Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Local baseball diamonds are emptier this summer: The Clark Griffith League is on hiatus. It may well be gone for good.

The wood-bat league for college-age players was founded after World War II as the Capital City Junior Baseball League. Its name was changed after the 1955 death of Griffith, the owner of the Washington Senators, who’d been a big youth-baseball supporter.

Over the years, literally hundreds of pro ballplayers spent some time playing Clark Griffith League ball. All-stars including Yankees slugger Mark Teixiera, Red Sox reliever Jonathan Papelbon, and Angels starter Joe Saunders are among the active major leaguers to have spent summers on a CGL squad. Nats Manager Jim Riggleman played Clark Griffith in the 1960s.

“The Clark Griffith League had a whole lot of talent, and in my day it was all local,” says Wally Cockrell, who played on a Federal Storage team that won the CGL title in 1956. The Federal Storage roster, coached by the legendary Joe Branzell, also had future major league pitchers Steve Barber (a lefty from Takoma Park who became the first 20-game winner in Orioles history) and Craig Anderson (who later played for the St. Louis Cardinals and the Mets). Cockrell’s Federal Storage squad won the 1956 All American Amateur Baseball Association national championship.

Even Clark C. Griffith, grandnephew of the league’s namesake and the son of Calvin Griffith (who after inheriting the Senators moved that franchise to Minnesota), played in the league in the 1959 season, when all games were played on the Ellipse. “It was a big deal, covered in all the papers,” says Griffith, who played for the Aggies, a team sponsored by the Department of Agriculture. The league was considered one of the prime amateur leagues in the country, just shy of the legendary Cape Cod League.

But there will be no Griffith baseball this summer. For all its history, the league has slowly disappeared—and almost nobody has noticed.

Griffith’s 2009 season featured only five teams—and “You can’t have a league with less than six teams,” says Clark C. Griffith. He knows something about running a league: He’s now commissioner of the Northern League, a Minneapolis, Minn.-based group that ranks as the best independent professional baseball league around.

Things got worse in November, when the Southern Maryland Cardinals, the defending CGL champs and the only Maryland-based team, disclosed they’d be dropping out to join the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League, a competing wood-bat league that licenses the Ripken name from the family’s foundation. The Cardinals thus became the third Griffith team in five years to defect. The Bethesda Big Train, another defending Griffith winner, bolted to join the then-new league in 2005. The Herndon Braves split in 2007.

Unlike the Griffith League, Ripken’s confederation gets financial backing from Major League Baseball and has its games broadcast over Internet radio. But the Iron Man wasn’t the only culprit. The sour economy hurt, too. A month after Southern Maryland’s departure, the Carney Pirates, a Fairfax-based CGL team, called it quits when the nonprofit Carney Foundation announced it would no longer sponsor a baseball squad.

That meant only three of the five teams from last year were ready to play the 2010 season. The economy crippled the search for new sponsors, killing a plan to add three teams, according to Bill McGillicuddy, a former Griffith player and a longtime owner of the Vienna Senators. League officials decided there was no point in running a four-team league. So in February, CGL Commissioner Tom Davis (the former Virginia representative and the guy who made steroids in baseball a congressional issue) made it official. A brief announcement was posted on the league’s website: “The Clark Griffith League will not be operating for the Summer 2010 Season. Look for league to reform in 2011. Have a great summer!”

But baseball leagues, like summer loves, don’t usually go back to the way they were after a year off. With every passing month, it looks more and more like the end of the Clark Griffith League is upon us.

“I hope we come back,” says McGillicuddy, whose Vienna squad has been the CGL’s most stable franchise since its founding in the early 1990s. “That was our plan: one year. But I can’t say for sure. I’d say it’s 50-50.”

“At this point, the future of the Clark Griffith League is pretty much a tossup,” says Antonio Scott, founder and manager of the D.C. Grays, now the league’s only District-based team. “I know there’s people working to bring the league back, and we’re trying to just hit the reset button. But now a lot of people are asking is it even worth it to bring back the league. I’m not sure.”

The Grays played the past two seasons at Banneker Field, right across Georgia Avenue NW from where Negro League giants the Homestead Grays once played. Precisely because of that location, Scott had lobbied the D.C. government for years to renovate the facility as part of a plan to revive the city’s long-moribund youth-baseball scene. The District eventually did its part, adding new lights, a scoreboard, and grandstands, then turning the place over to the Grays.

Scott says the Grays will play at Banneker again, with or without a CGL comeback.

“I’ve got to look at my options,” he says. “I had a whole team set for this year. Twenty-one guys were signed to play for the Grays, and calling them up and telling them there was no season, that was real disappointing. But I’m looking at it now like it could be a blessing in disguise. We want to bring the Grays back, one way or another. The Cal Ripken League is a solid organization. I’m loyal to Clark Griffith, but if there’s not going to be a viable Clark Griffith League, I don’t want to jeopardize the whole program here, so I have to look at Cal Ripken.”

Though he no longer lives around here—or perhaps because of that—Clark C. Griffith hasn’t given up hope for the league named for his family patriarch. “I know there’s a market for non-major-league baseball out there,” he says. “I’m sorry to hear the league’s in bad shape, but if there’s anything I can do to help, they can call. I’m familiar with how leagues are run, and I’d like to be helpful.”

But for now, at least, all Griffith can offer is memories of how things were in the league back in his day.

“I remember one night at the end of the season in 1959, probably August, we’re playing for the championship on the Ellipse,” he says. “The same night, the Senators are playing at Griffith Stadium and not drawing people. At our game, we’ve got people standing four rows deep all around the outfield, the baselines, behind the backstop, people everywhere. As I’m leaving the game, just drenched in sweat, a guy yells to me, ‘You know, Clark, you guys outdrew your dad’s team tonight!’ I looked around and thought, Wow, we probably did. That’s a tribute to what schoolboy baseball was like down there back then.” cp

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