Though the Nationals have only been here for nine seasons since moving in 2005, baseball and Washington, D.C. go much further back. The history between the sport and city traces to the 1800s, with teams and generations of fans coming and going.
Frederic J. Frommer has documented the history of Washington baseball back to 1859 in his book 'You Gotta Have Heart' and has since released an updated version to include the Nats' historic 2012 season. Frommer conducted months and months of research through old newspaper stories, historical archives and through interviews with current and former baseball players. As a reporter who covers politics and the courts, he also has an interesting perspective on the effect the current Nats have on the city.
Frommer was nice enough to answer a few questions about his book this week in an interview with CSN Washington:
Chase Hughes: What made you decide to write a book about the history of baseball in Washington?
Frommer: A publisher initially approached me about writing a book about the history of Washington baseball back in 2005, in conjunction with the return of baseball to the city after a 33-year absence. That first edition came out in 2006. Then last year, I pitched the publisher on a revised edition to commemorate last year’s playoff team, leading to the revised edition, which came out last month.
CH: How long did it take you to write the book, and how did you conduct your research?
FF: It took me about seven months to write the original edition, and then about six months to write the revised one. The research took many forms: reading old newspaper stories, from publications like the Washington Post, New York Times, Associated Press and the old Washington Evening Star; reviewing documents at the National Archives and the Washington Historical Society; checking out historic statistics on sites such as baseballreference.com; and interviewing current and former Washington baseball players and fans, as well as politicians and pundits who have become big Nats fans.
CH: In the history of baseball in Washington, who have stood out as some of the biggest personalities?
FF: Walter Johnson, probably the best Washington baseball player of all time, was a beloved figure. He was a gentle sort, and Ty Cobb admitted he used to crowd the plate because he knew Johnson was too nice to brush him back. One thing I found particularly interesting was the hype surrounding Johnson’s signing, similar, in its own way, to the hype of Stephen Strasburg. A 1907 headline in The Washington Post blared, “SECURES A PHENOM.”
When the old Washington Senators marched to their first pennant in 1924, Johnson was at the twilight of his career and fans across the country rooted for him to finally get a chance to play in the World Series. Johnson lost his first two starts in the series that year to the New York Giants, but came out of the bullpen to win Game 7. It remains Washington’s only World Series championship.
After the Senators left town in 1961, an expansion team with the same name took its place. This team wasn’t very good, but it sported one of the strongest players of all time: Frank Howard, known as the “Capital Punisher.” At old RFK Stadium, white-painted seats in the upper deck mark where his monstrous home runs landed. But he also struck out a ton. Howard’s manager in the late 60s and early 70s, Ted Williams, ribbed his star player. A friend of Williams looked at the white-painted seats and marveled, “Geez, is that where Howard hit those long home runs?”
Williams responded, “Yeah, and there’s 13,980 green seats up there—those are all the times he struck out on me.”
CH: How did you come up with the name of the book?
FF: The publisher came up with it in a nod to “Damn Yankees,” the play about a middle-aged Senators fan who sells his soul to the devil to be turned into a 21-year-old slugger who leads the team to the pennant. In the play, the manager sings the song, “You Gotta Have Heart,” in explaining a key to success in baseball.
CH: What is your favorite part of the game of baseball?
FF: The way that the sport connects with its history in ways that few other sports do. Although baseball has changed in many ways, at its core it remains the same. So when I read newspaper stories about the drama of the seventh game of the 1924 World Series, when the Giants had Walter Johnson on the ropes in extra innings, I could empathize with Senators fans as they sweated out the tense end to the season. I tried to recreate those final innings in my book so that readers could feel that they were at old Griffith Stadium, watching fans jump on to the field and dance on dugouts after the Senators won the game in 12 innings.
CH: You cover politics as well, what do you think about the connection between the Nationals and politicians in Washington?
FF: I think it’s one of the most interesting and unique aspects of Washington baseball. Last year, politicians from across the political aisle rallied for the Nats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. The Nats are one of the few things that both sides can agree on. In fact, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke held the Nats out as an example for Washington to follow when it comes to leadership.
The connection is nothing new. Presidents and members of Congress have followed Washington’s baseball teams for more than a century, dating back to the old Senators. The team used to open a day before the rest of the American League, with the president throwing out the first ball, in what became known as the presidential opener.
CH: What do you hope this book can teach fans about D.C.’s baseball history?
FF: I think the lesson here is that Washington can support a team that puts a good product on the field. In 1924, the city was so enthralled with its championship team that President Calvin Coolidge half-joked that government productivity had suffered as a result. Attendance dropped when the Senators fell in the standings, and that ultimately led to the loss of two teams.
CH: After looking back at baseball in D.C., what do you think about the future of the Nationals and the sport in the District?
FF: The future of the Nationals is bright, regardless of what happens this season. The team has a young core of talented position players and pitchers. And the city is in a much better position to withstand the inevitable bad season, given that the Washington market is much bigger and wealthier than it was in 1971, when the last Senators team left town.