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Senators Week

Clark Griffith Was Too Cheap To Integrate Baseball

The 1948 Homestead Grays.
Photo: Getty Images

As you may have deduced this week, there are way too many senators in the world, and not enough good ones, for us to be devoting this much time to them, and yet the logo is simply too good a bit of work to shelve quite yet. But rather than try to engage you in the hilarity that would come if Our Ottawan Beloveds continue their run of good form and pass Calgary in the North Division standings to be a fifth place team eliminated from the playoffs while the sixth and seventh-place teams are not yet, let’s offer up the Washington Senators—the second of three franchises to bear the name. Or, as it turns out, The Team That Could Have Integrated Baseball If Only Their Owner Would Have Kept His Word.

Those Senators would become the Twins, whom you know about. They play every day, they once had Kirby Puckett, and blah blah blah-de-blah blah. The Senators, though, have a special and quite deservedly unrecognized place in baseball history because for the middle 50 years of their 60-year history, they weren’t even officially the Senators, but the Nationals, only nobody called them that. That’s committing to the bit.

Other than that, they are famous for three things, in no particular order:

The phrase, “First In War, First In Peace, And Last In The American League,” a tribute to George Washington and a mockery of the “Solons,” which was one of the ridiculous pet nicknames the Sporting News used to use for them. Player/manager Clark Griffith, who thought the original owners were too cheap to run a ballclub, assembled the money to buy the team and then became the next generation’s prototypical cheap owner. With modern athletes buying into teams now as places to unload their extra millions, this is a trend worth monitoring. The NatiSens won three American League pennants and one World Series in those years, essentially wasting the career of Walter Johnson, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history and the team’s kindly old centerpiece.

The popular 1954 book The Year The Yankees Lost The Pennant and the subsequent play and movie Damn Yankees, in which a Senators fan sells his soul in exchange for being transformed into a Robert Redford-in-The-Natural type. There is singing and dancing and Gwen Verdon in tights striking poses that the censors thought too racy and therefore not worth your bother, but it was considered a hit to your grandparents.

The time Clark Griffith, watching the Negro League Homestead Grays packing Griffith Stadium as a tenant of the Senators and watching black fans filling the segregated bleachers at the stadium for Senators games as well, thought it might be a good idea to tell legendary black sportswriter Sam Lacy in the Washington Tribune, “The time is not far off when colored players will take their places beside those of other races in the major leagues. However, I am not so sure that time has arrived yet.”

As explained by Brad Snyder in a 2003 Washington Post story, people in town took that to mean that Griffith, who had already shown a penchant for signing Cuban players of varying skin tones, would be the first man to integrate the game, especially with Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, future Hall of Famers, there for the signing.

Instead (and I think you know where this is heading), in 1943 Griffith asked Gibson and Leonard if they would consider signing with the Senators and then reneged because the money the Grays provided in rent and concessions was too good to give up. Black fans, their hopes bludgeoned over a few hot dogs and beers, stopped going to Senators games entirely and did not return even when they finally did sign a black player in 1954. A year later, in an unrelated development, Griffith died, leaving his nephew/adopted son Calvin to run the team long enough to move it to Minneapolis in 1961, and leave as his most easily remembered deed a 1978 speech to the Waseca Lions Club in which he offered this piquant analysis of the benefits of the Upper Midwest:

“I’ll tell you why we came to Minnesota. It was when we 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. We came here because you’ve got good, hardworking white people here.”

As a quick tour of the Seattle Mariners’ offseason shows, that kind of clever storytelling to service clubs has not yet gone out of fashion, Oh, and by the way, just like Johnson and Gibson and Leonard and his daddy, Calvin got into the Hall of Fame, and even the Canadian version of the Hall, largely on the basis of having been born in Quebec.

So there’s more proud Senators history for your relentlessly complaining asses. As for the rest of the senatorial world, the Ottawas play Montreal tonight with a chance to tie Calgary for the utterly useless fifth spot in the time-honored Scotia North, and the future Jiffy Lube that is the U.S. Senate is still in session. You may decide among yourselves which is a greater boon to mankind.

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