped by Vic Wertz in the seventh but survived both miscues. The Tigers were fielding a power-packed lineup including former batting champions Kaline and Norm Cash and slugger Rocky Colavito, but against Daniels they were a collective 1-for-12.

It was a masterful effort by Bennie, but he went 6-16 the rest of the season and 18-33 over the next three before being released. There were extenuating circumstances, Daniels said last week from his home in Compton, Calif.

“I had a bad right elbow — hit it on something at home before spring training and damaged the nerve,” recalled Daniels, now 72 and retired after working 15 years as an orthopedic clerk at Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital in Long Beach, Calif. “I was able to pitch through the pain on Opening Day, but after that I had so many cortisone shots I lost all my hair. Then the shoulder problems started …”

But future failures failed to diminish the glow of Daniels’ biggest victory.

“I think about that game every now and then, usually when I see one of my old teammates,” he said. “I’ve been trying for years to get a videotape of it, but no luck.”

Yet the victory was hardly a one-man show. If the Senators weren’t exactly battering Tigers starter Don Mossi and two relievers, they nonetheless got the job done with their bats. Their 13 hits included a double by third baseman Danny O’Connell, a triple by leadoff man Jim Piersall and a glorious two-run homer in the fourth inning by rookie shortstop Bob Johnson.

“It felt good, but I didn’t watch it, just put my head down and ran,” Johnson said of his no-doubt clout to left. “I swung smoothly and rolled my wrists at the right time — why can’t I do that all the time?”

Then the Senators wrapped it up with two more runs in the seventh on RBI singles by catcher Bob Schmidt, who was toughing it out with a broken finger on his right hand, and Daniels himself.

For the president, only two bits of minor misfortune marred an otherwise dandy day. Before the start of the second inning, rain caused a 22-minute delay, with the president repairing to the umpires’ dressing room and signing autographs for the men in blue.

In the fourth inning, a towering popup hit by Senators left fielder Willie Tasby appeared to be descending directly toward JFK’s bare noggin before landing on the dugout roof as aide Dave Powers lunged for the ball and missed. Noted more as a football fan, the president stayed for the entire game, delaying a scheduled White House visit with the ambassador from Laos.

Upon departing, Kennedy told Senators president Elwood “Pete” Quesada, “I’m leaving you in first place.” Unfortunately, manager Mickey Vernon and his troops did not take the hint. After beating Cleveland in its second game, Washington lost 13 straight on the way to last place and a 60-101 finish, one game worse than the previous season.

But on the most important day of the 1962 season, the Senators and Bennie Daniels were masters of all they surveyed. Of the new stadium and the Senators’ victory, columnist Bob Addie of The Washington Post wrote, “It was a great afternoon … the dream that finally came true.”

So it was, and 33 years and five days later, another dream will come true at the same venue for Washington’s baseball fans.

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