History of baseball in Washington D.C.

“DC will always be a sports town, and for the next generation of baseball fans, the Nationals are truly their team, one that they grew up with and rooted for throughout their childhood. In the end, that is what makes DC such a great sports town: the collection of memories held by the fans that connect generations of fans alike.”


Photo via Patrick McDermott Photography, LLC

Marc Goldstein, Assistant Editor in Chief

Washington, D.C, the capital of the most powerful country in the world, would, in theory, have a long illustrious history with baseball, right? Wouldn’t “America’s Game” thrive in America’s capital city? Not quite. The history with baseball is long and difficult, and the word “illustrious” is not quite the best word to describe it — torturous is a better word. Baseball fans in the District of Columbia have seen some of the strangest events in baseball history, from a team leaving then returning, to a riot on the field. It truly is one of the craziest cities with regards to their baseball history. 


Photo via George H. Hastings, 1888
Photo via George H. Hastings, 1888

For the history of Washington baseball to be fully told in detail, one must go all the way back to the beginning of baseball in the District. Starting in 1871, the first professional team to claim DC as its home was the Washington Olympics. They are not remembered very much, due to the fact that they did not play in the National League. Going forward, it is noteworthy that the National League and American League, which today make up the MLB, were actually legally separate entities until 2000 when Bud Selig merged the two leagues. Beginning in 1995, games played between the two leagues would count, but they were both subject to different rules (designated hitter for example). The first Major League team Washington ever fostered was the Washington Senators, back in 1892, when they played in the National League. The team fizzled out, but by the turn of the century, the Senators were back in the American League starting in 1901. During this stage of Washington history, the Senators were a very good team, although with very few teams at the time, it was not too difficult to be good. Culminating with a World Series win in 1924, the future looked bright in Washington. That was not to be, as the team went until 2019 without another World Series win. 


Photo via National Baseball Hall of Fame Library

Washington was also home to the Negros Leagues (which are set to be fully included by the MLB) back in the 1930s and ’40s. Players like Cool Papa Bell, one of the most legendary Negro League players of all time, as well as Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, made up a team of African American players who were forbidden to play in the MLB. These players all played for the Homestead Grays, one of the best Negro League teams of all time. Bell, Gibson and Leonard are all enshrined in the Nationals’ Ring of Honor. 


For the Senators, their history is one that is not only very cloudy and confusing, but one stained with poor ownership decisions and mismanagement. Despite the flaws, the club managed to produce two players who are enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Walter Johnson, legendary pitcher who holds many Washington pitching records and Frank Howard, the slugger who has some of the most prolific stats of any player to ever grace the field for Washington. 


The Senators struggled with marketability in the early stages of their existence, and it was exemplified by the fact that the team was actually called the “Nationals” from 1905-1955. That is the origin story of the team’s current name. In 1955-1960, the team became known as the “Senators” once again, but used “Nationals” as well. The lack of stability in the front office for the team and owner Clark Griffith worsened in 1955 when Griffith died suddenly. In the next five seasons, the team struggled on and off the field, with the saying that DC was “first in war, first in peace, last in the American League” being coined to describe the lack of success experienced by the Senators. It was at this time that the team was relocated to Minneapolis, Minnesota to become the Minnesota Twins. The entire history of the Senators was given to Minnesota, and to this day, all stats accumulated by those Senators players from 1901-1960 are in the archives for the Minnesota Twins, not the Washington Nationals.


While Major League Baseball took the Senators away from DC and its fans, they gave one right back to them that offseason. Sticking with the same name, the second rendition of the Senators was under a different ownership group, and was ready to start fresh in the city. They were an expansion franchise, so they had little talent, no minor leagues and no experience whatsoever. This made the team very unsuccessful and unappealing to the fanbase. To the chagrin to the fans and residents of DC, for the second time in a decade, their team was taken from them. The second rendition of the Senators relocated to Arlington, Texas to become the Texas Rangers. 


Photo via Archives de Montréal

In accordance to what had previously happened, when the MLB relocated a DC team, they made a new expansion team. Unlike the last time, this expansion team was not created to replace the Senators, but to establish a new market. For the MLB, this market was Montreal, Quebec. The Montreal Expos were here to stay, leaving Washington without a baseball team. In fact, the Expos were an expansion team in 1969, and even though their history is synonymous with DC baseball history, they are actually not linked until later. Nonetheless, the Expos were the first team in MLB history to be playing their home games in Canada. The Senators were gone and had left for the greener pastures of Arlington. 


In their first decade of play, the Expos struggled mightily. Unable to crack .500 in their inaugural season, they got their first taste of postseason baseball in the strike-shortened 1981 season. Ultimately, the Expos lost to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLCS, but it was seemingly a step forward for the team. For the next couple of years, the team struggled to gain momentum after their first postseason run in the short history of the Expos. A new owner in 1991 signaled change, and for a little bit, the Expos looked destined to change the narrative surrounding their young franchise. In 1994, they got out to a torrid start and were favorites to take home the title. Unfortunately, the players union and owners were once again at odds, and a strike canceled the second half of the 1994 season. 

Photo via Francois Roy/Canadian Press

Following the strike, the ownership group in Montreal wanted to change things up within the team. This began a strange, unnecessary rebuild. Quickly the team began selling off their best players and trading them for pennies on the dollar. As the calendar turned to the 21st century, the Expos were in the opposite situation that they found themselves just six years ago. They had reached the cellar of the National League once again. In 2002, owner Jeffery Loria attempted to disband the team, and he was forced to sell the Expos to the MLB. Everything seemed to literally be crumbling for the Expos as their home stadium, Olympic Stadium, was aging and deemed unfit to host baseball. The team desperately needed a new stadium, but Montreal was unwilling to give them the funds. This forced the team to endure a strange period of time where they played 22 “home” games in Puerto Rico. 


The on field play was just as tumultuous as the off field happenings. With the team sinking farther and farther from relevance, the MLB was forced to make a dire move. They announced that the franchise would be relocating, but to an unknown location. Immediately, cities like Charlotte, Washington, DC, as well as both Arlington and Dulles, Virginia emerged as favorites. Ultimately, the MLB decided to move the franchise from Canada to DC. 


The rest is history. The Nationals suffered through a rough first few seasons, only to be graced with the generational talents in Stephen Strasburg. Their efforts to bring a World Series title to Washington fell short in the early 2010s, but in 2019, the franchise finally broke through and ended the city’s drought. 


With the long history of baseball in the nation’s capital, it is easy to get confused with which players are actually in the Nationals record books and who is in the record books for another team. With statistics becoming more and more prevalent, the Nationals have all of the stats from the Expos, with the Twins and Rangers having the stats of the first and second editions of the Senators’ stats, respectively. Washington is no Mecca of baseball like New York or Boston, but it has a rich, long history with fun and strange stories buried within. DC will always be a sports town, and for the next generation of baseball fans, the Nationals are truly their team. The Nats are one that they grew up with and rooted for throughout their childhood. In the end, that is what makes DC such a great sports town: the collection of memories held by the fans that connect generations of fans alike.