To the editor:
Who would ever have thought the nation’s capital would endure 33 years without Major League Baseball?
I certainly didn’t as I drove with a high school buddy to RFK Stadium on the night of Sept. 30, 1971. My beloved Senators were about to play their final game in Washington, D.C. before departing for Texas to become the Rangers. American League owners had voted 10-2 to allow owner Bob Short to move his team to what he thought would be greener pastures down south.
I could sense despair in the voice of Ron Menchine, the Senators’ radio play-by-play broadcaster. But on this night, there was a sense of excitement as a larger crowd than usual showed up to witness history. In the center field upper deck, fans unfurled two large sheets with a simple message: “Short stinks.”
Another huge sign, unfurled later in the game, was far more vulgar, and the crowd loved it. We had hoped the Senators, who had struggled all season and decades for that matter, would finally give their fans something to cheer about.
The New York Yankees jumped to an early 5-0 lead. But several innings later, slugger Frank Howard electrified the crowd by hitting a line drive home run that barely cleared the left field fence. It sent the crowd into a frenzy for several minutes as “Hondo” rounded the bases and waved to the fans. The blast inspired his teammates, who rallied to take the lead.
The Senators were within one out of closing their 71-year history on a high note. Then, a young man sprinted onto the field, grabbed second base and ran off. That prompted hundreds of others to storm the field searching for souvenirs. Some ripped out huge numbers from the scoreboard, ripped up chunks of sod and anything else within reach. One man with shoulder length hair shimmied up a flagpole and tried to steal the American flag.
RFK’s legendary P.A. announcer Charlie Brotman implored rowdy fans to clear the field or the game would be forfeited. Sadly, the crowd did not comply.
The small number of uniformed police officers at RFK were vastly outnumbered, helpless to stop the melee. Twenty minutes went by before a large contingent of Metropolitan Police tactical officers in riot gear suddenly emerged from the Yankees’ dugout. They formed a line and then charged through the infield. The sight of helmeted officers sent the mob scrambling back toward the stands.
But by then, it was too late. With the once pristine field literally torn to shreds, the umpires had no choice but to declare a forfeit. The Senators were ahead, but the Yankees were declared the winner. Menchine described the fans’ behavior as “despicable.”
My friend and I never considered running onto the field to join the rambunctious crowd. After all, I always viewed a major league baseball field as sacred ground. It later dawned on me the raucous crowd had prevented other fans from bidding their team a proper farewell.
No one hit more home runs in the final seven seasons than Frank Howard. Dick Bosman, who started the final game, was the Senators’ best pitcher in recent years. It was also Hall of Famer Ted Williams’ last game as manager. Two years earlier, he led the team to its first winning season in more than a quarter century.
After the ’71 season, some diehard fans were still convinced D.C. would receive yet another team. After all, when the old Senators moved from Washington to Minnesota after the 1960 season, the city was awarded an expansion franchise for the ’61 season. Call me an optimist, but I always thought baseball would return to D.C., even though it took more than three decades. I guess Major League Baseball could no longer discount the huge D.C. media market and affluent fan base.
So now, a new generation of fans has been spoiled by a spectacular ballpark in a burgeoning part of town and the great success of the Nationals, who surprised virtually everyone by capturing the 2019 World Series. And while a promising 2021 season suddenly crumbled with injuries and wholesale trades of marquee players, Major League Baseball in Washington is here to stay. Hopefully, Nats’ fans won’t take that for granted.
-John Rydell, Baltimore