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Good sports towns have characters. Back when D.C. had a baseball team, another necessary element of any good sports town, Bill Holdforth was among the most colorful characters around. Thirty years ago this month, Holdforth took a very grand stand for the fans against the evil force that took the Washington Senators, and baseball, away.
Holdforth, better known to sports fans and Capitol Hill barflies as Baseball Bill, or Baseball, or just plain Base, stood up by dragging a noose-bound effigy of Senators owner Bob Short through RFK Stadium during the last homestand of the 71st and last season of baseball in Washington. The team’s move to Texas had already been announced, and pretty much everyone at the game other than Short applauded Holdforth and seconded his emotion.
“I even saw the mayor, Walter Washington, get up on his seat and dance when I walked by carrying my effigy,” recalls Baseball Bill, now 50. “Everybody was with me about Bob Short.”
Short’s despicableness was the result of his charging fans the highest ticket prices in the league to watch a team with no chance to winDan Snyder, sadly, is only the latest in a long succession of D.C. sports owners who gouge. Bleacher seats at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium, where the pennant-winning Orioles then played, cost less than a buck in 1971, whereas Short demanded $2.25 for a ticket to RFK’s upper deck, where there was a darn good chance you couldn’t even see the left fielder.
What made Holdforth’s protest so stinging was the fact that, at the time, he was an employee of the team, serving in his third year as a Senators usher. As Baseball Billa nickname he got from the mother of his close friend, Housepainter Billhe was also an occasional guest on the team’s pregame show. During appearances, he’d drop one-liners to the radio audience, such as “Tomorrow night is pantyhose night at the stadium. Bob Short wants to see some runs.”
The effigy episode cost Holdforth, then a 20-year-old alum of Oxon Hill High School, his job for what little was left of the Senators’ season.
But it won him the hearts of the city’s grieving baseball community.
Inspired by Holdforth, all sorts of fans showed up at RFK for the Senators’ final game with all sorts of anti-Short paraphernalia. The demonstration blew up with two outs in the top of the ninth inning with the home team leading the Yankees 7-5. Fansfirst a few, then a few thousandstormed the field and began collecting souvenirs of their dearly nearly departed squad. The umps stopped the game and declared the New Yorkers winners by forfeit, so the official score book shows that the Senators were defeated 9-0.
Baseball Bill, off the payroll, went to the game but didn’t charge onto the diamond. He watched the melee from the stands. The official attendance was announced as 14,460, but, over the years, a lot more folks claimed to have taken part in the last waltz.
“More people told me they ran on the field for that last game than were in attendance for that whole last season,” he says. “If everybody who says they were there really went to the games, the team would have never moved.”
Holdforth remained a Short nemesis long after the Senators were gone.
In 1972, he made a trip to Baltimore to catch the Texas Rangers’ first visit there. He went into Memorial Stadium with a bellyful of beerand another effigy. He broke out the Short doll in the middle innings and pranced beside the visiting owner’s box for all to see. A photo of the episode taken by a Washington Post photographer went over the wires and was picked up by the Sporting News, which at the time was the baseball fan’s bible.
Baseball Bill returned to Memorial Stadium the next night, again full of liquid courage, and hoped for another encounter with Short. His wish was granted.
“Bob Short at one point walked up the aisle past me,” he says, “and he looked right at me and yelled, ‘Why don’t you go fuck yourself?’ I felt like telling him you really should never let a guy know he’s getting under your skin. But I really got to him.”
He really got to Short again in 1978, at a time when the former Senators owner was trying to become a real senator. Short used money from his earlier sale of the Rangers to finance his campaign for the U.S. Senate seat in his home state of Minnesota that had become vacant after the death of Hubert H. Humphrey. Baseball Bill held a fundraiser at his Capitol Hill home to finance an anti-Short advertisement.
“We just wanted to let people know what Bob Short said he would do for the Senators when he bought the team, and what Bob Short actually did afterwards, and what a liar he was,” Baseball Bill says. The $3,000 raised at his party paid for a full-page spot in a Minneapolis daily. Short lost to the more liberal Republican David Durenberger in the general election, and political pundits said that the former baseball man’s conservative campaign crippled the Democratic Party in a state where lefty Dems had ruled for decades. (Other political fallout from Short: Had the Senators not moved to Texas and become the Rangers, George W. Bush might never have found a job.)
Post-baseball, Baseball Bill became one of the most popular bartenders in town. Serving drinks wasn’t his first career choice.
“I wanted to try the military. But the draft had avoided me,” he says. “I was going to enlist in the Army, but I stopped in a couple bars on the way to the Army’s enlistment office downtown, and I guess I was in fine shape by the time I got there. I remember the sergeant at the desk looking at me disgustedly and saying, ‘Son, I don’t care what you read in the papers. We really are trying to win this war.’ That’s how I ended up in the bars.”
Baseball Bill worked at watering holes such as Baker Brown’s, Runyon’s, Champions, and, most notably, the Hawk and Dove on Capitol Hill. Along with his baseball knowledge, his reputation for drinking exploits and gambling drew folks to his bar. He won the unofficial title of Beer Chugging Champion of Capitol Hill in 1973. He got on the news in July 1977 for waiting up all night with his boozing buddies just so they could be among the first Metro riders to get to National Airport when that subway stop opened. And in July 1979, his betting pool on where Skylab would fall was broken up by a D.C. vice squad, under pressure from a church group.
Baseball talkers and beer chuggers, or characters of any sort, really, aren’t in demand in D.C. anymore. And the years of hard living and utter apathy toward physical conditioning have worn out Holdforth. His on-again, off-again run of nearly three decades behind the bar at the Hawk and Dove ended last spring, possibly for good. The ulcers on his legs caused by poor blood circulation made walking, let alone showing up for work, too painful. Calls from well-wishing former patrons came shortly after he quit the bar, but they’ve slowed to nearly none.
Baseball Bill, now living off disability payments, watches Orioles games at home on TV to root against them. He admits to thinking about his days with the Senators more than he probably should.
“Those were the best three years of my life,” he says. “The best job I ever had.”
Short died of lung cancer in 1982. Baseball Bill didn’t send flowers. Dave McKenna