Frank Howard, one of the greatest Washington Senators of all time, was the subject of a story recently in The Washington Post. He was discussing the good old days, including 1969 when Ted Williams managed the team. The Senators won 86 games to break a streak of 15 consecutive losing seasons and, Howard added emphatically, drew 900,000 fans.
Nine hundred thousand fans ... and he was thrilled. In 1969-70, the Senators outdrew eight franchises, but Washington's attendance those two years combined was roughly the same as what the 2005 Yankees will draw by June. That, as much as anything else, shows how dramatically baseball has changed since 1971, the final year of the Washington Senators. The 1950s and 1960s was not the golden age of baseball; now is the golden age of baseball, at least when it comes to attendance, fan interest, marketing, etc. This time, the Washington Nationals finally have a real chance to flourish.
"This has a chance to be special and unique," Nationals president Tony Tavares said. Jim Bowden, the Nats' general manager, said, "This place has a chance to be a gold mine."
Only nine cities have played host to more major league games than Washington, D.C., even going without baseball for 33 years. Now, it is back. The game returns to a widely changed region, one that is significantly larger than the one it left. Washington is the sixth largest metropolitan area in America; it was the largest without a major league baseball team. It has the most highly educated work force in America; its average household income is the second largest in the nation. Virginia, from which the Washington Redskins and Wizards draw their largest percentage of fans, is the second fastest growing state in the country, and nearby Loudoun County, Va., is the fastest growing county in the United States. A subway system, one of the best in the country, delivers fans to the Nationals' home, RFK Stadium. If the Senators had had a subway in 1971, they might not have left.
Everything is different now in Washington, and in baseball. This is the era of marketing in MLB, one reason that the major leagues and minor leagues set attendance records last year. There was no marketing in 1971, at least in Washington. You couldn't buy a decent Senators cap anywhere; today, even without a full marketing staff given the lateness of their move from Montreal, the Nationals are near the top in the major leagues in merchandise sales. In 1971, the closest thing to marketing for the Senators was a sign on RFK that said "Game Tonight."
The Senators didn't even offer season tickets to their fans until 1957; then-owner Calvin Griffith didn't believe in them. The Nationals have over 20,000 season tickets, which works out to nearly 1.8 million fans. In the 71-year history of baseball in Washington, a history that is richer than most people think, a history that includes the greatest pitcher of all time, Walter Johnson, no Senators or Nationals team ever drew 1.8 million fans in one season.
Washington, despite having a large African-American population, was one of the last franchises to sign an African-American player; now, the Nationals have a diverse roster with Frank Robinson as their manager. Washington is one of the most diverse and cultural cities in America, and the Nationals have players from eight countries, including Japan and Korea.
All that's the same in Washington is RFK Stadium, which will serve as the Nationals' home for three years. When it opened for baseball in 1962, it was a state-of-the-art park. With its wavy roof, it looked like a space ship. It is antiquated now, of course, but it holds 50,000 people, its measurements are fair to pitchers and hitters and, with recent renovations and improvements, its clubhouses and dugouts will be on par with many in baseball. The longest any ballpark has gone between playing host to a major league game is 12 years. The longest span between regularly scheduled games is five years. RFK's gap will be 34 years.
In April 2008, RFK is scheduled to be replaced by a 41,500-seat ballpark in Southeast Washington, on the Anacostia River. The new park is expected to overlook downtown Washington, including the Capitol and Washington Monument. The plan is to revitalize that Southeast area with shops and restaurants and with the ballpark as the center of activity.
So much as changed in Washington, and in baseball, since the Senators last played. In 1971, Richard Nixon was the president; there were 24 major league teams, not the 30 we have today; there was no DH; Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente were active; and only three current Nationals players were alive. Back then, it was said, erroneously in many cases, Washington was first in war, first in peace and last in the American League. Washington might finish last in the National League East this year, but it won't be for long. New ownership is expected to be in place in October, bringing in lots of money and more change.
And all of that change in Washington, and in baseball, is for the better.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight.