- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 14, 2006

With the Washington Nationals off to a poor start in their second season, it somehow seems much longer than a year ago that major league baseball returned to the nation’s capital after a 34-year absence.

Yet for those who enjoy reading about as well as watching the erstwhile national pastime, two new books effectively recapture the euphoria of 2005 — particularly the first half, when the Nationals went a startling 50-31 and led the National League East.

In “Baseball Is Back,” Silver Spring author James R. Hartley takes a game-by-game look at the first season ($29.95, Corduroy Press, 292 pages, illus.). Also included are all 162 box scores, a valuable tool for future researchers.

Meanwhile, Associated Press writer and baseball author Frederic J. Frommer checks in with “The Washington Nationals: 1859 to Today” ($24.95, Taylor Trade Publishing, 193 pages, illus.), which traces the history of baseball in the District from Civil War days. The title is somewhat misleading, however, since the city’s two American League franchises of the 20th century were known more often as “Senators” rather than “Nationals.”

Although each book clearly is a labor of love, both could have used tighter editing. Hartley, publisher and editor of the “Nats News,” frequently gets tripped up by punctuation and grammar — and, surprisingly, misspells the name of Nationals president Tony Tavares.

Frommer perpetuates such errors as misstating the length of patriarch Clark Griffith’s tenure with the original Senators and the names of expansion Senators pitcher Bennie Daniels and 2005 Nationals hitting coach Tom McCraw. He also says the 1969 All-Star Game was played at RFK Stadium to pay “tribute to the nation’s capital as part of the sport’s 100th anniversary celebration.” In fact, it was held in Washington for the third time in 14 years only because Cincinnati’s new Riverfront Stadium was not completed in time.

Yet such gaffes are relatively insignificant. The real value of both books — like that of the Nationals themselves — is simply that they exist.

Hartley, in particular, does a notable job of recapturing in detail the 2005 season, with all its ups and downs on and off the field. In years to come, his research may prove even more valuable than it does now.

Of special interest, or anguish, is the wrangling on the D.C. Council and with Major League Baseball on the issue of financing a new ballpark on the Anacostia Waterfront. This is not fun to read, and couldn’t have been fun to write, but it does illustrate the ongoing conflicts that threatened for a time to abort the Montreal Expos’ transfer to Washington.

Political, legal and financial disputes in Washington? How could that be?

Frommer, of course, is dealing with the long view. He rewrites the clips effectively in showing how first Calvin Griffith and then Bob Short betrayed Washington’s loyal and long-suffering fans by moving their teams, respectively, to Minnesota after the 1960 season and Texas after the 1971 campaign.

He also relates nicely how the customarily inept original Senators broke through to win pennants in 1924, 1925 and 1933, plus the World Series in ‘24. Older fans may tend to forget that the names of Walter Johnson, Bucky Harris and Joe Cronin mean nothing to most youngsters. Thanks to Frommer, a quick primer is now available.

When the ‘24 team beat the heavily favored New York Giants in Game 7 of the World Series — with the twice-vanquished Johnson gaining his first Series victory when Earl McNeely’s famous “pebble hit” bounced over the third baseman’s head as the winning run scored in the 12th inning — all heck broke loose.

Watching with Griffith from a Willard Hotel window as presumably bathtub-ginned citizens snaked down Pennsylvania Avenue, commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis is supposed to have remarked, “You know, Clark, the ancient Greeks and Romans must have had their games that flourished and then vanished. I wonder if this might be the high point of this game we love, baseball.”

Landis died in 1944 and Griffith in 1955, so the story cannot be verified — and might indeed be apocryphal. Yet anybody who cares about baseball in Washington should relish its retelling.

It probably will be years before the fledgling Nationals and the Lerner family have anything as joyous to celebrate — but as Santayana suggested, those who do not know the past are doomed to repeat it. So perhaps by keeping memories alive, authors Hartley and Frommer are doing their part toward creating a happy horsehide future in these long-forsaken baseball parts.

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