Baseball

Grassroots History: The Annual D.C. Baseball History Meeting

Washington Senators team stands on first baseline at RFK Stadium, April 5, 1971. (Photo by Marion S. Trikosko, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection at the Library of Congress)

It's pretty common for historical societies or universities to sponsor history conferences. They generally have budgets (albeit small ones) and staffs to put on events. But, the annual D.C. Baseball History Meeting is something different. Each February, almost all by himself, Mark Hornbaker creates a unique event for local baseball history enthusiasts.

On his own dime, Hornbaker brings different speakers — including former Washington Senators and Nationals players, authors and journalists — to town for a discussion of the history of the national pasttime in Washington. A packed room of 80 attendees come (for free!) to enjoy stories and share some of their own. We recently sat down with Mark to discuss this year's meeting, how he got interested in D.C. baseball history, and how he pulls off the event.

Bob Hope in Cleveland Indians uniform (Credit: Bettmann / Getty)

That Time Bob Hope Almost Bought the Washington Senators

Bob Hope was no stranger to Washington. The comic was well traveled and visited the nation’s capital numerous times for performances and events particularly through his work with the U.S.O. Hope and his wife Delores also periodically came to town to visit their son, Tony, who was a student at Georgetown in the early 1960s and, later, a Washington attorney and lobbyist. In 1968, however, Hope was angling for a more permanent connection to the District when the Washington Senators baseball club went up for sale.

Washington Hosts the Midsummer Classic, 1937

Seven of the American League All-Star players, from left to right Lou Gehrig, Joe Cronin, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Gehringer, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. All seven would eventually be elected to the Hall of Fame. (Source: Library of Congress)

"The visions that baseball fans could conjure only in their fondest dreams will evolve as realisms at Griffith Stadium on Wednesday when spectacle will be heaped on spectacle, thrill piled on thrill. There, in a contest apart from all the rest, the dream game comes to life." Though few others described the mood as eloquently as Shirley Povich, many in the nation’s capital shared his excitement as Washington prepared to host its first baseball All-Star game in 1937.

1884: The Year of Two Nationals

1888 Washington Nationals Baseball Club (Source: Wikipedia)

Over the years, Washington, D.C. has been home to numerous professional baseball teams, very few of them with winning records. But, 1884 might take the cake for weirdness. That year, the nation's capital boasted two separate teams called the Washington Nationals. They finished a combined 59-116.

Vin Scully postcard (Photo source: Official Vin Scully website)

Vin Scully Gets His Start on WTOP

If you are a baseball fan, you know Vin Scully. Heck, even if you aren’t a baseball fan you probably know Vin Scully. He’s been broadcasting Dodgers games since 1950 – first in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles. His smooth delivery and anecdotes have captivated listeners for decades. That's why he’s been called the “best of all time” and “a national treasure” amongst other lauds.

But had it not been for a summer job in Washington, who knows how Scully’s career would have turned out?

President Taft probably didn't realize he was starting a tradition when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals' Opening Day game in 1910. (Source: George W. Bush White House)

President Taft Starts a Baseball Tradition in Washington, 1910

“Scan all the annals of Washington base ball as you will – go back to the very inception of the national game – there will be found no day so altogether glorious no paean of victory changed by rooters and fanatics half so sweet as that witnessed yesterday in honor of the opening of the season on 1910.” So read the Washington Post the morning after the Washington Nationals’ 3-0 season-opening victory over the Philadelphia Athletics.

The account may have been a bit rhetorical, but D.C. had reason to be excited, beyond the normal good cheer of baseball’s opening day and the happy result of the game. On April 14, 1910, the city had made history by inaugurating a now-famous tradition: the Presidential first pitch.

Baseball But No Palm Trees: Nats Wartime Spring Training

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, shown here in throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Griffith Stadium in 1934, recommended that baseball continue during World War II. However, teams were expected to curtail travel and conduct spring training close to home. (Photo source: National Archives)

Ah, Major League Baseball Spring Training, the annual spring rite when ball clubs escape the cold of the north and go to Florida or Arizona to shake off the winter rust. Teams have been doing it for over one hundred years.

In fact, our hometown Washington Nationals began the trend – sort of –  in 1888 when they became the first club to hold camp in Florida, setting up shop in Jacksonville. The experiment was a little before its time. When the Nats finished the 1888 season with a 46-86 record (a mere 37 and a half games out of first place), they and other teams decided traveling South to train was not a recipe for success.

It took a few years, but teams eventually reconsidered and – thanks largely to a sunshine state building boom – Florida’s Grapefruit League was well established by the 1930s. The Washington Senators camped in Orlando in 1936 and stayed there until 1960, except for a memorable three-year stretch during World War II.

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