- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 30, 2008

Many in the overflow crowd of 16,340 easily the largest to attend a baseball game in Washington were stunned when announcer E. Lawrence Phillips raised the megaphone to his lips and bellowed, “Today’s batteries! For Boston, Wood and Kleinow! For Washington, Gray and Street!” Gray? Dolly Gray, the aging left-hander who usually pitched like a girl? Where was Walter Johnson, the youngster with the swiftest fastball anybody had ever seen? The date was April 12, 1911, and Johnson was sitting on the bench as the original Washington Nationals inaugurated their new ballpark at Seventh Street and Florida Avenue NW. He had just signed a three-year contract for a whopping $7,000 a season and was not ready to pitch after holding out all spring. This clearly was a setback for the Nationals, who were used to them after spending the first 10 years of the American League languishing in or near last place. Johnson had won 25 games in 1910, his third full season, and would collect 417 victories second all time in a career that lasted until 1927 and established him as the greatest player to pull on spikes in the nation’s capital. Gray had spent two years with the Nationals, going 13-38. But on this sunny spring day, he was sharing the spotlight with President William Howard Taft, who tossed him the ceremonial first pitch and then squeezed his 300 pounds into a seat near the home dugout. Neither would occupy his position much longer. The 1911 season was Gray’s last in the bigs hardly a surprise considering he ended it with a 2-13 record. Taft feuded with predecessor Theodore Roosevelt for much of his single term in office, then finished third behind Woodrow Wilson and Teddy in the election of 1912. Still, this was a momentous occasion in Washington’s baseball life. The Nationals’ old wooden facility known through the years as National League Park, American League Park and just plain League Park had burned down while the club was in spring training. No problem. It was rebuilt in steel and concrete in just three weeks at a cost of $100,000 and stood in all its glittering glory as the newest major league facility. Fenway Park and Wrigley Field were not yet built. Neither was Yankee Stadium. Nine years later, when baseball lifer Clark Griffith bought the ballclub after serving as its manager, the park was renamed Griffith Stadium in his honor. By the time the expansion Washington Senators closed it down in 1961, the place was widely regarded as a relic and a dump. But half a century earlier, at its opening, hosannas to its magnificence rang to the skies just as they did this weekend when $611 million Nationals Park was unveiled in Anacostia. “The crowd yesterday establishes Washington as one of the best supporters of the national game of its size in the country, and with the team going along at a good clip, it would be even better,” the Evening Star said. The team did not immediately go along “at a good clip,” finishing the 1911 season with a 64-90 record, good if that’s the word for seventh place. But when Griffith replaced Jimmy McAleer as manager in 1912, all heck broke loose. The Nationals, led by Johnson’s 33-12 record and 1.39 ERA, soared to second place with a 91-61 record an incredible improvement of 28 games. Yet they trailed the Red Sox by 14 games, thanks in part to “Smoky” Joe Wood’s 34-5 record on the mound for Boston. The previous year, however, Wood was outpitched by the mediocre Gray on Opening Day. True, Dolly allowed four runs in his six innings, but the Nationals knocked out Wood in the sixth inning while scoring six runs that led to an 8-5 victory. “Washington simply had to win,” the Washington Post reported breathlessly. “Long before the fatal sixth inning when Boston, hopelessly demoralized, gave a faithful imitation of a Zeppelin dirigible in a gale, the rooters knew that it was only a question of time. Sixteen thousand voices, roaring and yelling at once in half a dozen different languages; 16,000 unceasing bellows, cries and shrieks; 16,000 hats, handkerchiefs, papers, canes and flags all those used to their fullest power could not but fail to bring their merited victory.” Indeed. And if victory celebrations at the park were rare the Nationals/Senators won just one World Series and three pennants in their 51 years of occupancy the first of these surely was one to remember.

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