Mid-Atlantic Dreams: Postseason Baseball

Tom Flynn


It’s October and the Mid-Atlantic’s oppressive summer heat has thankfully departed. From beneath the blanket of sweltering days and nights the region’s two closest baseball teams, the Orioles and Nationals, emerged as they seemingly always do: dazed, beaten and with no hopes of a postseason. The Orioles and finished dead last in the AL East and the Nats also finished last in the NL East with their worst record since moving to DC. The two clubs will head into the off-season with the Orioles set to play their annual front office shell game of switching personnel and marketing campaigns, while the Nats can claim that now that they’ve got their requisite luxury box-laden new ballpark, things will be different for the relatively fledgling franchise (they relocated from Montreal in late 2004). Luxury boxes will help fund a more competitive team (true), plus nothing stirs a team to greater glory than a stadium full of businessmen with their backs to the game while laying waste to a buffet table (not true).

Although losing around here feels like an inevitability, the two cities once had postseason personas. Baltimore’s is far better known and far more recent. For a period of thirty years the Orioles were one of the American League’s best clubs, posting Series wins in 1966, 1970 and 1983 and making losing bids in the Series or AL playoffs as recently as 1997. For their major league counterparts in Washington, the postseason has long been theoretical. The multiple Senators/Nationals incarnations have combined for a total of one World Series win in 1924, followed by AL pennants in 1925 and 1933. From 1972 through 2004 the city lacked a major league club altogether.

These days, the only baseball postseason involving our local nines is on a bookshelf. Unearthing the Orioles’ history is a relatively short dig; for Washington you’ll need to sift through 84 years of stats and seasons–or take the easier approach of quitting the search and deciding that losing is symbolic of an admirable fidelity that warrants no statistical validation.

There is, however, a story that unfolded sixty years ago this fall that will distract both Baltimore and DC fans alike from their current beleaguered plight. The year was 1948 and the occasion the last battle for the Negro National League (NNL) pennant between DC’s storied Homestead Grays and Baltimore’s Elite Giants.

Truth be told, the Grays were only part-time residents of DC’s Griffith Stadium, departing Pittsburgh’s Homestead suburb for about half their games by 1948. The Grays originated in the steel town suburb of Homestead in the early 1910s. As an African-American club, they were a top semi-pro team in the Pittsburgh area and played independently before joining a pair of short-lived circuits and then settling in as regulars in the NNL in the early 1930s.

Along with the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League (NAL), they were the best of the best in Negro League baseball and drew large crowds both at home and on the road against NNL, amateur, semi-pro and minor league teams. For portions of the ‘30s and ‘40s they boasted the star tandem of first baseman Buck Leonard and catcher Josh Gibson. And in the 1930s they begrudgingly became part of Washington’s baseball history when Pittsburgh’s Gus Greenlee helped found a rejuvenated Negro National League (the original had folded) in 1933 and entered his rival Pittsburgh Crawfords as a charter member. Greenlee was a numbers’ runner with some of the only deep pockets in the African-American community during the Depression. The attendance pressure he put on Grays owner and former player Cumberland Posey compelled Posey to look elsewhere for fan support. He found it in DC’s cavernous Griffith Stadium.

The Baltimore Elite Giants (or “Elites”) were also transplants, arriving ironically from Washington in 1938 after spending 1936-1937 there. It was partially the presence of the Grays that drove Elites owner Tom Wilson north to Baltimore. Like Greenlee, Wilson was a numbers’ runner and night club owner in his native Nashville and like Posey he knew that he would do better to seek an audience elsewhere than to try to carve out a spot for a second Negro League team in one city in the depths of the Depression. In 1939 his team, in only its second year in Baltimore, knocked off the Grays in Yankee Stadium to take its first Negro National League title.

By 1948 when the two teams were pitted against each other once more in a Negro National League final, the landscape could not have been more different. The country was on the far side of a World War, one in which African-Americans had fought (and died) bravely. In no small way the War made Organized Baseball’s (the blanket termed loftily applied to the white major and minor leagues) stance on barring blacks untenable. How could an African-American soldier be allowed to die for his country, but not be allowed to step on a playing field with a white player? Racism of course was the answer but following the blood of the War that answer was increasingly challenged.

In well-covered ground, Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 and Organized Baseball’s color barrier fell. In ground rarely trodden, the Negro Leagues continued to play in 1948 and beyond. Baltimore Afro-American sportswriter Sam Lacy pushed heavily for Jackie Robinson as part of major league baseball’s integration and years later offered a unique view through a Mid-Atlantic lens on the equality of black and white ballplayers:

“I had the opportunity as a youngster to chase batting practice for the Washington Nationals. As a kid I used to go out there and chase flies… as a result of that I was able to compare later on… the play of those ballplayers with the kind of play in the Negro National League.” When asked if the play of the teams/players he covered in Baltimore was comparable to what he’d seen in his youth, his one word response was simply, “Absolutely.”

1948 was then the first year after the Jackie Robinson “experiment.” Sixty years in hindsight it is easy to assume that once the barrier had fallen it would stay down. It’s also easy to assume that the best African-American players were on their way to the minors/majors. Neither is true and nowhere was it more evident than in Baltimore and Washington.

Baltimore’s Afro-American had both local and Washington editions and the exploits of the Brooklyn Dodgers soon began to crowd the Elites and Grays to the fringes of the sports pages, despite their continued excellence. Lacy and others took it as their civic responsibility to report the Dodgers first, even as the Grays and Elites, studded with Negro League All-Stars, Hall-of-Famers, and future major leaguers, played a quality of baseball that rather than diminishing (as is the common myth), briefly spiked. Players knew now that their efforts were being scouted and throughout the summer Baltimore’s and Washington’s clubs paced the Negro National League to new heights.

The Elites took the first-half championship and the Homestead Grays were awarded the second half in what was the typical Negro League practice of splitting the season to enhance pennant competition. The NNL final pitting these perennial rivals proved anticlimactic; the Grays won the pennant handily in 3 straight games, paced by the slugging of future Hall-of-Famer Buck Leonard and future major leaguer Luke Easter. They then proceeded to knock off the Birmingham Black Barons (led by future Hall of Famer Willie Mays) of the Negro American League to win the last World Series in Negro League history.

The victory for the Grays, however, was short-lived. Later that year, suffering from declining numbers as fans followed Jackie Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers (he was joined by former Baltimore Elite Giant Roy Campanella in 1948 as well) to Philadelphia and other major league stops, the Negro National League collapsed. Some members, including the Elites, joined with the more solvent Negro American League to form a single, two-divisioned East-West circuit for the 1949 season.

The Grays, with attendance dipping below 2,000 per game in 47 and 48, recognized that the additional travel required to NAL cities such as Chicago and Kansas City would drive them out of business, and so they returned to independent play that would allow them to play locally. The Elites, in their first year in the Negro American League immediately established the credentials of the failed NNL by winning the final NAL pennant in 1949. The team during this era of Negro League talent “decline” featured six former Negro League all-stars, two future major league Rookies of the Year, and a Hall-of-Famer. They won their pennant over traditional NAL rival Chicago in four straight. Their relatively easy triumph revealed the misfortune they had of playing in the same league, in the same era, as the overwhelmingly dominant Grays.

In the ensuing two years both franchises faded out, clinging to independent schedules before succumbing to the harsh, bittersweet economic realities brought on by the integrated major leagues.

As the anniversary of the Grays and Elites pass this Fall and next, respectively Washington and Baltimore fans can take advantage of the ineptitude of their two wealthy, woeful teams. Rather than listen to another year of Joe Buck’s robotic trumpeting of some distant team’s playoff exploits, they can turn off the TV and look locally to find the true heart of the region’s storied baseball past.