The Legacy of Griffith Stadium

I would like to discuss the “Legacy of Griffith Stadium” and some of those wonderful memories of a time in the not so distant past – unfortunately memories are just about all that is left for those who remember major league baseball in Washington DC before the current Washington Nationals. This may serve as a history lesson for Washington baseball fans – long suffering and yet a VERY RICH major league baseball heritage!

Griffith Stadium opened in 1911 and, at the time was called National Park (sounds familiar.) In 1920 National Park was renamed Clark Griffith Stadium for the long-time owner of the Washington Nats/Senators (more commonly known as Griffith Stadium.)

This blog will not touch on the wonderful 1920′s – early 1930′s of the ball club. That period has been carefully documented in several outstanding books – Walter Johnson, Baseball’s Big Train by Hank Thomas (Walter Johnson’s grandson), Damn Senators by Mark Judge (Joe Judge’s grandson) and The Wrecking Crew of ’33 by Gary Sarnoff. These (3) books capture the time of Washington DC’s place in the major league baseball sun! In 1924, a World Series championship, 1925 an American League championship and another American League championship in 1933.

This “blog” will focus more on the significant role played by Griffith Stadium, Clark Griffith and some of the talented baseball players who called Griffith Stadium “home.” Please note I said baseball players as some of the greatest players in professional baseball history played at Griffith Stadium and were not members of the Washington Nats/Senators. Of course, I’m referring to the Homestead Grays including Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard – after many years, finally recognized by the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

The Nats/Senators of the WWII era were managed by “The Boy Wonder” Bucky Harris and later Ossie Bluege. There were several outstanding ballplayers during those years and the team itself just missed out on a possible AL championship on the last day of the 1945 season – thanks to a grand slam home run by Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers against the St. Louis Browns.

In my opinion, to completely understand the significance of Griffith Stadium, one needs to look at the legendary ballplayers who performed there – of course, probably the greatest pitcher of all time – Walter Johnson, his long-time friend and roommate Clyde Milan, Hall of Famers Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, and later Harmon Killebrew and two players whom I believe have been overlooked by Cooperstown – Joe Judge and Mickey Vernon – and, of course, “the Old Fox”, Mr. Clark Griffith! And not only Washington players – how about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Hank Greenberg, Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Cool Papa Bell, Satchel Paige – the list could go on and on! Baseball history occurred at Griffith Stadium – yet today, Griffith Stadium is just a memory!

One of the most significant aspects of the long and legendary history of Griffith Stadium and a tradition that I’m afraid has ended – “the throwing out of the first ball” by the President of The United States. This time-honored ritual was first performed by President Taft in, I believe, 1911 and from that time up until John F. Kennedy in 1961 at Griffith Stadium – every Chief Executive looked forward to the Opening Day “toss.” And, who should receive credit for this tradition? None other than Clark Griffith!. In addition to his roll in the “Presidential Opener” it was Clark Griffith who was instrumental in keeping baseball “alive” during WWII. In what has become known as the “Green Light” letter from President Roosevelt to then baseball commissioner Judge Landis in 1943 – Clark Griffith with his frequent visits and personal relationship with Mr. Roosevelt was able to convince FDR that major league baseball should continue for the morale of the country during the darkest days of the Second World War.

That brings us to a subject that has been discussed for many years. During WWII, major league ballplayers were to be called to military service the same as any other American citizen – and if a player was declared 4F by his draft board and therefore unfit for military service, that player would work in the off season in a defense related industry. In my opinion, there is no question that the talent level of major league baseball was diminished during WWII – however the game did continue as the President stated in his “Green Light” letter – “I honestly feel it would be best for the country to keep baseball going.”

The Washington Nats/Senators were deeply impacted as were many other major league ballclubs by military service “call-ups.” Just about everyone knows that Bob Feller was an anti-aircraft gunner on the USS Alabama and that Ted Williams was a Marine Crops flight instructor during WWII. However, today – who remembers that Cecil Travis, the great Washington shortstop and probably destined to be considered for the Hall of Fame, would have his feet frozen in the Battle of the Bulge and never regain his pre-war form? Or that Buddy Lewis would fly “The Hump” in Burma, or that Bert Shepard would be shot down over Germany and as a POW would have his leg partially amputated by German doctors and yet return to pitch in a major league game at Griffith Stadium? Or that Elmer Gedeon, of the 1939 Washington team would make the “ultimate sacrifice” – being killed during the war? I’m afraid that these painful memories are probably unknown to today’s Washington baseball fans – yet this was a piece of Washington baseball history that should not be forgotten!

Of course there were other Washington players who served their country including Mickey Vernon, Dutch Leonard and Stan Spence – great players who interrupted their major league careers in order to help preserve our way of life.

One other note of historical significance with regard to Griffith Stadium and major league baseball – and, by the way, this “blog” is not about the many political and religious events held at Griffith Stadium over the years nor is it about championship prize fights or the Washington Redskins – it is about baseball! In 1945, for the “home opener” the Nats/Senators honored three of the surviving Iwo Jima “flag-raisers” and were escorted to their box seats by Clatk Griffith and then Speaker of the House, Sam Rayburn.

Griffith Stadium is no more – but the historic events that happened there should never be forgotten! While we remember – and rightly so – “Washington Crossing The Delaware,” the Civil War, Veterans Day, The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, D Day, VE Day, VJ Day, Korea, JFK, MLK, Vietnam, the end of the “Cold War”, 9/11, The Gulf Wars – we should also remember Griffith Stadium and the the unique role that Griffith Stadium played – certainly not of the historical significance of the great events of our nation but still of great importance to the lives of baseball fans in our Nation’s Capital.


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