- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 4, 2005

So the largely faceless and mostly mediocre Dodgers are in town. No big deal.

Ah, but when the Boys of Summer came calling, that was a very big deal.

In the late 1940s and early ‘50s, the Brooklyn Dodgers frequently played exhibition games against the Senators at old Griffith Stadium before the Bums girded their loins for another fierce National League pennant race and the Nats prepared for their annual struggle to avoid the American League cellar.

Griffith Stadium, located at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW where the Howard University Hospital now stands, usually was a good place to catch a nap when the Senators were playing. Crowds of 5,000 or less were common, even though you could buy a ticket in the bleachers for 75 cents, a Briggs Pigs hot dog for 50 cents and a scorecard (with pencil stub) for a dime.

On two days in April, though, this baseball dump yard bulged to and over its capacity of about 30,000. Opening Day always was a sellout, with Harry or Ike tossing out the first ball. The exhibition against the Dodgers a few days earlier usually came close.

The reasons were obvious, even in that relatively unenlightened era.

A National League team was on the premises, and back then the so-called “Senior Circuit” was mostly a rumor in the nation’s capital. There were no interleague games, no television highlights and no national “Game of the Week” telecasts here. Local fans could see Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, Billy Cox, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, et al, in the All-Star Game and the World Series if the Dodgers made it. Otherwise, they might as well have been based in Bangkok as in Brooklyn.

Did I leave anybody out?

Oh yes, Jackie Robinson.

Given the passage of more than half a century, it’s virtually impossible for younger fans to appreciate Robinson’s impact on baseball and the nation. As we all know, in 1947 he became the first black man to play in the major leagues since 1884. When Don Newcombe and Campanella joined him in subsequent seasons, the Dodgers became a symbol of racial equality in a society that remained largely segregated.

By 1950, Robinson had become an established star who spoke frequently on issues within and without baseball. Moreover, he was the fiery, inspiring leader of a team that won six pennants in 10 seasons and missed two others on the final day. In the District and elsewhere, Jack (as he preferred to be called) was a hero of almost mythic proportions. The chance to see him in person, even if from those distant bleachers, was electrifying.

Understandably, though, the stop in Washington was just another meaningless game to most of the ballplayers. Said Mickey Vernon, the Senators’ longtime first baseman: “Did we used to play the Dodgers? I don’t really remember.”

The games here would come at the end of barnstorming tours that featured major league teams heading north from Florida and playing in a succession of tiny towns while trying to make a buck or two.

“There were a lot of places like Bluefield, West Virginia, where people would follow the ballplayers through the streets before the game and we’d play before crowds of maybe 2,000,” Senators broadcaster Bob Wolff recalled. “The trains were sooty, and all you wanted to do was get to the hotel and take a shower. It wasn’t very glamorous.”

Except maybe when Jack Roosevelt Robinson walked onto the field in his pigeon-toed gait with the big No.42 on the front and back of his Dodgers uniform. Then, for many, the occasion became glamorous.

In Washingtonian magazine, Hugh B. Price, a District native and former president of the National Urban League, remembered a childhood meeting with Robinson at Griffith Stadium this way: “Jackie greeted us and was friendlier than I would have expected of a superstar. … A photographer from [the Afro-American newspaper] snapped our picture. It appeared in the April 15 issue with the headline ‘SMALL FRY MEETS DODGERS’ BIG GUY.’”

And, Price wrote, “It didn’t get any bigger than that.”

Of course, all this was very long ago, before baseball was afflicted with multiple franchise shifts, free agency multi-millionaires in knickers and steroid abuse. Back then most star players stayed with one team — Teddy Ballgame, Joe D., Stan the Man, the Mick, Rapid Robert — and were considered local icons. Heck, teams even played doubleheaders in those days — sometimes in less than five hours, too.

But the Dodgers have been gone from Brooklyn for 47 years and Jackie Robinson from this mortal coil for 33 years. There is much less reason now for us to idolize athletes, and perhaps that is good. Yet it’s worth remembering when a genuine hero in knickers visited our town and excited the multitudes.

Jackie Robinson!

The Brooklyn Dodgers!

Like the man said, it didn’t get any better than that.

And perhaps still doesn’t.

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