WASHINGTON – Until this year,the last time baseball was played in Washington was 1971 – the year the voting age was lowered to 18,the Pentagon Papers were published and John Lennon recorded the album “Imagine.”
The fragrant scent of hot dogs and popcorn wafted through the air Thursday at the National Press Club as three former professional baseball players told their favorite memories of playing for Washington's second-generation ball club.
The serenity of a front-porch talk with one's grandfather accompanied former Washington Senators Fred “Squeaky” Valentine,Chuck Hinton and Jim Hannan as they recalled stories from their younger days.
After the talk,the audience snacked on baseball game staples and got the players' signatures on baseballs.
On April 26,1901,baseball was born in Washington as the Senators. The team became the Nationals from 1905 to 1956,then moved to Minnesota to become the Twins in 1961. The replacement expansion team Senators lasted in Washington until 1971,but moved to Texas to become the Rangers in 1972.
When baseball left Washington,“It was almost a blow in the heart,” said Valentine,a Senators outfielder from 1963 to 1968. “The way they left was more difficult to take than that they left.”
“Losing the ball club was a sad occasion,” said Hinton,a left fielder who played from 1961 to 1964. Hinton was the last Senator to bat over .300 and played in the 1964 All-Star Game.
Senators were told that the team was moving to Texas in 1971 “because Washington couldn't support baseball,which wasn't true,” Hinton said.
Hannan,a Senators pitcher from 1962 to 1970,said,“The fan support has always been here. It's just different.”
Hinton recalled an away game when the black players weren't allowed to stay at the same beach hotel as the white players. But he said there was one advantage – no curfew.
Anecdotes about baseball greats Hank Aaron,Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra accompanied stories about Ted Williams,the Senators' manager from 1969 to 1972.
Hannan described what a friend once said to him: “‘You know,Ted Williams sounds just like John Wayne.' And I said,‘You know,John Wayne has been portraying Ted Williams all these years.'”
Hannan also spoke of his long-running goal to strike out pal Mickey Mantle. He did it once,in Mantle's last season. Afterward,Mantle hit the ground with his bat,saying,“Once Hannan gets me out,that's it – I quit!”
The retired players said higher salaries and greater media attention aren't the only changes in the past 34 years. The fans are different,too.
“I think there weren't a lot of families” who came to games then,Hannan said. “It was a lot more of the adults.”
He remembered when large groups would bring chairs and coolers to the field after work,rain or shine. Now,however,fans are more knowledgeable about the game – and aren't afraid to show it.
“And if they think it's a bad call,they'll let you know,” he said.
Now leading the National League's Eastern Conference,the Nationals are a far cry from the Senators of the past. In the last year before moving to Texas,the Senators finished last in their league with a 63-96 record.
Valentine recalled when the team's unofficial motto was “Off the floor in '64.” When the team moved out of last place,he reminisced about how they had a champagne party to celebrate.
But the former players were all smiles when it came to the Nationals' current success.
“I was elated – I'm still elated – that we have a team here,” Valentine said.