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Minnesota Connections & D.C. Baseball

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October 27, 2019

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I feel a baseball size tug in pulling for the Washington Nationals to win the World Series. Lord knows it’s not a rush like I felt when Kirby Puckett hit his famous Game 6 home run for the Twins in 1991, but there is a bias for me in hoping the Nats take the Fall Classic.

The Nats have four ex-Twins on the roster in Brian Dozier, Fernando Rodney, Anibal Sanchez and Kurt Suzuki. That’s nice and the Minnesota alumni connection stirs my interest a bit in the Washington lads.

I always liked Dozier, a good old southern boy second baseman who hit home runs for the Twins when hardly anyone else did. When the now 42-year-old Rodney was with Minnesota, he wore his cap so goofy it made me laugh, but his relief pitching was so up and down he could make you scowl. Suzuki was a contributor to the Twins, a brainy catcher, who unfortunately is now injured. Not many favorite Sanchez moments of him pitching in a Twins uniform—he went to spring training in 2018 but didn’t make the final roster.

But what’s got me on the Nationals bandwagon are the historical ties of Washington, D.C. baseball to Minneapolis-St. Paul and the state of Minnesota. This is the first World Series for a Washington baseball club since 1933—so long ago that American women had only been allowed to vote 13 years before. Known as both the Senators and Nationals, the D.C. franchise that lost in the 1933 World Series to the New York Giants mostly had a chokehold on ineptitude for much of the first half of the 20th century.

Famed sportswriter Charles Dryden put it this way: “Washington first in war, first in peace and last in the American League.”

The hapless Senators were even featured in a hit Broadway musical comedy, “Damn Yankees.” A long suffering Senators fan laments if only his favorites had a slugger, they could compete against the Yankees who tormented his team and dominated baseball.

The Senators were owned by the Griffith family and dated back to 1901 when they were one of the founding members of the American League. In the late 1950s attendance in their antiquated ballpark was so bad the franchise was thinking relocation. Minneapolis power brokers had been coveting a major league team for years and the opening of Metropolitan Stadium in 1956 signaled their serious intentions and in the coming years there would reportedly be flirtations with National and American League franchises.

Although the New York Giants had a young superstar in center fielder Willie Mays, they were mostly ignored by the baseball public in New York where the Yankees and Dodgers were much more popular. Mays had played briefly in Minneapolis in 1951 for the Millers who were a Giants farm team in the American Association. He was popular in Minneapolis and so were other Giants who had first played for the Millers. Giants’ owner Horace Stoneham was more than curious about moving to Minneapolis and playing at Metropolitan Stadium but a last minute pitch by Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley convinced him to move to San Francisco after the 1957 season. In California, with the Dodgers in Los Angeles and Giants in San Francisco, the NL two teams could efficiently continue their historic rivalry.

In the late 1950s the Twin Cities were considered fertile ground for a major league team. The Boston Braves had moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953 and became a box-office sensation. Major League Baseball, which didn’t have a team west of Missouri until the Giants and Dodgers moved to California in 1958, was learning there were opportunities in fast growing cities that wanted in on having a franchise.

The Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox were rumored to be interested in moving to Minnesota but it was Calvin Griffith who made big league baseball a reality here. Griffith not only relocated his team after the 1960 season but also brought along family members to serve as executives in the front office, and employees who had worked in concession operations at his stadium in D.C. They would all be on the payroll for the Minnesota team who some fans wanted to nickname the “Griffs,” not the Twins.

Tony Oliva

The 1960 Senators weren’t much of a team and neither were the 1961 Twins who finished 20 games under .500. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s the “Griffs” were starting to harvest young talent, including Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva, players that would form the core of teams that became pennant contenders. The best of the clubs was the 1965 group that won the American League pennant and lost to the Dodgers in the World Series.

While Minnesotans were thanking Griffith for making us big league by moving his team here, MLB didn’t like the idea of not having a team in the nation’s capital so Washington was awarded an expansion franchise that started play in 1961. By the late 1960’s that new team, also called the Senators, had a Minneapolis owner. Bob Short, who had owned and moved the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles after the 1959-1960 season, took control of the Senators in 1969.

If Washingtonians resented us for taking Griffith’s club, their anger must have been off the charts a few years later. Short’s Senators were deeply in debt after the 1971 season and the Minneapolis businessman received permission from his fellow American League owners to move the team to Arlington, Texas where they became and remain the Texas Rangers. This was classic Short who broke the hearts of fans in two towns, and liked to borrow and leverage money.  The guy who put a group together that bought the Lakers for a reported $150,000 and later sold them for $5 million, unloaded the Rangers in 1974 for millions more.

Washington baseball fans got dumped on twice in 11 years and it wouldn’t be until 2005 that they would have another big league club with the Montreal Expos moving to D.C.. During this time it was the Baltimore Orioles who profited from the absence of a major league team in D.C. The cities are less than 50 miles apart and it’s arguable whether there are enough fans to support two franchises unless both are among baseball’s best teams.

So now Washington, the baseball town that has been jilted a couple of times, is riding high. After last night the Nationals and Houston Astros have each won two games in the World Series. If the Nats can win two more games they will be the first D.C. team to win the Fall Classic since 1924. The town has already experienced sports highs of late with the Washington Capitals winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 and the Washington Mystics becoming WNBA champs this fall.

If the Nats don’t win out, at least they can’t blame us.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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