Baseball, like no other sport, has a rich set of stories that connect the present with the far and distant past. With the Giants coming to Washington this weekend for a three game set, a window opens for such reflections.
This series will mark the team’s tenth trip to the nation’s capital. In that decade alone, there are a lineup’s worth of stories. Who could ever forget Barry Bonds laser beam into the night at RFK in 2005, capped off by a kiss blown to the heckler behind home plate? Or Randy Johnson notching his 300th win on a soggy field at Nationals Park in 2009?
Dipping into their franchise history, we know the Giants, who called New York home from 1883 to 1957, played the Senators in 1924 for the World Series. Playing in their fourth straight Fall Classic, McGraw’s mighty Giants looked to extend their dynasty by taking a third crown in the four years. Walter Johnson, the great fireballer, had other ideas. Drunk with jubilation, fans in Washington poured on to the streets downtown after Game Seven, won by the Senators in, as we say now, walk off style.
Baseball’s richness extends beyond the big leagues. Although they weren’t the Giants of the National League, a team called the Giants came to Washington in the summer of 1892. On September 2nd, baseball fans read an interesting headline while sipping their coffee and reading the morning’s Washington Post.
Won by the Cuban Giants
The contest was played at National Park, a new ballpark with wooden grandstands built the year prior at 7th and Florida NW. In his research article, "Washington Ballparks," Bill Wagner points out this corner spot was the site of Baier’s Seventh Street Park, a summer-time resort. A wide stretch of trees separated the single-decker from the Freedman’s Hospital (now Howard University).
In an era of shifting franchises and upstart leagues, Washington had rejoined the American Association in 1891 before switching to the National League in 1892.
Washington historian John Muller tells us about this game at his blog, “The Lion of Anacostia.” The Senators were on one of those long road trips, a necessary evil before air flight shortened them to lengths that pleased family and friends back home. The Senators were playing in Cleveland, with the railroad tracks in Brooklyn, Pittsburgh, Louisville, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis behind them.
On this day, 900 cranks in the nation’s capital came out to see the exhibition. The Washington Post noted the home team was composed of “picked up players from the local colored teams.” The traveling Giants were earning fame as the first professional black team. Although there were no known players from Cuba, the team played there from time to time.
The newspaper article pointed out that among those in attendance was Frederick Douglass. The gray-haired Sage of Anacostia lived at Cedar Hill, his 14-rooms home perched on a knoll overlooking the capital city, a metaphorical watchtower he had earned by escaping an enslaved life not too far from Washington in 1838, and becoming a world-famous speaker, influential publisher, and civil rights reformer. Even if you did not care for him, and some did, you had to acknowledge his body of work.
Muller tells us this about Douglass.
He was a baseball man. His son, Charles, organized and played on Washington, DC-based colored teams in postbellum Washington. The Washington Mutual and later Alerts both traveled up the East Coast to play in other cities and they defended their home turf at bygone fields like Olympic Grounds
De jure and de facto segregation permeated many parts of the country, but on this day, the Post pointed out that:
“The majority of those present were colored, but there was a fair sprinkling of the regular ball patrons, who are anxiously awaiting the Senators’ return home. They were agreeably surprised by the really good game of ball which was put up.”
Friday night’s game against the Giants is Black Heritage Night. If you aren’t able to see the planned events, consider taking a moment to look across the Anacostia River to where Douglass’s home rests as a National Park historic site. The “Father of Civil Rights” spent many an hour at his desk there, but like many Americans, he found some time to be a fan of the national pastime.