From Skins to Nationals, an oral history of Washington, D.C. sports
The Redskins were and remain a big deal in town and fans are loyal, passionate
D.C. has always been a baseball town and when Senators left there was huge void
With Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harber, RG3, the district is filled with young stars
A brief history of Washington sports, from the emergence of the Redskins to the heyday of the Bullets to the return of the national pastime to the nation's capital.
JENNIFER ALLEN, daughter of former Redskins coach George Allen: A winning sports team is the one thing that can unite that town. You've got the Republicans and the Democrats battling. And then you go to a Redskins game, and the lines of political parties become blurred, dimmed. That's what we really saw [in the 1960s and '70s]: Henry Kissinger in one booth and the Kennedys in the other, and yet they're all for the same team.
GEORGE SOLOMON, former Washington Post sports editor: I had the good fortune of working in D.C. during an incredible time. I got there in 1970. Two years later, the Senators moved to Texas. The Bullets were still in Baltimore. The Redskins were the only thing in town besides college sports. Maryland was getting pretty good then, and so was Georgetown basketball. John Thompson took over in '72, and the Hoyas were just getting started.
Someone once told me, "You're judged as an editor by your Redskins coverage." We tried to cover different things. We covered the other pro teams and college sports. But Washington had become a Redskins town in the mid-'60s. I was totally aware of that.
JOHN KENT COOKE, son of former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke: We were able to reap the benefits of what started with George Allen. We played in RFK, which was very small. We jammed seats into every crevice of that stadium. At that point we had a waiting list of 25,000 people. And each guy would try to buy three tickets. So it represented about 75,000 seats. So there was a tremendous demand to go to the games -- so much so that people volunteered to join the band, so they could sit in the band seats, or to become ushers. Phil Hochberg, a very well-known lawyer in Washington, was the P.A. announcer. We never paid anybody anything. We put all the money into the club, into the roster.
FRED SMOOT, Redskins cornerback, 2001-04 and 2007-09: I got a rude awakening when I went from one of the richest NFL teams to one of the poorest, Minnesota. I remember the first time I had to play an away game as a Viking and we actually walked through the airport to board our plane. I'd been a Redskin. We don't walk through airports. Just those small things, it's totally different.
DOUG WILLIAMS, Redskins quarterback, 1986-89: I had played at RFK in college, at Grambling. But to play in that place as a Redskin was a whole different thing. It's the only stadium that I've ever seen that actually rocks. I mean, you could actually see the people in the bleachers going up and down. The feeling you get because of the closeness of the stadium, it was almost like fans had their arms around you.
SMOOT: Our training camp practices [in Carlisle, Pa.] probably had about 5,000 people there. I'm talking about daily. When it comes to the Redskins, the following is collegelike. Come on, we have a marching band!
WILLIAMS: Even early, when I first got there, going to training camp and seeing the people come up to Carlisle and sit in the stands. After having been in Tampa for five years and in the USFL for two, I had never seen anything like it.
COOKE: In the Super Bowl, I think it was in '88, Ronald Reagan came to the plane to welcome the team home after winning. And he shook hands with everybody that got off that plane.
WES UNSELD, Bullets center, 1968-81: We were visiting the White House way before it became a thing where the championship team would go visit. Even when we didn't win it all, Nixon would have us over all the time when he was president. One time we ran into him on a plane. This was after he was, um, when he was not the president anymore. I was the coach or G.M., and his seat was right next to mine. We started talking, and he knew all about my new team. I thought I would introduce the players to him. Before I could start, he went up and down the aisle introducing himself, and he knew every one of the players' names.
SOLOMON: The Bullets were one of the best teams in the decade of the '70s. When they beat the Sonics and won it all in '78, they certainly got the city's attention.
UNSELD: The response when we won was overwhelming. After we clinched in Seattle, we chartered a plane back home. Back then, we didn't charter. So we're flying back into D.C., and the pilot came back to tell [owner Abe Pollin] that he couldn't land because there were too many fans down by the runway. He was afraid they might spill over. Mr. Pollin told the pilot to go to hell; he'd better land that plane!
RON WEBER, Capitals play-by-play man, 1974-97: When Pollin talked about moving the Bullets from Baltimore to Washington [in 1973] and building his own arena, people said, "Well, you need a hockey team to help fill the dates. So he applied, and he got [the Capitals]. Although he professed to like the teams equally, he just didn't know hockey as much. It was sort of a stepsister.
SOLOMON: If you ask any [non-football teams] if they got their fair share of coverage, they'll say no. The Redskins dominated. But I feel like we did try to do a fair job, and we had a lot of good teams and personalities to cover. Elvin Hayes was a lot of fun and certainly Wes Unseld was a real force.
UNSELD: We probably won more games than any other team in basketball during the '60s and '70s. But people wouldn't come out because we beat teams too much. That's what they said. That was the knock.
COOKE: We had a box at RFK Stadium. Politicians and celebrities would prostrate themselves trying to get into that box.
TOM HOLSTER, Founder of D.C. Baseball Historical Society: I was probably eight or nine when my father would take me to RFK for games with about 12 other people. The Senators' crowd never numbered more than 10,000 or 12,000 people. You'd see kids collecting beer cups just so they could stomp on them to make a big popping noise.
JIM FRENCH, Senators catcher, 1961-71: We weren't very good. Put it this way: Near the end of my career, I saw Damn Yankees at a dinner theater in the round somewhere in the Virginia suburbs. It resonated. A lot. If I had been offered that type of a deal, I probably would've taken it.
HOLSTER: One year, we had a reunion for the '69 team. Warren Spahn [was one of the] guests. Warren was kind of a crotchety old guy, fun-loving but kind of sarcastic. The mike is going around the room, and everybody is telling their stories. It gets to Warren, and he stands up. Of course, he comes from successful baseball teams. He goes, "I don't know what the hell you guys are celebrating. You never won s---." We all ended up laughing about it.
SOLOMON: We felt like it was important to cover the efforts of people to get Washington a [baseball] team. There were several failed expansion efforts, and then every time a team wanted a new stadium or a better deal, they threatened to move to Washington. I got taken down the road like a sap a number of times. But we did cover it.
HOLSTER: I'd get the Post, and anything that showed up in the newspaper [about a new team], I was right on it. I even clipped a lot of the articles and saved them. But it was just one disappointment after another. I never understood how they could give Colorado a team and Arizona a team and Florida two teams before they fixed us.
FRENCH: I was surprised at how deeply some people, and even the media, felt about not having a baseball team.
SOLOMON: The Orioles became our home team.
HOLSTER: It always just seemed like there's no justice in the world. And then, of course, you had to endure the whole thing about Washington's being a bad baseball town.
KEN BEATRICE, former Washington radio personality: I was convinced that baseball would go big here if there was an ownership group that had the desire to win. I think they've proved their competence.
FRENCH: The fact that D.C. has a good baseball team now is a just reward.
SMOOT: Look at the youth of the stars in D.C. right now. You've got Bryce Harper. Stephen Strasburg. John Wall. RG3. We're talking about poster children. There hasn't been this much talent in D.C. in a long time. I would love to be a 22-year-old Redskin again just to get to experience all this.
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