This article was written by Norman Macht
This article was published in The National Pastime: Monumental Baseball (Washington, DC, 2009)
What’s in a name? If it’s a baseball team’s name, there’s a story in it.
The story of what to call Washington, D.C., baseball teams (except “last in the American League”) began in confusion and remained that way for almost a hundred years.
Professional league base ball began in Washington in 1871, with the Olympic Base Ball Club entering the newly formed National Association. Thus they were referred to as the Olympics, although locally they were known as the Blue Stockings. The following year they were usually called the Washingtons, a common form of identification in those days. Somewhere about that time, the tag “Nationals” came into use. The league disbanded after the 1875 season.
Expansion baseball was launched in 1884 with two 13-team leagues; the Union Association, which lasted one year, competing against the already established American Association. Washington, although one of the smaller cities in the nation, ambitiously fielded teams in both leagues. And that began the confusion. Since its first professional team had been known as the Nationals before its demise, it seemed appropriate to continue using that moniker.
But for which team? The answer, in the political tradition of the city’s principal business: both.
The Union club was sometimes the Unions, sometimes the Washingtons, sometimes the Nationals. The AA team was also called the Nationals. Readers of the Washington Post, confronted with headlines like “The Nationals Win and the Washingtons Lose,” had to read on to discover who did what.
There being nothing official about any of these tags, the newspapers exercised a journalistic fielder’s choice. When the capital entered the National League in 1886, the Post revived the Nationals; the Evening Star chose to call the team the Statesmen. By 1888, Senators began replacing Nationals.
But they were still losers, by whatever name. In 1890 the entire roster decamped for Buffalo in the Players League, leaving D.C. with no professional team until they took a one-year lease on the American Association’s basement in 1891. Game accounts continued to use both “Nationals” and “Senators,” sometimes in the same paragraph, even the same bank of headlines.
Washington rejoined the National League in 1892. When the season opened on April 12, the Post tried to stay with the Nationals, but other papers would have nothing to do with it. The Post headline read: “The Nationals Yield to the Superior Work of the Bostons.”
The Boston Globe’s read: “Boston Cools the Marrow in Senators Bones.”
A week later the Post surrendered, and from then until the club once again expired after the 1899 season, the Senators reigned in the papers, if not in the standings.
When the American League declared war on the National League in 1901, they moved the Kansas City franchise to the vacant Washington territory. Under-financed and undermanned, the club began life with AL president Ban Johnson running things behind the scenes. To differentiate between the leagues, newspapers used such terms as “Boston Nationals” and “Boston Americans.” Calling the new American League Washington team the Nationals just wouldn’t work. Besides, “National” was a dirty word to Ban Johnson. From opening day they were the Senators in most papers.
A year after the two leagues ended their war in 1903, Ban Johnson persuaded two newspapermen in Washington to take the team off the league’s hands. Thomas C. Noyes was city editor of the Star; Scott C. Bone was managing editor of the Post. It took until 1905 to completely extricate the league from the operation of the team.
The new owners wanted to end all confusion and come up with a single universal team name. In March 1905 they asked the fans for suggestions that would clearly identify the team with the nation’s capital. The replies, like the results of a psychologist’s word association test, ranged from Diplomats to Grafters. A committee of local writers favored the old original Nationals. The new owners preferred Senators. Left to the fans to choose between them, the overwhelming winner was Nationals.
But the issue was never really settled to anyone’s satisfaction. And perhaps that is what most truly identifies the team with the nation’s capital.For the next 55 years, the local papers used Nationals or Nats while the rest of the world continued to call them the Senators. Bowing to the marketplace, in 1954 the Putnam series of team histories published The Washington Senators, by the Post’s Shirley Povich, while his paper’s sports pages were still using Nats. The same is true of other histories and biographies, from Morris A. Bealle’s Washington Senators1 in 1947 to biographies, by Cecil Travis (2005)2 and Sam Rice (2007),3 of “the Senators.”
And then they packed up and moved to Minnesota. Their replacement in D.C. continued the name “Senators” until they packed up and moved to Texas in 1971. By the time the latest version was reincarnated in 2006, nobody wanted anything to do with the tag “Senators.” Or maybe they just didn’t want any name tag that might identify them with that particular group of one hundred. Under the Lerner ownership, the team is now officially the Washington Nationals Baseball Club LLC.
- Morris Bealle, The Washington Senators: An 87-Year History of the World’s Oldest Baseball Club and Most Incurable Fandom (Washington, D.C.: Columbia Publishing, 1947).
- Rob Kirkpatrick, Cecil Travis of the Washington Senators: The War-Torn Career of an All-star Shortstop (Jefferson, C.: McFarland, 2005).
- Jeff Carroll, Sam Rice: A Biography of the Washington Senators Hall of Famer (Jefferson, C.: McFarland, 2007).