After Nats’ storybook season, author updates his history of DC baseball

A World Series championship is a great excuse to update a book.

The Washington Nationals winning it all last year triggered D.C. baseball historian Frederic J. Frommer to add some chapters to his book on baseball in the nation’s capital, originally published in 2013.

Now the title is “You Gotta Have Heart: Washington Baseball from Walter Johnson to the 2019 World Series Champion Nationals.”

As “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd noted in the foreword to “You Gotta Have Heart,” the Nationals became “the one thing all of Washington could unite around in an otherwise polarized city.”

Others offering their takes on the Nats’ magical season include Ryan Zimmerman, famous fans like Maury Povich, and D.C. baseball legends Frank Howard and Roy Sievers.

The Nationals winning the 2019 World Series added an exclamation mark to the statement that D.C. is now a baseball town. The focus has shifted away from past failures and the last century when the phrase “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League” was synonymous with the Washington Senators.

History is important, and in the pages of “You Gotta Have Heart,” we discover that there were similarities between the 2019 Nationals and the 1924 World Series Champion Senators. Both teams had slow starts to their seasons, and both became sentimental favorites.

“It was not just a Washington phenomenon in 1924,” said Frommer. “The country really got behind the Senators. The Senators had never won before, and people were sick of seeing the New York teams, the Yankees and Giants, dominate every year.”

“Maybe not to the extent of 1924, but we did see people rallying around the Nationals. There was a Dodgers pitcher who said after being eliminated by the Nationals he would be pulling for the Nats. And even sportswriters from St. Louis said after the Nats beat the Cardinals they would now root for the Nats.”

Baseball in D.C. did not begin in 2005 when the Montreal Expos moved to town and became the Washington Nationals. As Frommer notes in the summer of 1865, President Andrew Johnson allowed government workers out early to catch a baseball tournament on the Ellipse.

Baseball in D.C. was not only the original Senators — and the 1961 expansion Senators — but also the city’s Negro League team. The Homestead Greys won multiple pennants and featured two of the Negro League’s biggest stars. Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, in fact, could have broken Major League Baseball’s color barrier.

“In 1945, two years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, [Gibson and Leonard] had a meeting with the Senators’ owner Clark Griffith,” Frommer said. “It was a missed opportunity. I think it was not so much a factor of racism on [Griffith’s] part, but he was a conservative guy and didn’t want to rock the boat. Washington was a small Southern city then, not at all like it is today.”

Also representing Washington was Walter Johnson, who mastered opposing hitters like few others in baseball history. The “Big Train,” as he was known, pitched for the Senators from 1907 to 1927; won 417 games; held the record for most career strikeouts until 1983; and still holds the record for career shutouts with 110.

“I would argue the greatest pitcher ever,” said Frommer. “He was also genuinely a nice guy. Ty Cobb actually took advantage of this, and Cobb admitted he would crowd the plate because he knew Johnson was too nice to throw at him.”

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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