Column: In celebrating the Nationals’ World Series, remember the Grays

Many stats and factoids were bandied about last week to lend perspective and historical context to the Washington Nationals’ impressive World Series run. But one comes with an asterisk.

The last team from Washington, D.C. to go to MLB’s World Series was the 1933 Senators, but the that’s not the last baseball team from D.C. to advance to the championship round. Lest we forget (again), the Washington Homestead Grays won the 1948 Negro League World Series, their third title in a six year span.

This topic was first raised in 2012 when the Nationals ushered in Washington’s first taste of playoff baseball in a generation. Many cited the ’33 Senators as the last playoff baseball team in D.C. but in reality, the answer is the ’48 Grays.

“From 1935-1948, the Homestead Grays were one of the great dynasties in baseball history,” said Michael Barbera, President of the D.C. Grays college baseball team, to WTOP. “During that time, the Grays won ten Negro National League pennants and three Negro League World Series titles … They should be remembered alongside the great Senators teams of the 1920s and 30s and the great Nationals teams of today.”

Though not surprising, it’s disappointing that this oversight continues despite the Grays’ continued presence in Washington. In addition to the collegiate baseball team that bears the same name and uniform, Nationals Park has numerous Grays references; from throwback jerseys worn by the present-day Nats to the six Hall of Famers in the Ring of Honor — Cool Papa Bell, Ray Brown, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, Cum Posey, and Jud Wilson — to the statue of Gibson outside the ballpark.

“We have a special connection to the Nationals,” said Barbera. “We play our home games at the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in Southeast, and we share a common mission to promote baseball in underserved communities. The Nationals highlight the Homestead Grays in multiple ways, including at Nats Park, and we appreciate that.”

The Grays and Senators actually shared a stadium for much of their existence, which provided an even deeper contrast between their fortunes. The Senators were pretty forgettable in the 1940s, so of the Griffith Stadium tenants, the Grays were definitely the better show.

They certainly were in 1948. While the Senators struggled their way to a 56-97, seventh-place finish, the Leonard-led Grays won just as many games in 71 fewer games played (56-24-2) and claimed the last Negro League World Series title before the team went barnstorming, which effectively ended the most successful black-owned businesses in American history (though it existed in some form or fashion for another decade).

Yes, it’s been 71 years since the Grays won it all, meaning there aren’t many people still around to tell the tale of their championship run from a firsthand perspective. But that certainly doesn’t prevent us from talking about the Senators, Babe Ruth or anything else that predates us.

“Those of us who love baseball, and appreciate the history of baseball in this great city, should recognize the great Negro League champion Homestead Grays,” said Barbera. “Now we have the rare pleasure to watch as history is being made before our eyes, as the Nationals attempt to bring the first baseball championship to D.C. since the Grays in 1948.”

While we, and the present-day Grays, root for the Nats to “finish the fight,” let’s remember that if they do bring a World Series trophy back to the District, the credit for the last D.C. team to win it all should go to the Grays.

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