Griffith Stadium (Washington, DC)

This article was written by John Schleppi

When the Washington Senators1 were founded in 1891, they played their games at Boundary Field in Northwest Washington. Boundary Field was named for its location on the northwest boundary line of the District of Columbia at Boundary Line and Seventh Street. The field is labeled on the 1904 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map as “Athletic Fields,” bordered on two sides by a “High Wood Fence.”2 The Senators played there until they were dropped by the National League in 1899 when the league contracted. The new American League brought a franchise to Washington, again the Senators, in 1901. They played at the American League Park in Northeast Washington because the National League retained the lease to Boundary Field. The American League Park, located at Florida Avenue NE and Trinidad Avenue, is noted on the same map as “The American League Ball Park,” and the map shows the footprint of the stands.3 After the 1903 AL-NL Peace Agreement,4 the Senators returned to the Boundary Field location, renamed National Park, and they took the wooden stands from the American League Park to their new home. The National Park’s location was now given as Florida Avenue NW (formerly Boundary Line) and Georgia Avenue (formerly Seventh Street).5

Boundary Field began as a simple four-sided field. Over the years its dimensions changed, but the playing surface was always large. As early as 1906, it was evident that Boundary Field needed improvement. The Washington Post’s J. Ed Grillo wrote:

“[T]here is hardly a minor league city today, unless it [is] of the very lowest class, that cannot boast of a better equipped baseball plant than that on which the Nationals have played for the past years. The local so-called park is antiquated and out of date and far from being in keeping with those in other major league cities and it is commendable that the local owners have finally come to this realization and are at least contemplating improvements. As far as the present site is concerned few cities have one better located or more easily accessible, but the days of rough-built frame stands, lacking even ordinary accommodations and with convenient entrances and exits, have long since passed. There are excuses for losing teams, perhaps, but none for such abominable accommodations as the Washington club has furnished its patrons. Men who invested their money in baseball realized years ago that the game had come to stay, and from that time on a most substantial effort to create plants in keeping with the times has been made most everywhere but here in Washington, and it is pleasing to note that there has been an awakening here, even though it is belated.”6

Finally, in 1910 the club decided to build a new facility.7 The club’s board announced that it was withholding dividends for this investment. The F.J. Osborn Architecture and Engineering firm of Cleveland was selected for the job. Osborn’s engineers, with their experience in using steel and concrete in structures, such as bridges, were pioneers in stadium construction and had completed Forbes Field in Pittsburgh in 1909.8 The plan in Washington was to build stands behind home plate and along first base and third base to seat 15,000 at a cost of $135,000.9

On March 17, 1911, a fire destroyed Boundary Field’s wooden stands.10 Spring training had already begun and Opening Day was less than a month away. The Senators’ board decided to build the new ballpark on the site and to begin immediately. The Washington Post headlines informed the public, “Accommodations for Opening Game Assured – Ban Johnson Here.”11

Once the remains of the ruined stadium were removed, the new structure rose quickly. The Washington Evening Star on April 9 reported, “[D]ay and night the chanting of the negro laborers has been heard in the vicinity. Like Aladdin’s Palace the structure rose as if by magic.”12 The playing field was closely aligned with the former one. The left-field line measured 407 feet, right field 328 feet, and center field 421 feet.13 The center-field line contained a right-angled notch in the fence because homeowners there refused to sell their property to the Senators. The extended left-field foul line proved beneficial when the field was used for football. In addition, home plate was 61 feet from the grandstand, creating a spacious playing area for the catcher.14 This was a large park compared with other parks of the era.

On Opening Day, April 12, 1911, the stands were completed but uncovered, and ready for a crowd of 16,000 to see the Senators defeat the Boston Red Sox, 8-5.15 President William Howard Taft threw out the first ball. This tradition had begun two years earlier, on April 14, 1909, in the old ballpark, when Taft was approached by umpire Billy Evans and invited to throw out the first ball to open the season.16 In previous years, the district commissioner of the District of Columbia had usually done the honors. Eventually a presidential box would be installed in the stadium for the use of future presidents. Calvin Coolidge was the only president to do the honor three times in one season: the Senators’ opening game on April 15, 1924, the Olympic Quota Game (a fundraiser for the US Olympic team) on May 19, and the World Series opener on October 4.17

Construction continued in earnest whenever the Senators were on the road, and the ballpark was completed for the July 25 game against the Detroit Tigers, which the Senators lost, 5-2. The final structure included a double-decked, covered grandstand around the infield and uncovered single decks along both foul lines. The cost was estimated at $125,000.18 This was considerably less than the $1 million-plus that had been spent to build Forbes Field,19 although it should be noted that the Senators’ new home was a no-frills structure without the substantial façades of Forbes Field, Comiskey Park, and even Cleveland’s League Park, which were all built by The Osborn Company.20

The following season, 1912, Clark C. Griffith joined the club as player-manager. He had begun his career with the minor-league Milwaukee Brewers in 1888, and afterward had joined the American Association’s St. Louis Browns in 1891. He was released by St. Louis that year and went to the Boston Reds, where he was released again in September. In 1892 he went to Tacoma, Washington, in the Pacific Northwest League; when the league folded in August, he moved to Missoula in the Montana State League for the remainder of the season.

The start of the 1893 season found Griffith with Oakland in the California League. The league folded in August. In September he moved to the Chicago Colts of the National League. While with Chicago, where he played through the 1900 season, he attended law school at Northwestern University. Following a longing for the outdoors, he also purchased a ranch in Craig, Montana, in 1899.

With Chicago Griffith had six consecutive seasons (1894-1899) of over 20 wins. This is impressive because he had to adjust to the increase in 1893 of the pitching distance from 55 feet to 60 feet 6 inches.21 His was one of the best pitching records in late-nineteenth-century baseball.

Griffith was a National Leaguer, but he was not happy with the status of players under their current management arrangement with the reserve clause and salary control. He tried to organize players to challenge the status quo; in fact, he wanted to organize a union. He gained only moderate support from the players, who feared for their jobs if they challenged the system. Griffith met with his friendBan Johnson, who wanted to form a new league to address some of these issues. Thus began the American League.

Griffith tried to persuade National Leaguers to jump to the new circuit. For his efforts, he was named player-manager of the American League Chicago White Stockings in 1901 and 1902, and led Chicago to the first AL pennant, in 1901. The AL moved the Baltimore franchise to New York as the New York Highlanders in 1903, and Griffith was their player-manager from 1903 to June 1908. A team in New York City was crucial for the success of any league. Finding that the American League management and administration was little different from the National League, he returned to the NL in December 1908 as manager of the Cincinnati Reds, where he remained through the 1911 season. Ban Johnson drew Griffith back to the American League for the 1912 season as manager of the Senators.

Griffith was always thrifty with money, but in 1912 he purchased a 10 percent interest in the Senators. To raise the funds for the purchase, he “risked everything by mortgaging the Montana ranch he owned with his brother.”22 At the time the club had little going for it talentwise, except for Walter Johnson, but it did have a new ballpark. Even with lesser players, Griffith was still able to take the Senators into the first division several times.

The United States entered World War I in 1917. Griffith, as did many others, believed that military drill for players was patriotic and would prepare them if they were called up for the war effort. On Opening Day, April 25, the players drilled in military formation led by Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt. In lieu of weapons, the players carried baseball bats.23 In addition, Griffith raised money to purchase baseball equipment for National Guard camps. He worked out agreements with several sporting-goods companies to supply the equipment.24

The next major change to the home of Senators, now known as National Park, came with renovations in 1920s. With improved play on the field and increasing attendance for some visiting teams, such as the New York Yankees and the Cleveland Indians, revenues increased. The stands along the foul lines were given a covered second deck and extended almost the entire length of the foul lines. The second-deck roofs did not connect with the main grandstand because of grading issues. In addition, concrete bleachers were installed behind the left-field fence beyond the stands. These can be seen in a photo of Ty Cobb with the Detroit Tigers sliding into third base in 1924.25 The distance down the left-field line was 424 feet, the right-field line 326 feet, and center-field (unchanged) 421 feet.26 This unusual split in the roof line was given a nostalgic nod along the right-field line in Nationals Park, which opened in 2008.

In 1920 Griffith stepped down as manager and devoted himself full-time to administration of the club, with the approval of the Nationals’ major investor, William Richardson of Philadelphia. The custom of the era was to name the ballpark after the owner, as in Detroit’s Navin Field and Cleveland’s Dunn Field. However, although Richardson was the owner, the honor was given to Griffith since he oversaw the operations of the club.

Modifications to the playing area, particularly the relocation of fences, altered the foul lines and center-field distances. In 1926 the left-field line was decreased to 358 feet, the right-field line increased to 328 feet, and center field again remained unchanged. The next alteration came 10 years later, in 1936, when the left-field line was increased to 402 feet, while the right-field line and center-field distance were unaltered. In 1947 the left-field line was increased to 405 feet. The next realignment was in 1950, with the left-field line decreasing to 386 feet. The following year, 1951, the left-field line was increased to 408 feet. In 1955, the right-field line was decreased by 8 feet to 320 feet.27

The dimensions proved formidable to hitters. According to baseball-reference.com, “Just two players are known to have hit a fair ball out of Griffith Stadium – Mickey Mantle, who hit the famous ‘565-foot’ blast off Chuck Stobbs in 1953, and  Josh Gibson, who reportedly did it twice in the 1940s as a member of the [sometimes] Washington-based Homestead Grays,” the Negro League team that called D.C. its second home (along with Pittsburgh’s Forbes Field).28 However, Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians is credited with a 500-foot home run in 1949. The Washington Post declared of the blast, “When Larry Doby pumped that 500-foot home run over the scoreboard, over the Chesterfield sign and onto the rooftop beyond Griffith’s Stadium’s right field wall the other night, even Clark Griffith could admire the majesty of the swat.”29

The field’s one anomaly remained: the right-angle notch in the center-field fence, created because a homeowner would not sell the property when the park was renovated in 1920. The scoreboard with its giant National Bohemian beer bottle was in right-center field.30 Temporary lights were used for boxing and collegiate football, but not for baseball. Permanent light towers were installed for the 1941 season at a cost of $230,000. Shirley Povich of the Washington Post commented that “the added cash the night games fetched was permitting (Griffith) to go into the market for better ball players.”31 Washington profited from having night games, especially during the war years, which saw a great increase in government personnel in Washington.

Along with the changes in field dimensions, the ballpark’s capacity changed as well. In 1921 it was listed as 32,000; in 1936, 30,171; in 1939, 31,500; in 1940, 29,473; in 1941, 29,613; in 1947, 29,000; in 1948, 25,048; in 1952, 35,000; in 1960, 28,669; in 1961, 27,550.32 Note that the capacity averaged almost 30,000 until the 5,000-seat increase in 1952. In eight years, by 1960, the capacity had dropped to below 30,000.33

Before the age of loudspeakers or radio and TV broadcasting, the lineups for the game were given to the fans at the stadium by a man with a megaphone. At American League Park in 1901, E. Lawrence Phillips made these announcements along both the left- and right-field lines prior to the game. He did this for 28 years before retiring in 1928 but continued to use his megaphone after he purchased a carnival in 1934.34 A loudspeaker system was introduced in Griffith Stadium on September 1, 1930. It “seemed to make a hit with the fans, especially the early comers who were treated to a musical program before play started.”35

Other technological advances affected the game in the 1920s. In 1924, “Thousands of Washington baseball fans, unable to obtain tickets for the World Series games because of the limited capacity of the ball park, are listening in on the games by radio. Play by play descriptions of the games are radiocast directly from the ball park. …”36 In this instance, “sport radio’s first major star, Graham] McNamee,” broadcast the first of his 12 consecutive World Series.37 Local radio sales were up 60 percent, but sponsors were concerned that listeners would give up on the poor radio reception and opt for “a first-hand view of the ballgames.”38 The technology continued to improve so that in an article on public-address systems in use in Washington, Fred E. Kunkel reported that the system “is used at Griffith Ball Park picking up any and all sounds desired, in addition to the speaker’s voice announcing the progress of the game. Since most of the games played here by the Nationals are broadcast over the radio, the set has to be perfect in every respect. Pick-up microphones can be focused in any direction the sound is coming from to catch such details as the batter hitting the ball.”39

With the emergence of a quality team in the 1920s, the Senators won pennants in 1924, 1925, and 1933, crowned with a World Series victory in seven games in 1924 over the New York Giants. These teams were led by players like Muddy Ruel, Joe Judge, player-manager Bucky Harris, Goose Goslin, and Sam Rice. The pitchers included Tom Zachary, George Mogridge, and Walter Johnson, who was nearing the end of his career. Johnson lost Games One and Five of the 1924 Series, but got credit for the win in Game Seven as a reliever.

After the profitable 1924 season, Griffith purchased land for a home in Washington’s diplomatic row at 16th and Decatur Streets.40 The next year saw the Senators repeat as the AL champions. They lost the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games. Johnson pitched three games, winning Games One and Four, but losing Game Seven. Goslin kept his bat hot with eight hits in the Series.

Walter Johnson retired in 1927. When Washington returned to the World Series in 1933, Joe Cronin was the manager against the New York Giants, who took the Series, four games to one. Earl Whitehill won Washington’s only game, Game Three, 4-0. Goslin hit one of only two home runs in the series for the Senators along with teammate Fred Schulte.

The Senators hosted two All-Star Games at Griffith Stadium. In 1937, along with President Franklin Roosevelt, 31,391 people watched as the American League won, 8-3. Second baseman Buddy Myer and the Ferrell brothers (catcher Rick and pitcher Wes) represented the Senators. When the All-Star Game returned in 1956, the National League won, 7-3, with Senators outfielder Roy Sievers pinch-hitting in the ninth.

Although the Senators won only three pennants in Washington, they had many outstanding players. The 1902 AL batting champion was Ed Delahanty, who posted a .376 batting average. Leon Goslin won in 1928 with .379; Buddy Myer in 1935 with .349; and two-time winner Mickey Vernon topped the league in 1946 with .353 and in 1953 with .337. Perhaps the greatest hitting feat came from a Senators shortstop in 1941, when Cecil Travis slipped in between Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio with a .359 average for the season, second to Williams’s .406. After spending four years in the military and even enduring frostbite at one point, Travis returned for three seasons and finished his career in 1947 with a lifetime batting average of .314.

Despite the expansive dimensions of their home field, the Senators had two home-run champions, Roy Sievers in 1957 and Harmon Killebrew in 1959, each with 42 round-trippers. They also boasted several basestealing leaders, starting in 1906 with John Anderson, who stole 39 bases. Clyde Milan stole 88 in 1912 and 75 in 1913. Sam Rice led with 63 stolen bases in 1920. Ben Chapman stole 35 in 1937. From 1939 through 1943, George Case took the honors with 51, 35, 33, 44, and 61, respectively.

In the pitching department, 20-game winners include Bob Groom (1912), Stan Coveleski (1925), General Alvin Crowder (1932, ’33), Monte Weaver (1932), Earl Whitehill (1933), Emil Dutch Leonard (1939), Roger Wolff (1945), and Bob Porterfield (1953). Walter Johnson topped all Senators hurlers with 12 seasons in which he won 20 or more games. On August 2, 1927, in recognition of his accomplishments and to celebrate Johnson’s retirement after 20 years with the team, a granite shaft with a bronze tablet was to be placed in the ballpark. Billy Evans, who umpired Johnson’s first game, was to umpire the game.41 However, this did not occur and the monument to Walter Johnson was formally installed at Griffith Stadium in 1946 and dedicated by President Harry S. Truman.42 The monument is now installed at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland.

Black baseball also had an extended history at Griffith Stadium. Beginning with the Washington Potomacs (Eastern Colored League) in 1924, several teams used Griffith as their home ballpark. The Washington Pilots (East West League) came in 1932, followed by the Washington Elite Giants (Negro National League) in 1936-37 and the Washington Black Senators (Negro National League) in 1938. None of these teams achieved success either on the field or with attendance.43 The arrival of the Homestead Grays in 1940 changed this circumstance. During Homestead’s tenure through 1948 great players graced Griffith Stadium, including James Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Walter Buck Leonard, and Josh Gibson. The Grays won seven of their 10 Negro National League championships in seasons when they split their home games between Pittsburgh and Washington: 1940, ’41, ’42, ‘43, ‘44, ‘45, and ‘48. They won the Negro League World Series in 1943, 1944, and 1948, each time against the Birmingham Black Barons of the Negro American League. In 1946 the Grays hosted the East West All-Star Classic, which attracted a crowd of more than 15,000 and netted $7,500 for the Senators, whom the Grays paid for the use of the stadium.44

 

Washington’s black population increased during the war years. To reach this fan base, the Grays used their own public-relations man, who highlighted the team’s winning ways. There was easy access to Griffith from nearby Ladroit and Shaw neighborhoods that had large black populations, and the Howard University campus was close by as well. Meanwhile, Clark Griffith, in need of fans to fill the ballpark, lifted the ban on interracial games. With the added attraction of Satchel Paige to hurl several games and the Grays’ all-star lineup, both the Grays and Griffith profited. The Senators netted $60,000 from the Grays’ 11,600 or so fans per game in 1942, almost double the Senators’ average for the season. The next year, 1943, was even better, showing a net profit for the ballpark of $100,000 from the Grays, who drew 225,000 in 26 games. Because of the Grays’ drawing power that year, Griffith altered the Senators’ schedule so that the Grays could host the 1943 Negro League World Series. “It is easy to see Griffith’s reluctance to integrate which would potentially lead to the decimation of the Grays,” wrote a Griffith biographer.45 However, no small consideration may have been that this would result in significant loss of revenue for Griffith.

In addition to major-league and Negro League squads, other baseball teams used Griffith Stadium. In 1931, the Hollywood Movie Stars Girls Baseball Team was in Washington to compete against the Pullman Athletic Club. The Washington Post noted, “From all indications, today’s game will draw an unprecedented number of fans through the turnstiles to witness a team composed entirely of girls, movie actresses at that, in a baseball game with a rugged group of veteran sandlotters." All redheads were admitted as guests of “Freckles” HooRay of “Our Gang.” Griffith donated the use of the stadium for a benefit game for Frank Cinotti.46 Another charity game, this time to benefit the Metropolitan Police Boys Club, was held on July 12, 1947, and pitted Republican congressmen against Democratic congressmen. Chief Justice Fred Vinson threw out the first ball.47

Griffith recognized the value of entertainment for attracting crowds. As an example, he employed two mediocre former Senators, Al Schacht and Nick Altrock, to liven up the game with pantomime routines. In one instance, before a game they mimicked Vincent Richards and Suzanne Lenglen, two well-known tennis players. After the Senators lost to the Athletics, 13-3, the Washington Post reported, “(Schacht and Altrock) showed better form than many of the Washington players yesterday.”48 In another show, Schacht was “funmaking around the first base,” missed a ball, and was “hit in the back of the head and rendered … senseless. Spectators did not know whether Schacht was unconscious or whether he was acting. Several buckets of water thrown by Brownie revived the comedian and he resumed his antics to the great amusement of the crowd.”49 The pair were seen at many festivals at Griffith Stadium and at other ballparks.50 Besides being a player and comedian, Schacht coached third base for the Senators from 1925 to 1935; he served in World War II and later opened a restaurant in New York City.51 Altrock remained a favorite of Griffith and coached the Senators into the 1950s.52 Aside from the entertainment value, some of their antics were used as signals for plays, according to Bob Considine in the Washington Post.53

Other sporting events and entertainments generated additional revenue for the Senators. Football at the high-school, collegiate and professional levels was played at Griffith. The Washington Post reported in November of 1929 that “the strong Emerson Institute will host the Baylor Military Academy, prep school champions of Tennessee.”54 On December 7, 1929, Gonzaga played Devitt for the prep-school championship of Washington.55 Georgetown University used the ballpark as its home field from 1921 through 1950.56 George Washington University played there during the 1930s and ’40s. Schedule conflicts did arise but were worked out between Georgetown and George Washington. The colleges even scheduled night games at Griffith Stadium in 1930. “After-dinner football in wholesale quantities will be offered Washingtonians,” reported the Washington Post. “… Seven games will be played under huge floodlights. Teams of Georgetown and George Washington University, and the Marine Corps will participate in this first attempt of its kind in the city’s sports history.”57 The University of Maryland Terrapins played their home games at Griffith Stadium in 1948 while their own campus stadium was under construction.58 Howard University, located across the street from Griffith Stadium, used the stadium as the Bisons clashed with “their ancient rival, the Lions of Lincoln, in the thirty-fifth rivalry of their turkey day contest” in 1940.59

The Boston Redskins (originally the Braves) of the National Football League moved to Washington for the 1937 season and maintained the Redskins name. They met their opponents at Griffith Stadium for 34 seasons (through 1960). The team was moderately successful; however, in 1940 they lost to the Chicago Bears, 73-0, the worst championship loss in NFL history.60 The football teams contributed an average of $100,000 annually from rental and concessions alone.61 Griffith also profited from advertising and concessions for revenue. (Tobacco and beer companies sponsored game broadcasts.) In 1940 Griffith Stadium was spruced up with repainted seats (the paint cost $3,000); 150 truckloads of sod were used to repair the damage caused by the Redskins games.62


Boxing was prominent among the other sporting events. On July 25, 1938, Al Reid was an 8-5 favorite over Paul “Tennessee”) Lee.63 It rained, and the featherweight match was held the next night at Turner’s Arena. (Reid won a unanimous decision.) Rain often plagued events scheduled at Griffith Stadium.64 Lewis F. Atchison reported on a “lighting system rigged up to indicate the score of the for the fans’ enlightenment.”65 A green light appeared over the corner of the boxer who was leading in the match. A 10-round welterweight match featuring Holman Williams and Izzy Jannazzo was held on September 4, 1940; Jannazzo won the decision before a gathering of 2,500. These bouts were held outdoors, in a ring set up on the infield. The Williams-Jannazzo bout had been postponed a week because of rain.66 When Henry Armstrong, the welterweight champion, fought Phil Furr on September 23, 1940, a crowd of 15,000 and receipts of between $20,000 and $25,000 were expected.67 Heavyweight champ Joe Louis defeated challenger Buddy Baer on May 23, 1941.68 The rough-and-tumble match was ended at the beginning of the seventh round when Baer’s manager stopped the fight. The following year, two other heavyweight contenders, Lee Savold and Tony Musto, finally met after rain forced two postponements.69 On October 3, 1949, Joe Louis, attempting a comeback, returned to Griffith Stadium for an exhibition match against Abe Gestac.70 It is estimated that more than 150 boxing matches took place at Griffith Stadium.

Wrestling, another physical, combative sport, also was occasionally featured at Griffith Stadium. Wrestling was a colorful event in 1938, and audience participation was expected. Lewis F. Atchison reported of the Jim Londos-Bobby Bruns match, “[T]is rumored it will be a shooting match. That means only guns, knives and Cyclone Burns shirt will be barred as weapons. It is every man for himself, including the irate customers who inhabit the front row pews.”71 The popular wrestling events continued at Griffith Stadium, bolstered by colorful reporting in the Washington Post. For a wrestling card in August 1939, the newspaper commented, “After the culling the ranks of wrestledom – which needless to say are pretty rank – Turner (the promoter) chose the most ferocious of the four wrestling Duseks as the person to break the hindu’s celebrated cobra clutch.” For this bout between Najo Singh and Ernie Dusek, Turner expected a turnout of 4,000 to 6,000.72

During World War II, Griffith Stadium was used to aid the war effort through scrap-metal drives, War Bond sales, and benefit sporting events. The radio personality and singer Kate Smith, a Washington native, appeared for the pregame ceremony before a contest between the Nats and the Norfolk Naval Training Station on May 20, 1943. At home plate she delivered her “notable bond buying speech.”73 Bond buyers received a ticket to the game for each bond purchased in advance. The singer Bing Crosby also was slated to attend the event. During the Korean War, Griffith donated the receipts from the August 10, 1953, game between the Nats and the Red Sox to the Red Cross.74

Before the 1960s ballparks were not designed as multipurpose facilities; however, since they were often the largest venue in many cities, they also hosted nonathletic events. Griffith Stadium was a major entertainment center for the capital. It hosted dog races in May 1927. Tiny whippets from across the nation were brought to the city to race for the American Derby title. The weight of the dogs ranged from 10 to 14 pounds.75 On June 17, 1928, the Masonic Festival highlighted Shrine and Grotto drill teams before a crowd of 8,000.76 On June 7, 1932, students from the area competed in the Annual Competitive Drill Competition for high school cadet corps.77 In addition to the drill-team contests, there were also field days. The Colored Elks sponsored one such competition on July 27, 1930, at which events included a fat man race, a tug of war, a sack race, an exhibition drill, a 100-yard race, and baseball; about 2,000 people attended.78 There was also a “Night of Thrills,” an annual circus sponsored by the Masons for the benefit of the Mason and Eastern Star Home. Beginning in 1938, clowns, elephants, and trapeze artists provided annual entertainment.79

Griffith Stadium was even used for religious events. On a rainy night in October 1937, 200 people were baptized by immersion by Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux. Elder Michaux’s church, the Church of God, was across the street from the stadium. For the ceremony, the city Fire Department filled the baptismal tank to a depth of three feet with river water.80 The Billy Graham National Capital Crusade on June 19-26, 1960, was also held at Griffith Stadium and had an estimated attendance of more than 139,000 over eight days.81

Clark Griffith continued to be the administrator for the Senators and Griffith Stadium, but he also worked with his nephew, Calvin Griffith, and Calvin’s sister, Thelma Griffith Haynes. Griffith’s nephew and niece had been born in Montreal; after their father died, they moved to Washington and adopted the name Griffith.82 Upon Clark Griffith’s death on October 27, 1955, Calvin was elected club president. Clark Griffith left his 52 percent interest in the Senators to Calvin and Thelma, to be shared equally.

The last successful Senators squad was the team that finished in second place in 1945. In 1946, capitalizing on the previous season as well as the postwar return to normalcy, the Nationals drew a record 1,027,216. That was 400,000 more than in 1945 and 200,000 more than in 1947.83 Calvin Griffith did try to make the experience at the park more enjoyable for the spectators. In 1956, he changed the left-field foul line, which made room for more seating and added a beer garden.84 However, the ensuing years were marked by declining attendance and the deterioration of the ballpark. Bill DeWitt, president of the St. Louis Browns, declared, “Griffith Stadium is one of the most rundown excuses for a ballpark in the majors.”85 This was harsh criticism from a club spokesman whose own venue, Sportsman’s Park, was no palace either.

Calvin Griffith was interested in moving out of Washington because of the deteriorating neighborhood around the ballpark, the racial makeup of the city, and the new competition from the Baltimore Orioles starting in 1954. The American League did not want to lose Washington.

Rumors had circulated as early as the late 1950s about the prospect of a new facility to include the Senators. Finally, after much political maneuvering, the development of a large, dual purpose (baseball-football) stadium began. The proposed location was the end of East Capitol Street near the D.C. Armory.86 Calvin Griffith had mixed emotions about the prospect of a new stadium in Washington. His reservations were numerous. “Turning to the matter of a stadium in Washington, I feel that the capital of the United States needs one and should have one,” Griffith said. “The Washington ballclub would consider playing its games in a new stadium.” He was weighing the fact that the club owned the paid-for Griffith Stadium, controlled the concessions, could rent out the facility for added income, and made their own decisions. “We know, on the other hand, that our patrons, who otherwise attend theaters, restaurants, and watch television in the comfort of their home living rooms, have come to expect more and convenient parking, more ample aisle space, roomier seats, more concession stands at our ball park.”87

Griffith’s critics questioned why he listened to offers from other cities. “My answer: I will give that much courtesy to the mayor of any city or his representatives. Besides, the Washington baseball club is a corporation with many stockholders, it is my obligation as their president to listen … to any proposition that would improve the value of their holdings. We are not seeking offers. … We do not invite offers. In fact, we discouraged them.”88

Despite Griffith’s frequent expressions of loyalty to Washington, he was interested in moving the club out of the capital. He became enamored with Minneapolis. He gained permission from the American League to move there in 1961. His reasons for moving were not always clear. However, Nick Coleman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that Griffith told the Lions Club of Waseca, Minnesota, “I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when I found out you only had 15,000 blacks here. Black people don’t go to ballgames, but they’ll fill up a rassling ring and put up such a chant it’ll scare you to death. It’s unbelievable. We came here because you’ve got good, hard-working white people.”89 The American League, fearing congressional backlash against baseball’s antitrust exemption, awarded an expansion franchise to Washington also, to be known as the Senators. The Los Angeles Angels entered the American League in the same year, making it a 10-team league. The expansion Senators moved into Griffith Stadium in 1961 for one year. The following season they moved to new D.C. Stadium. After 10 years in Washington, owner Robert Short moved the club to Arlington, Texas, in 1972, where they became the Texas Rangers.

In a fitting tribute, the carillon of the Church of God, across the street from the ballpark stadium, rang out with “Auld Lang Syne” on the last day the Senators played there.90

Epilogue

Howard University purchased the Griffith Stadium site for its University Hospital, and the ballpark was demolished in 1965.91 The location of home plate is marked inside the hospital entrance. A plaque along Georgia Avenue notes the historic ballpark and notable moments in its history.92 The spring-training site for the Senators, Tinker Field in Orlando, Florida, became the home for 1,000 seats from Griffith Stadium, which remained there until Tinker Field also was demolished in 2015. 93

 

This biography appears in "Bittersweet Goodbye: The Black Barons, the Grays, and the 1948 Negro League World Series" (SABR, 2017), edited by Frederick C. Bush and Bill Nowlin.

 

Sources

In addition to the sources cited in the Notes, the author also consulted Baseball-Reference.com, Baseball-Almanac.com, and a variety of other sources including:

Books

Elston, Gene. A Stitch in Time: A Baseball Chronology, 3rd Ed. (Houston: Halcyon Press Inc., 2006).

Lowry, Philip J. Green Cathedrals: The Ultimate Celebration of Major League and Negro League Ballparks (New York: Walker & Company, 2006).

Seymour, Harold. Baseball: The People’s Game (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Snyder, Brad. Beyond the Shadow of the Senators (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003).

Thomas, Henry W. Walter Johnson: Baseball’s Big Train (Washington: Phenom Press, 1995).

Newspapers and Magazines

Atchison, Lewis F. “New Yorker Rallies After Slow Start,” Washington Post, July 27, 1938: 16.

“Coast Guards Clash With Marines: Teams Appear Well Matched for Service Title Game,” Washington Post, November 2l, 1929.

“Daisy Belles Play Twin Bill Here Tonight,” Washington Post, May 5, 1951.

“Display Ad 21 – No Title,” Washington Post, May 24, 1926: 15.

“Girls Teams Play Tonight,” Washington Post, May 9, 1952.

“G.W.-Ursinus to Attract Notables,” Washington Post, November 5, 1926.

Johnson, Mrs. Walter Perry, “Loss of Game Was Hard, But ‘Luck’ at Bat Did It, Says Mrs. Walter Johnson,” Washington Post, October 5, 1924: 2.

McCannon, Jim. “Famous ‘Pebble’ Is Forever Lost in Memories of Griffith Stadium,” Washington Post and Times Herald, March 22, 1964.

“Movie Girls Play Here Tomorrow: Meet Pullman Nine at Stadium in Benefit Day,” Washington Post, August 8, 1931.

“New Baseball Park: Local Owners Plan Another Home for Nationals,” Washington Post, January 5, 1910: 8.

“Photo Standalone 1 – No Title,” Washington Post, April 18, 1927: 13.

Weingardt, Richard G. “Frank Osborn: Nation’s Pioneer Stadium Designer,” STRUCTURE magazine, March 2013: 61-63.

Wyatt, Dick. “Virginia, Maryland Clash in Griffith Stadium Tonight,” Washington Post, November 4, 1944.

Young, Frank H. “12,000 Fans Cheer Harris, Johnson, Peck, Others as Youth Is Served in Game,” Washington Post, August 16, 1932: 9.

Online Sources

Bennett, Bryon. “Griffith Stadium and the Site of D.C.’s First National Park,” deadballbaseball.com/?p=3073 (deadballbaseball.com/?p=3073), accessed August 20, 2016.

Clem, Andrew. “Clem’s Baseball: Our National Pastime and Its ‘Green Cathedrals,’ Griffith Stadium 1911-1961, andrewclem.com/Baseball/GriffithStadiium.html#Diag (andrewclem.com/Baseball/GriffithStadiium.html#Diag), accessed September 8, 2016.

“Cleveland Architects: Osborn Engineering Company,” planning.city.cleveland.oh.us/landmark/arch/pdf/archdetailPrint.php?afil=&archID=189

(http://planning.city.cleveland.oh.us/landmark/arch/pdf/archdetailPrint.p...), accessed September 19, 2016.

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“Griffith Stadium,” projectballpark.org/history/al/griffth.html (Projectballpark.org/history/al/griffith.html), accessed July 29, 2016.

“Griffith Stadium, on Last Legs, Succumbs to Wrecker’s Pounding,” Washington Post and Times Herald, February 12, 1965.

“History,” Osborn-eng.com/History (http://Osborn-eng.com/History), accessed July 29, 2016.

“Lease Requirements to Replace Griffith Stadium,” ghostsofdc.org/2016/06/29/lease-requirements-replace-griffith-stadium/ (ghostsofdc.org/2016/06/29/lease-requirements-replace-griffith-stadium/), accessed July 7, 2016.

Richard, Paul. “Lights From Griffith Stadium Towers to Shine Again at City Playgrounds,” Washington Post and Times Herald, May 14, 1966.

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Notes

1 The names Senators and Nationals were used interchangeably over the years until the team left Washington in 1965.

2 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Washington, District of Columbia. Sanborn Map Company, 1916 Vol. 2, 1904 – 1916, 127.

3 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Washington, District of Columbia. Sanborn Map Company, 1916 Vol. 2, 1904 – 1916, 173.

4 “1903 AL-NL Peace Agreement,” roadsidephotos.sabr.org/baseball/1903 AL-NL.htm (roadsidephotos.sabr.org/baseball/1903 AL-NL.htm), accessed October 1, 2016.

5 The multiple names in use for the two sites that the Senators/Nationals called home from 1891 through 1964 cause confusion. The primary location, in Northwest Washington at Florida Avenue NW and Georgia Avenue NW, was known as Boundary Field, National Park, or American League Park II. This is near Howard University and where Griffith Stadium was built. The other site used from 1901-1903 was located at Florida Avenue NE and Trinidad Avenue. It was known as American League Park, and then as American League Park I, to distinguish it from American League Park II.

6 J. Ed Grillo, “Sporting Comment,” Washington Post, January 6, 1910: 8.

7 “Local Owners Plan Another Home for Nationals,” Washington Post, January 5, 1910: 8.

8 “Cleveland Architects: Osborn Engineering Company,” http://planning.city.cleveland.oh.us/landmark/arch/pdf/archdetailPrint.p..., accessed September 19, 2016.

9 “Play Ball April 12,” Washington Post, March 18, 1911: 1.

10 Ibid.

11 “Accommodations for Opening Game Assured---Ban Johnson Here,” Washington Post, March 20, 1911: 12.

12 “Ready for ‘Fans,’” Washington Sunday Star, April 9, 1911: 1, 3.

13 “Griffith Stadium,” Baseball-Almanac.com, http://baseball-almanac.com/stadium/st_griff.shtml, accessed January 1, 2017.

14 Ibid.

15 “1911 Washington Senators,” Baseball-Almanac.com, http://baseball-almanac.com/teamstats/schedule.php?y=1911&t=WS1, accessed September 15, 2016.

16 Patrick Mondout, “Taft Becomes First President to Throw First Pitch (4/14/1910),” Baseball Chronology: The Game Since 1845,”  http://baseballchronology.com/baseball/Years/1910/April/14-Taft, accessed August 17, 2016.

17 “1924 Washington Senators,” Baseball-Almanac.com, http://baseball-almanac.com/teamstats/schedule.php?y=1924&t=WS1, accessed September 13, 2016; “President to Throw First Ball for Olympic Quota,” Washington Post, May 17, 1924: 9.

18 “Play Ball April 12,” Washington Post, March 18, 1911: 1.

19 “Phillies Here First,” Washington Post, January 25, 1910: 8.

20 “Cleveland Architects: Osborn Engineering Company,” http://planning.city.cleveland.oh.us/landmark/arch/pdf/archdetailPrint.p..., accessed September 19, 2016.

21 “National League / Major League Rule Change Timeline: In Chronological Order,” http://baseball-almanac.com/rulechng.shtml, accessed September 20, 2016.

22 Mike Grahek, “Clark Griffith,” SABR BioProject, http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/96624988, accessed November 24, 2016.

23 “Franklin D. Roosevelt Opening Baseball Game,” Getty Images, http://gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo/assistant-secretary-of-the-navy..., accessed October 15, 2016.

24 Brian McKenna, Clark Griffith: Baseball’s Statesman (self-published, 2010), 295.

25 “1924 Detroit Tiger Ty Cobb Safe after Triple Hit Photo Griffith Stadium Baseball,” http://ebay.com/itm/1924-DETROIT-TIGER-TY-COBB-SAFE-AFTER-TRIPLE-HIT-POT....

26 “Griffith Stadium,” Baseball-Almanac.com, http://baseball-almanac.com/stadium/st_griff.shtml, accessed January 1, 2017.

27 Ibid. For diagrams of the field with dimensions and profiles of stands for 1911, 1921, 1954, 1957, and football, see Andrew Clem, “Clem’s Baseball: Our National Pastime and Its “Green Cathedrals,” Griffith Stadium 1911-1961, http://andrewclem.com/Baseball/GriffithStadium.html#Diag, accessed September 8, 2016.

28 "Griffith Stadium," SABR/Baseball-Reference.com Encyclopedia, http://baseball-reference.com/bullpen/Griffith_Stadium, accessed January 5, 2017.

29 Shirley Povich, “This Morning,” Washington Post, May 27, 1949: B4.

30 McKenna, 274.

31 Shirley Povich, The Washington Senators (New York: G.P. Putnam’s & Sons, 1954), 219.

32 “Griffith Stadium,” Baseball-Almanac.com, http://baseball-almanac.com/stadium/st_griff.shtml, accessed January 1, 2017.

33 Ibid.

34 Bill McCormick, “Phillips Buys a Circus; Now He Can Bark on His Own Hook,” Washington Post, April 22, 1934: 17.

35 Frank H. Young, “Centerfielder Must Rest Elbow,” Washington Post, September 2, 1930, 18.

36 “Thousands of Fans Ticketless, Hear of Series Over Radio,” Washington Post, October 5, 1924: EA10.

37 Graham McNamee,” Baseball Hall of Fame, http://baseballhall.org/discover/awards/ford-c-frick/2016-candidates/mcn..., accessed November 18, 2016.

38 “Thousands of Fans Ticketless, Hear of Series Over Radio.”

39 Fred E. Kunkel, “Capitol’s Sound Amplifying Systems Serve Many Purposes,” Washington Post, June 30, 1935: B9.

40 McKenna, 195.

41 “Tablet Given as Johnson Memorial,” Washington Post, July 23, 1927: 15.

42 http://deadballbaseball.com/?p=2283, accessed January 1, 2017.

43 McKenna, 275.

44 McKenna, 276.

45 Ibid.

46 “Hollywood Girls to Play Baseball at Stadium Today,” Washington Post, September 1, 1931: 15.

47 “Congressmen Play Baseball Today at Griffith Stadium,” Washington Post, July 12, 1947: 11.

48 “Washington Clowns Aid Mack’s Elephants to Stage 3-Ring Baseball Circus,” Photo Standalone 1 – No Title, Washington Post, April 18, 1927: 13.

49 “Thomas Halts 3-Run Rally in Ninth,” Washington Post, August 12, 1929: 9.

50 “Masonic Festival Features Delight Crowd at Stadium,” Washington Post, June 17, 1928: 2.

51 Al Schacht, my own particular screwball (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, 1955), 231-235.

52 “The Manager and His Aides,” Washington Nationals yearbook 1953: 7.

53 Bob Considine, “Runs-Hits and Errors,” Washington Post, January 12, 1933: 10.

54 “Color Added to Emerson Contest,” Washington Post, November 26, 1929: 20.

55 “Gonzaga to Play Devitt at Griffith Stadium,” Washington Post, November 30, 1929: 16.

56 “History & Tradition: Stadia Of Georgetown, http://hoyafootball.com/history/stadia.htm, accessed January 8, 2016.

57 “7 Night Football Contests at Griffith Stadium in Fall,” Washington Post, May 25, 1930: 20.

58 Jack Walsh, “Terps Play Four Grid Games at Griffith Stadium,” Washington Post, April 4, 1948: C1.

59 “Howard Meets Lincoln at Griffith Stadium,” Washington Post, November 21, 1940: 31.

60 Al Hailey, “36,000 See Bears Crush Redskins for Title, 73-0,” Washington Post, December 9, 1940: 1.

61 McKenna, 275.

62 Al Hailey, “Griffith Stadium Gets Annual Face-Lifting,” Washington Post, March 29, 1940: 23.

63 Lewis F. Atchison, “Reid Rates an 8-5 Favorite Over Lee in Griffith Stadium Battle,” Washington Post, July 25, 1938: x13.

64 “Reid Rates”: 16.

65 “Reid Rates”: x13.

66 “Twice-Postponed Welter Battle Goes on in Griffith Stadium,” Washington Post, September 4, 1940: 24.

67 “15,000 Expected to See Griffith Stadium Bout,” Washington Post, September 23, 1940: 17.

68 Tony Neri, “Joe Saw Opening, ‘Hit Baer as Matter of Routine’ in Sixth,” Washington Post, May 24, 1941: 15.

69 Tony Neri, “Heavyweight Battle Heads Twice-Postponed Card at Griffith Stadium,” Washington Post, August 16, 1942: SP2.

70 “Bomber Faces Cestac at Griffith Stadium,” Washington Post, October 3, 1949: 11.

71 Lewis F. Atchison, “Bruns Meets Londos at Griffith Stadium,” Washington Post, June 16, 1938: 21.

72 “Nanjo Singh Meets Dusek Thursday in Griffith Stadium,” Washington Post, August 27, 1939: SP3.

73 Shirley Povich, “Kate Smith, 1st Lady of Radio, to Appear at War Bond Game,” Washington Post, May 20, 1943: 1.

74 “Red Cross Begins Fund Program in Pro Ball Parks,” Spokane Review, July 28, 1953.

75 “Tiny Whippet Will Race Here,” Washington Post, May 17, 1927: 14.

76 “Masonic Festival Features Delight Crowd at Stadium,” Washington Post, June 17, 1928: 2.

77 “High School Cadet Drills End Today,” Washington Post, June 7, 1932: 18.

78 “Joint Field Day Held by Colored Elks,” Washington Post, July 27, 1930: M2.

79 10th Annual Night of Thrills, May 23, 1947, Souvenir Program, 14th Annual Night of Thrills, June 8, 1948, Souvenir Program, 15th Annual Night of Thrills, June 13, 1952, Souvenir Program, Night of Thrills, June 21st 1940, Souvenir Program, Night of Thrills, June 6, 1941, Souvenir Program.

80 “200 Baptized By Rain, River and Michaux,” Washington Post, October 4, 1937: 4.

81 “Billy Graham Predicts Christians’ Persecution,” Washington Post, June 27, 1960: B1.

82 “Thelma Griffith Haynes, 82, Baseball Owner,” (obituary), New York Times, October 17, 1995.

83 “The Senators: Year By Year (1901-1965),” The Senators 1966 Yearbook: 55.

84 “Griffith Stadium,” http://thisgreatgame.com/allparks-griffith-stadium.html, accessed October 1, 2016.

85 Chris Elzey and David K. Wiggins, ed. DC Sports: The Nation’s Capital at Play (Fayetteville, Arkansas: The University of Arkansas Press, 2015), 30.

86 Brett L. Abrams, Capital Sporting Grounds: A History of Stadium and Ballpark Construction in Washington, D.C. (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2008), 189-195.

87 Calvin R. Griffith, “Griffith Not Happy With Armory Stadium Site,” Washington Post, January 15, 1958: A18.

88 Ibid.

89 Howard Sinker, “Recalling Calvin Griffith’s Bigoted Outburst in Southern Minnesota,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, April 2014, http://startribune.com/recalling-ex-twins-owner-griffith-s-bigoted-outbu..., accessed on December 8, 2016.

90 Dave Brady, “TV Writes Requiem to Griffith Stadium,” Washington Post, November 11, 1964, Baseball Hall of Fame, Griffith Stadium file.

91 While in Washington in July 1965, I picked up two bricks from the rubble at Griffith Stadium. They remain proudly in my possession today as bookends.

92 Byron Bennett, “Griffith Stadium and the Site of D.C.’s First National Park,” http://deadballbaseball.com/?=3073, accessed August 20, 2016.

93 “Griffith Stadium,” http://thisgreatgame.com/allparks-griffith-stadium.html, accessed October 1, 2016.