- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2006

So the Washington Nationals finally have honest-to-goodness owners of their own. But what kind?

Only time will tell — lots of time.

It is risky to make hasty judgments, pro or con, about Theodore Lerner and Stan Kasten, who now will run the Nationals. History shows it’s easy to misread the intentions of owners who smile for the TV cameras and vow that their only desire is to serve local humanity and put a winner on the field.

For example …

When George Steinbrenner became managing general partner of the New York Yankees in 1973 — heading a group that purchased the club from CBS for $10 million — he was viewed as a mild-mannered shipbuilder from Cleveland who wouldn’t make waves.

And when Peter Angelos bought the Baltimore Orioles from Eli Jacobs in 1993, he was widely hailed in Charm City and environs for restoring local ownership that would have only the interests of fans at heart.

In Washington, we have experienced, for better or worse, all sorts of team leaders.

• Clark Griffith: benevolent, tightfisted.

• Calvin Griffith: turncoat, hypocrite.

• Bob Short: carpetbagger, political hack.

• George Preston Marshall: mercurial, bigoted.

• Jack Kent Cooke: imperious, demanding.

• Dan Snyder: inconsiderate, greedy.

• Abe Pollin: kindly, patient (except toward Michael Jordan).

On baseball fronts hereabouts, the Griffiths and Short are the names to remember. None of the others lasted long enough to have an impact, though Gen. Elwood Quesada — an FAA administrator who knew nothing about baseball — might have wrecked the national pastime in D.C. a decade before Short if he hadn’t bailed out as boss of the expansion Senators after just three years.

Clark Griffith was either a hero or villain, depending on whether you worked for him. Renowned as a sly “Old Fox” on the mound in the 1890s and manager of the champion Chicago White Sox in the American League’s inaugural season of 1901, Griff became skipper of the Senators in 1912 and eight years later took out a second mortgage on his Montana ranch to buy a controlling interest in the club. Thereupon he ran it until his death in 1955.

As the only true baseball man ever to own the Senators, Griffith shrewdly assembled clubs that won pennants in 1924, 1925 and 1933 in the days before farm systems. But in later years, he was ill-equipped financially to compete with well-heeled rivals like Jacob Ruppert, Del Webb and Dan Topping (Yankees), Tom Yawkey (Red Sox) and Walter Briggs (Tigers). In the last 22 years of his long reign, the Senators finished with winning records just four times.

With his ballpark located in a predominantly black area at Georgia and Florida avenues NW, he frequently made the ramshackle facility available free for community events. Yet Griffith, who was born in the 1860s, was very much a product of his times. Apparently, he never considered breaking Organized Baseball’s unofficial color barrier in the 1930s and early 1940s, though such a move almost certainly would have improved the Senators on the field and at the gate.

Adopted son Calvin Griffith took command in October 1955 and soon began a cat-and-mouse game with other cities seeking a major league team. After insisting “the Senators will never leave Washington in my lifetime,” he gained permission from his fellow American League owners in September 1960 to head west. This inspired a memorable lead by Washington Post columnist Shirley Povich: “Calvin Griffith today posthumously moved his ballclub to Minneapolis.”

Short, in turn, got off to a dandy start by luring Hall of Famer Ted Williams out of retirement in 1969, and Teddy Ballgame somehow managed the sad-sack Senators to an astounding 86-76 record. But Short then ruined the club by trading third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and shortstop Ed Brinkman to Detroit for washed-up, unstable right-hander Denny McLain, and the Senators sank back to subterranean levels — meanwhile charging the highest ticket prices in the league.

In September 1971, Short presumably held a figurative gun to the heads of the other owners and was granted permission to move to Arlington, Texas. Fans stormed the field in the ninth inning of the final game at RFK Stadium on Sept. 30, causing a forfeit, and the District entered upon its baseball Dark Ages, which lasted 34 seemingly endless years.

At last the Nationals have owners, a ballpark will be constructed on the Anacostia Waterfront and baseball seems here to stay. Now the new people in charge must demonstrate they really and truly care about baseball and the fans.

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