Baseball is returning to Washington, DC. As I mentioned, I’m excited about that and look forward to having big league baseball only a metro ride away. I’m not changing my allegiance, but I’m curious to know what the new team name will be. The obvious choice and initial majority opinion is to look to the past and re-christen the Expos the Washington Senators.
I disagree. Thinking about it Wednesday night as the initial suggestions began to trickle through during the wall-to-wall television news coverage of this story, I had a thought. I don’t mind the name “Senators” but don’t believe it should be the only name considered. Specifically, I do NOT want the inevitable name search among the fans to spiral into the disaster that is the fan-chosen Baltimore Ravens logo. So I was thinking the thought process should extend further into the past and look at the Negro Leagues for inspiration. The first commentary I read on the Expos impending move came from Michael Wilbon. In his column from yesterday, while noting that Senators seems to be the favorite, Mr. Wilbon offers the same alternative that I was thinking:
There might be only one very, very good alternative: Grays. Baseball, more than any other sport, sells nostalgia, from the retro ballparks that have popped up around the major leagues (and presumably will here, too, on the Anacostia waterfront) to throwback jerseys. And while there’s arguing against Senators or Nationals from a historic standpoint, the name Grays qualifies historically, and has perhaps a more romantic link to Washington’s baseball past.
The Senators, let’s face it, were losers. Big losers. The franchise was contracted by the National League in 1900, left town for Minneapolis in 1960, bolted town again, for Texas, in 1971. The Senators had 11 straight losing seasons to start their American League history in 1901, then lost at least 100 games in each of their first four seasons as an expansion team in the early 1960s. Where do you think “First in War, First in Peace, last in the American League” as a depiction of Washington came from?
Exactly. There is a winning baseball tradition in Washington, and it’s not the Senators. Renaming the Expos as the Grays, while a curious name, will represent a tradition of winning and of a tenacity to just play baseball, against the overwhelming odds. It will also honor the pre-integration history of black baseball players in a way that retiring Jackie Robinson’s #42 didn’t quite achieve (at least for me).
The Grays won nine straight Negro National League pennants when the team played here, from the late 1930s until 1950.
Not only was it probably the greatest Negro League franchise of all, but with apologies to Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs, it was the most glamorous of all the Negro League teams and at its height featured Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. And if your first inclination is that a 15-year-old kid has never heard of Josh Gibson, chances are you’re right . . . and he’s never heard of Frank Howard either. I remember Sam Lacy, the great sportswriter for the Afro-American newspapers, telling me that one season in the late 1930s or early ’40s, Gibson hit more home runs than the entire Senators lineup.
It’s not like the name Grays symbolizes anything bad to folks who aren’t black. The first person I heard lobby for Grays was ESPN anchor Dan Patrick. Laura Meissner, handing out pamphlets yesterday titled “Bring the Grays Back to Washington,” is a young white woman who is vice president of a group devoted to remembering the Grays. A team embracing Negro League history at its best might not work everywhere, but one would think it could work here, in the blackest city in America.
I think it would work here, so I vote for Grays. The team can wear the Senators uniforms as a Throwback weekend promotion.