Distinguished Senators, the Washington Nationals Blog That Is Great

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Name of 'Spos 3: High Noon at Mega Mountain

In my opinion, this has the finest subtitle of any third installment. Plus it has Hulk Hogan.

But enough of this Gen-X irony and on to the issue at hand. There has, apparently, been a movement to give the Expos the name of a Negro League team when they get here. Grays is coming in second in the Washington Baseball Club poll, and . . . well, that's the only evidence I have. Where these things get discussed is a mystery to me. Maybe I should start reading Boswell.

The very term "Negro Leagues" is a misnomer. Before (and slightly after) integration, teams started and folded, entered and left leagues, and barnstormed. Black baseball in the 20s and 30s had more in common with the freewheeling atmosphere of white baseball in the 19th century than it did with the Major Leagues. New Era, of all things, has an extremely hard-to-read list of Negro League teams over the years, and the sheer number of teams in the same few cities puts me in mind of the American Association or National Association - short league schedules, lots of barnstorming and franchise shifts. Cleveland alone had seven Negro League teams. Washington totaled five: Elite Giants, Potomacs, Pilots, Black Senators, and Grays.

Elite Giants is a fantastic name for a baseball team, but I'm sure the San Francisco Giants wouldn't approve, and pretty much every other town in the country had Elite Giants at some point.

Potomacs is an awful name.

Black Senators sounds like the Senators but with Jim Brown and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson. Obviously, that's completely awesome, but can you picture this guy as a Black Senator?

Pilots reminds us of Bud Selig and the worst caps in the history of the sport.

That brings us to the Grays. I'm not going to go deeply into the history of the Homestead Grays, but if you're curious check out this or this. The Grays were the dominant team of the Negro National League, winning nine straight pennants from 1937 to 1945. They featured Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard, and Cool Papa Bell, among others. They are, along with the Kansas City Monarchs, the best remembered Negro League team. They split their time (hell, they split their weekends) between Forbes Field in Pittsburgh and Griffith Stadium in DC. If we're going with a Negro League name, Grays is the one.

So, why would we? Look, I'm not equipped to discuss race, and I do it as little as possible. It's kind of unavoidable here, though. Suffice it to say that Washington is not known as Chocolate City because of its confections. DC has long been a center of black American culture, and if any city is going to pay this tribute to the Negro Leagues, this one makes sense. Personally, I find the Negro Leagues about as interesting as the old Pacific Coast League - pretty interesting, but not overwhelmingly so. In fact, this comparison works pretty well: the Angels are named after a PCL team, so why not have the Grays? While I don't think modern organized baseball needs to beat itself over the head for all eternity out of guilt over segregation, this would be a nice gesture.

And get a load of this: Washington, historically, is an awful place for baseball. The original Senators won about 46.5% of their games. Version 2 did even worse, about 41.8%. In fact, all the Washington teams from the American League, National League, National Association, and Union Association have a combined record of 5506-6887, 44.4%. I'm not enough of an operator with my pocket calculator to do this for everyone else, but DC might well claim the title in this unfortunate category. In 60 years, the Senators managed three pennants and only one title. I think it's safe to say that Washington has the worst record of any of the eleven cities hosting NL or AL teams in 1901, the start of fifty-some year period of stability. The St. Louis Browns were probably the worst of the 16 teams (only one pennant in fifty years, and that was during the war, when players averaged 38.6 years of age and 1.95 arms each), but St. Louis had the Cards to fall back on. Philadelphia had a disproportionate number of the very worst teams, but the A's also fielded some of the best. The Homestead Grays appear to be the only successful thing ever associated with baseball in Washington, which can only be another mark in the name's favor.

Senators is still my top choice, but I would be very nearly as pleased with the Washington Grays. Next time, in the last installment of The Name of the 'Spos, we'll take a look at some dark horses and also-rans. Mainly it'll be an excuse to talk about the Warriors, I think.

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