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Winning isn’t everything. It must not be the only thing, either.
Because if winning were everything or the only thing, as words attributed to Vince Lombardi allege, then there probably wouldn’t be a Washington Baseball Historical Society (WBHS). And there certainly wouldn’t be any interest in or affection for the Washington Senators.
Several hundred folks who remember baseball in Washington without wincing showed up at the Bethesda Holiday Inn last weekend for NatsFest, an annual WBHS-sponsored gathering of unrepentant losers and the fans who won’t forget them. (Nats, short for Nationals, was the Senators’ unofficial nickname.)
The Senators were bad before Calvin Griffith moved his team to Minnesota in 1960, but the expansion Senators, who played here from 1961 through 1971, were worse. They lost 100 games or more in their first four years of existence. The only winning season came in 1969, when Ted Williams, in his first year in D.C., managed the team to an 86-76 record. They were back in last place the next year.
This legacy of losing, says WBHS founder Tom Holster, remains a big part of the Senators’ charm.
“For some people, like me, they get involved [with NatsFest] because the Senators were the team when they were kids,” says Holster, a Centreville resident. “But I think a lot of other people are so fascinated with the Senators because they were so inept.”
Ex-Senators are always a main draw of the functions. This year’s featured guests had careers that gave them plenty of fodder for self-deprecating material.
“We had trouble catching the ball, hitting the ball, throwing the ball, and pitching,” Russ Kemmerer, a Senators pitcher from 1957 through 1960, told the NatsFest crowd at a kickoff breakfast. “I don’t know if we were the worst team in the league, but I know we had a rule: If we got rained out, we had a victory party.” (Kemmerer also told of the first community-outreach event Senators management assigned hima speech to what was described as “a great group of fans” at St. Elizabeths Hospital, an institution he’d never heard of. “When I showed up there, I saw the sign that it was a mental facility,” Kemmerer said. “That made sense. I figured you had to be crazy to be a Senators fan.” What he remembers most about his hospital visit was the patient who heckled him with chants of: “You haven’t gotten a guy out in a year!”)
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Julio Becquer, a first baseman also here from 1957 through 1960, recalled having to confess to a teammate during a particularly bad day on the diamond that he couldn’t see where an opponent’s tape-measure blast had landed. “I can’t see that far,” Becquer said. Bernie Allen, who played here from 1967 to 1971, once led American League second basemen in fielding percentage over an entire season. But whenever he’s asked about the accomplishment, according to his WBHS bio, Allen says, “I only had three chances that year.” Tim Cullen, another second baseman and Senator from 1967 to 1971, announced that he was called to pinch-hit only one time in his 12-year major-league career. “And that was for Bernie Allen,” he said. Paul Casanova, the catcher here from 1965 through 1971, was introduced as the only guy on the 1967 American League’s all-star roster who didn’t get into the game.
Yet all the players got rousing ovationsand more: Casanova charged $15 for an autograph during NatsFest, and there was a long line for his signature throughout the day.
“They were losers,” says WBHS President Jim Hartley, when asked about the Senators’ lasting appeal. “But they tried, and for a lot of people, it was enough just to have a team then.”
During a bazaar that followed breakfast, middle-aged boys huddled around a poster of Griffith Stadium, the Senators’ longtime home near the intersection of Georgia and Florida Avenues NW, and told each other their favorite sections and memories. Several folks remembered the exact spot where Mickey Mantle’s 565-foot home run off the Senators’ Chuck Stobbs landed in 1953. “521 Oakdale Terrace!” two 50-somethings said simultaneously while fingering the photo.
Griffith Stadium closed in 1962, when the Senators moved to D.C. Stadium (now RFK). Vintage plastic helmets and souvenir bats given away as a fan lure during the last few years of baseball in Washington were on display and for sale. A tape of the radio broadcast of the final Senators game was played in one room, while video highlights of that contest, which ended by forfeit with two outs in the ninth inning when fans stormed the field to protest the team’s imminent move, were shown on a TV in the lobby.
To many NatsFest attendees, the chances that D.C. will get another baseball team seemed about as good as the chances that Charlie Brown will actually get to kick a football. The teasing started nearly as soon as the Senators left for Texas. The San Diego Padres were so close to moving here in 1973 that Topps printed baseball cards for the alleged Washington team. The Houston Astros were going to move here twice, first in 1985 and then again in 1997. And the Montreal Expos have been dangled in front of local baseball fans for several years.
At NatsFest, there was a lot of grumbling that baseball won’t ever come back to D.C. as long as Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos lives and breathes. But during a pep talk at NatsFest, Bill Collins, a D.C. native and leader of the Virginia Baseball Club, a group formed to bring baseball back to the area, declared that Angelos won’t be able to prevent this season from being D.C.’s last without the game. Activity at the recent baseball meetings in Phoenix, Collins said, means that no more generations of Washingtonians will grow up deprived of the joys of summer he and so many others at NatsFest knew as youngsters.
“A year from now,” Collins said, “we’ll be sitting in RFK Stadium and hearing two of the sweetest words imaginable: ‘Play ball.’”
After Collins spoke, NatsFest organizers held the door-prize drawing. When the winning number was announced, a preteen boy jumped up from his chair and ran to the podium to collect his reward. The kid was wearing an Orioles jersey. He got booed. Dave McKenna