“The afternoon train from the West chugged slowly into Washington’s only railroad depot. As it clanked to a halt and began to disgorge its human cargo deafening cheers from a thousand throats reverberated through the rafters of the old train shed.
The focal point of attention was a dozen tanned healthy young men carrying their own suitcases and baseball hats. It was Washington’s leading baseball team, known as the “Nationals,” returning from a triumphant tour of the West in which they had won nine games and lost but one.” – Morris A. Bealle, The Washington Senators, on the Nationals’ return home on August 3, 1867.
When a city hasn’t made it to the post-season in a long, long time, and then they finally do, it’s appropriate to look back at the last time its baseball team brought everybody together in that special, sports way.
In the nation’s capital, fans and writers are remembering several seasons in this regard. Flying high above the scoreboard behind center field at Nationals Park is a reminder of the most often mentioned season. That would be the ’33 Senators/Nationals, the city’s last major league pennant winner.
Some fans are pointing to the other side of the park, where the owners have installed a “Ring of Fame.” Running along the façade above the lower level, you’ll find the names of Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cum Posey, and Jud Wilson. These greats are Hall of Famers who helped the Homestead Grays win a handful of Negro League titles in the 1940s, some while wearing a W on their sleeves and playing some of their games at Griffith Stadium.
Those were great baseball seasons, but as they say, the first love can be the sweetest. We’re talking the 1867 Washington Nationals and their grand “Tour of the West” that summer. They too are remembered at the ballpark at South Capital and Potomac, a panel along the third base side concourse.
In terms of articles and books, however, this pioneering team got short shrift until the latter part of the 1990s. Frank Ceresi, owner of F.C. Associates in Washington, rescued the Nationals from the vaults. Pouring through the Edmund F. French collection of memorabilia, ephemera and clippings located at the Washington Historical Society (French played for the team and served as President from 1862 to 1865.) Along with Carol McCains, Ceresi wrote a fabulous research piece on the Nationals at his website.
The author also touches on the team in his book, “Baseball in Washington” (Images of America). Frank’s book was my introduction to the team. It includes a photo of a complimentary ticket to some of the games of the ten-game tour.
Ceresi summarizes the impact of the team this way.
How influential were they? The fact of the matter is that the Washington Base Ball Club would eventually help ignite a baseball boom that, for all intents and purposes, continues to this day. Not only were the Nationals one of the first dominant organized ball clubs in the country, but in 1867 they would embark on a journey to the west that would sow the seeds of the game in communities throughout the land. Further, as news of their superb ball playing abilities on the diamond spread through the pen of journalist Henry Chadwick, our country's first sportswriter, their popularity and influence deepened. The result was that by the end of the decade the Nationals became central to baseball clearly becoming, as Walt Whitman would say, “ America 's Game.
The Nationals rescue effort got another great boost around this same time. William J. Ryczek, author of three books on 19th Century Baseball and the winner of SABR’s Baseball Research Award, wrote, “When Johnny Came Sliding Home: The Post-Civil War Baseball Boom, 1865-1870.” The author devotes a chapter to the ballclub, aptly titled, “When We Went Westward Ho.” Ryczek notes the role of Arthur Poe Gorman, their second baseman who had the additional duty as team organizer. Gorman co-found the team and went on to become a Maryland Senator.
In his SABR Bio, Brian McKenna writes about this forgotten early great.
The story of baseball in the nation's capital is interlinked with the career of Arthur P. Gorman, a name unrecognizable to today's fans. Long before Clark Griffith made his annual trips to the White House to present the Commander-in-Chief with his season's pass, Gorman actually befriended and entertained the President of the United States and future Presidents with a little ball playing on the Capitol and Executive Mansion grounds during the 1860s.
Every step of Gorman's baseball endeavors had long-ranging significance.
The star of the team between the lines was the legendary George Wright, regarded as the best SS and player in the game. Wright was still four years away from batting .413 but he terrorized the pitchers he faced on the tour, and entertained the fans by juggling baseballs before the game.
The Nationals did have local players, most notably Will Williams, the team’s most sturdy pitcher and a graduate of Georgetown. But there’s no doubt the bread and butter was their tapping into Gotham and talent elsewhere in the northeast where the game had been much less affected by the Civil War. Gorman arranged for the Treasury Department to employ the players. In his book, "But Didn’t We Have Fun," Peter Morris points out this practice was unfair to the other clubs whose working men could not get off work.
The Nationals did not play in an organized league, so comparisons to future teams are unfair. But as Ryczek notes, “the trail-blazing Washington club had opened up the West. They demonstrated skills never before seen in the region.”
One of the first authors to write about the Nationals was Morris A.Bealle. In 1947, he penned, “The Washington Senators: An 87-Year History of the World's Oldest Baseball Club and Most Incurable Fandom.” The book is mostly about the Senators but the Nationals are the writer’s leadoff batter. After the crowd at the train station adored the conquering heroes, the Kirkland House hosted an evening party. The beer flowed past midnight.
Last year, the 1867 Nationals tour got the attention of MLB baseball historian John Thorn. He writes about them in his book, “Baseball in the Garden of Eden.” They come along in the Chapter 6, “The National Pastime.” After the Civil War, the popularity of the game was spreading, and changing from an amateur game to a professional sport. Thorn writes that during this time, baseball was “a balm, the one American institution about which all could agree.” The Nationals’ tour inspired many others, including the Mutual Club of Washington, D.C. Referred to by some as the “Colored Mutes,” they played up north against a white team in 1869.
The Nationals lone blemish on their tour was a 29-23 loss to Forest City of Rockford Illinois. Talk of a fix could be heard, but little did anyone know the budding talent on the Rockford Nine. Thorn wrote about this contest at his MLB Blog, calling it perhaps the greatest game ever played. No doubt a stretch, but Albert Spalding would certainly not argue. He was on the mound that day and showed some of the stuff that would put him in the Hall of Fame. Ross Barnes played SS, also destined for Cooperstown.
Reaching younger fans is always a challenge for those who write about the history of the game when it was spelled “base ball” and pitchers threw underhanded. Meeting that challenge is Jason Rodriguez, who wrote, “National Pastime,” an illustrated piece (artist Charles Fetherolf) about the team. You’ll find it in the well-received book, “District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington, D.C.” (edited by Matt Dembicki)
You can also see previews at his blog.
Nationals has been a popular nickname for Washington ball clubs, who went through all kind of shifts in the late 1880s and then were alternately called the Senators. It’s confusing to say the least. In 2005 the waters were muddied even further when the Nationals began selling merchandise. One of the items on sale, a t-shirt, sported the team logo and the slogan, “Established 1905.”
On-line board discussions lit up with that one. Established 1905. What the heck are they talking about?
The Expos-Nationals franchise was established in 1969. The Senators/Nationals franchise was established in 1901. Where did they get 1905 from?
I got curious about this and decided to look through the Washington Post for some answers. I wrote an article at my blog in November 2005.
Marc Okkonen, an historian with expertise knowledge of team uniforms, confirmed research conducted by the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The 1905 American League Senators/Nationals, who got their start in 1901, were the first team to wear their nickname on their uniform.
Prior to that, the Washington ballclub had been nicknamed the Senators. So how exactly did the name change come about?
Observing that the team had a woeful record as Senators, franchise owner Thomas C. Noyes wanted a change. The club’s Board of Directors appointed the sports editors of the three Washington newspapers as a committee to head up the selection process for a new name. This took place in early 1905. Fans offered names such as the Admirals, Empires, Olympias, and Presidents.
On March 26, the Post announced the winner.
Washington Team Rechristened “The Nationals”
The exact number of votes was not given but the article said Nationals “had the strongest following.” The Post published several comments from the letters.
The first great club that Washington had was named Nationals. This club was one of the pioneers of baseball, and was successful; so call the club the Nationals…”
The Nationals Grand Tour of the West marked the ballclub’s zenith. After the season, they disbanded. They are mostly forgotten, but as we have seen, their legacy is an important one. The game and the sport have come a long way since those days of lots of errors and lopsided scores. We now live in a golden age for fans, with more and more chances to see post-season games, and anything but stacked teams. As we hear the echoes of the cheers for the 2012 team, let’s remember those previous times, and the first time a Washington baseball team covered itself in glory.
Four years ago, I was fortunate enough to publish, “Washington Ballparks,” a fantastic research piece by freelance writer Bill Wagner. Wagner noted the Nationals ball club built Washington’s first enclosed ballpark, National Grounds. It was located at 14th, 15th, S and T NW.
By the way, please email me or leave a comment if you know of any photo or sketch of that ballpark.