The question is simply this: Can this nation long endure without a baseball team in her capital? Did the answer come, mayhap, from the otherwise knowledgeable Washington, D.C. cab driver who, when instructed to take the passenger to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, inquired, "Where?" Or from the veteran government agency man who, when asked to give his opinion on the fate of the Senators, replied, "Which one? Muskie? McGovern? Birch Bayh?"
Then, inevitably, there is Robert E. Short, the impoverished millionaire whose tenuous ownership of the Washington Senators is up for grabs. He says in response to almost any question concerning his property, "No way." And Calvin Griffith, who abandoned his surrogate father's city and found mammon in Middle America, asserting unsentimentally that only a baseball freak, financed by Fort Knox, could survive the socio-economic rigors of sporting life on the Potomac. Short, who has accumulated $5.5 million in debts since he opened for business there in 1969, would agree. And as he, Griffith and any number of unhappy investors, past and present, will loudly proclaim, there are many, many reasons why the National Pastime is no fun in the Nation's Capital. To name a few:
Washington has virtually no industry save government, so it has no blue-collar, hard-hat mass to support a baseball team day in and day out, year in and year out. The city's working population is composed largely of transients, whose loyalties, sporting and otherwise, are elsewhere. It is a cocktail town, not a beer town, whose assorted VIPs prefer to get discreetly bashed in their suburban homes rather than risk the exposure of a night on the town. The Nation's Capital usually leads the majors in per-capita muggings.
Washington is less than an hour's drive from Baltimore, a beer town it once freely tapped for attendance. Now Baltimore wins everything, making Washington suffer more by comparison. Comparison is easy, too, since it is no trick for most Washingtonians to pick up the champion Orioles on Baltimore TV.
The capital inner-city population is 71% black, many of whom are without pocket money to spend on anything quite so frivolous as baseball, particularly in a stadium that charges the highest admission prices in the league.
So how come a Gomorrah like this has been favored with major league baseball for 71 years? Credit, if that's the word, belongs to Clark Griffith, the uncle who reared the defector Calvin, and TRADITION. The elder Griffith survived as owner of the Senators for 36 years on guile and penuriousness. He developed players for their market value, selling them for a profit at a time when such transactions invariably involved "cash and a utility infielder." Griffith even sold the man who married his niece—Joe Cronin, now, coincidentally, president of the American League and one of the traditionalists determined to keep a team in Washington. But Clark died in 1955 and his heir, Calvin, who lived with the old man after the death of his own father, could scarcely wait to flee the hallowed ground. The American League wouldn't let him, though, not until it expanded to 10 teams in 1961. Then Griffith was permitted to take his Senators to Minnesota and call them Twins, providing Washington with a patchwork gaggle of expansion Senators in return.
So TRADITION prevailed. The Twins won a pennant, and Washington remained first in war, first in peace and last in the American League. Baseball is quite frankly afraid to move a team out of the capital. For one thing, it would look bad—should London not have a soccer team? Should Peking be without Ping-Pong? Secondly, there is always the ominous possibility that a Congress miffed by the loss of a home team would be encouraged to launch another one of those dreaded and periodic investigations of the reserve clause.
This is what confronts potential buyers of Short's franchise today. Short does not particularly care to whom he sells the ball club, be he Texas oilman or New Orleans riverboat gambler. He only wants out from under the load. But he is also under considerable pressure from the baseball hierarchy to peddle his wares to Washington interests, wherever they may be.
Short is under even more pressure from his creditors. If he doesn't sell the team before Oct. 31, the American Security and Trust Co., to which he owes more than $2 million on the loan he took to buy the team, may just foreclose on him and—together with the estate of the late James Johnston, to which Short owes another $2.2 million, and former majority owner James H. Lemon, to whom he owes still another $1.1 million—take over the Senators and put them up for bid. As Short ruefully observes, "There are a lot of people waiting in the weeds to get in on that kind of bargain."
Short himself is offering no bargain buy. He is asking not only the $9.4 million—most of it borrowed—that he paid for the team but compensation for the $3 million he estimates he has lost operating it. The $12 million price tag already has repelled many shoppers, including that expert sick-franchise doctor, Bill Veeck, who lives just across the way on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. There are those, in fact, who think Short paid too much for the Senators in the first place. Short is among them.