Take Me Out to the Ballgame

I was 10-years-old, and we had just moved to Washington, D.C., when I saw my first big league baseball game.

My grandfather, who worked for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, was a old-time baseball fan. A tall, spare man, he wore a straw hat in the summertime and a gray fedora in cool wwather to protect his bald head.

I was on spring break from grade school and grandad had a day off one April day in 1946 when he suggested we go watch the Washington Senators play the New York Yankees.

I was just a 10-year-old kid – and was thrilled. I was even more excited when I saw the playing field.

Griffith Stadium, then the home field for the Senators, had just 32,000 seats, but for a youngster like me, used to playing ball in a schoolyard or in back of our house, the place looked mammoth.

If the seating capacity was small for the big leagues at Griffith Stadium, the playing field was large. Back then, it was 401 feet (that’s right) to the left field foul line and over 400 to the flagpole in dead center.

The right field foul line was 328 feet away, but the fence was 30 feet high. That was a green monster to match Fenway Park.

Needless to say, home runs at Griffith Stadium were a major event. At that time, the Senators’ team record for home runs in a season was 22 (by slow-moving first baseman Zeke Bonura in 1938. In 1945, although the team finished second in the American League, it hit only one home run at home, and that was inside the park!

(In the 1950s, the left field barrier was brought in to 350 feet and home run sluggers like Roy Sivers, Harmon Killebrew, Jim Lemon and Bob Allison would give the D.C. fans plenty of home runs.)

Washington fans were hopeful as the 1946 season began. That second place finish had stirred their hopes. The Yankees were in town, and since there was no television and far fewer recreation in those days, over 20,000 fans were in the stands when the game began at 3 p.m.

Grandad picked us two seats in the unreserved lower grandstand, which went for $1.25 each. Griffith Stadium also had wooden seats under the covered right field stands, known as the pavillion, for 90 cents, or you could sit in the big left-field bleacher, as us kids did when I was in high school, for 75 cents.

A scorecard cost 10 cents and it wasn’t one of those big fat programs you get today. It was a card with the rosters, a place to keep score, the home schedule and a few ads. A pencil could be bought for another dime. Hot dogs were cold, ice cream was warm and peanuts were like rubber, but this was big league baseball.

I can remember the game quite well. Roger Wolff pitched for Washington. He was one of four 40-year old knuckleball pitchers who had helped the Senators finish second in 1945, winning 20 games.

Wolff would be only 5-8 in 1946, and his career was almost over, but he was sharp that day. He set down the Yankees, 4-2. And that was a Yankee team that had great players back from World War II military duties: Joe DiMaggio, Tommy Heinrich, Phil Rizzuto and Joe Gordon, not to mention a rookie catcher, then known as Larry Berra.

The Yankee pitcher was Al Gettel, whose career in the big leagues wasn’t very long. I would meet Gettel as a rookie sports writer in Norfolk, Va., where he was still pitching some semi-pro ball in his hometown.

I got my first baseball hero that year. Washington first baseman Mickey Vernon hit .353 to win the first of his two American League batting titles. Mickey played 21 years and four decades in the big leagues, mostly with Washington. His only World Series ring was as a coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960. I have never seen a smoother first baseman, and his .287
lifetime batting average included many clutch hits. The fact that Vernon can’t buy a Hall of Fame vote really gets me upset. No less an expert than Ted Williams called him the top first baseman of his time.

I just about grew up in Griffith Stadium, suffering with the Senators, whose fourth place finish in 1946 was the best the francbise would ever do again. Just when the team began to look good, owner Cal Griffith took it to Minnesota. Then, we got another team and owner Bob Short took it to Texas.

Now, Washington has a National League team I can root for … and suffer with.

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