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Baseball in Washington:
Our National Pastime returns
to Our Nation's Capital

A fan's dream come true: The Nationals are (re-)born

On April 4, 2005, I had the pleasure of witnessing, in Philadelphia, the official rebirth of an old tradition: a Major League Baseball team from Washington, playing for the first time in over 33 years. The Washington Nationals lost that day to the Phillies, but they went on to take the next two games. On April 14, the Nationals played their first game at home, in front of a packed RFK Stadium. The long years of "wandering in the wilderness" by Washington baseball fans had finally come to an end. To the amazement of all, by the middle of the season the team formerly known as the Montreal Expos had a commanding lead in the National League East Division. They fell into a slump after that, but the 2005 inaugural season of the Nationals was a huge triumph by almost any measure, with total attendance of 2.7 million.

Historical background

Decade Team World
1880s Nationals/Senators  
1890s Nationals/Senators  
1900s Nationals/Senators 0
1910s Nationals/Senators 0
1920s Nationals/Senators 2
1930s Nationals/Senators 1
1940s Nationals/Senators 0
1950s Senators 0
1960s Senators (II) 0
2000s Nationals 0
2010s Nationals 0 ?

Major league baseball was played in Washington almost continuously from 1882 until 1972; see the 19th Century Leagues page. The Washington Nationals were one of the charter members of the American League, founded in 1901. Over the years, they came to be called the "Senators" by most people, and by the 1940s this name was officially adopted. There were two different franchises with the name "Washington Senators." This franchise moved west to become the Minnesota Twins in 1961, and was immediately replaced by a second Washington Senators franchise, which played in Washington for eleven years (1961-1971). In November 1960 an American League expansion franchise in Washington was awarded to a group led by General Elwood R. "Pete" Quesada, Administrator in the Federal Aviation Administration. Among the other investors was Katherine Graham, owner of the Washington Post. Quesada didn't know what he was doing, however, and in January 1963 James Johnston and Jim Lemon bought the franchise. Johnston died a few years later, however, and in December 1968 Robert Short bought the Senators for $9.4 million, with Lemon retaining a 10% stake in the team. From the beginning, Short had his eyes elsewhere, as was made clear when the Senators played exhibition games in Arlington, Texas in the spring of 1969 and 1971. (See Washington's Expansion Senators (1961-1971) by James R. Hartley, and "50 years ago, the Senators left and arrived" Dan Steinberg's "D.C. Sports Bog" at on October 27, 2010. Franchise owner Bob Short felt that the lease terms were too high, so he moved the team to Texas and renamed them the Rangers in 1972. That was the last time that a major league baseball franchise has been relocated, and the tacit de facto moratorium on relocations since then has been very prejudicial to baseball fans in Washington and Northern Virginia.

On several occasions in the bleak years that followed, Washington came close to landing a franchise via relocation or expansion. In 1974 San Diego Padres were on the verge of moving to D.C. when Ray Kroc, founder of McDonald's, prevented this by purchasing the club from C. Arnholt Smith. In 1987 there was a big "Baseball in '87" promotion in D.C., but it went nowhere. This was the period during which the U.S. Senate undertook investigations as to whether baseball was abusing its monopoly power to indefinitely stall on further franchise expansion. Public pressure was what got the ball rolling for the expansions that took place in the 1990s.

Washington was one of six finalists for expansion in 1993, but lost out to Denver and Miami. In 1995 Northern Virginia business executive William Collins made tentative deal to buy the Astros, but the deal collapsed when Houston leaders agreed to build a new publicly funded stadium. Washington was one of four finalists for 1998 expansion, but once again fell short, as Phoenix and St. Petersburg-Tampa won that race. It is interesting to note Washington's inherent disadvantage in these competitions, as revealed by the very names of the new teams: In each case, the franchise award was contingent on publicly-funded stadiums, which in turn were made possible by tax revenues from state governments or from multi-county special districts. Hence, the Colorado Rockies, the Florida Marlins, the Arizona Diamondbacks, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. The tiny District of Columbia could hardly hope to compete on equal terms with entire states, especially given its lack of clout in the halls of Congress.

Relocation talks: the agony of delay

Fed up with being shut out in each round of franchise expansion, Washingtonians started looking to the north, where the city of Montreal had all but given up supporting the Expos ever since the 1994 strike ruined their march toward the postseason. In early 1999, rumors spread about the possible relocation of the Montreal Expos to Washington. The March 25, 1999 issue of the Washington Post Magazine had a feature story by Peter Perl, "Home Team: The Quest to Bring Major League Baseball Back to Washington." The tag paragraph said it all: "Washington has demographics to die for. It has no lack of would-be owners. It even has the moral debt of a promise broken by the barons of major league baseball 28 years ago. So what is so complicated about landing a franchise in the nation's capital?" This article coincided with the first MLB exhibition game held at RFK Stadium in several years, between the Expos and the Cardinals.

The fact that Major League Baseball officials repeatedly overlooked this enormously lucrative market, in spite of a strong promotional campaign by government officials and private investors, raises troubling questions about how decisions are made, and whose interests are getting special treatment. The words and deeds of Commissioner "Bud" Selig and other top MLB officials in years past seemed calculated to stoke popular interest in baseball in the D.C. region as a ploy to leverage greater public funding for a new baseball stadium. It is as if they are trying to prove the point of Joanna Cagan and Neil Demause, authors of the book Field of Schemes. The main obstacle to relocating the Expos to Washington was Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos, who claimed exclusive territorial rights to the entire mid-Atlantic region. For all the details, see Baseball in Washington news chronology.

In the early months of 2004, officials from the District of Columbia and investors from Northern Virginia laid out proposals to fully fund new baseball stadiums in their respective areas. From that point, the pace of discussions with MLB officials about relocating the Montreal Expos quickly intensified. In mid-September, MLB officials negotiated the terms of a deal under which the Montreal Expos would be sold to D.C. area investors contingent upon approval of a new publicly-financed baseball stadium to be built on South Capitol Street in Washington. After some heart-stopping last-minute obstacles raised by D.C. Council Chairman Linda Cropp, the return of baseball became a virtual certainty just in time for Christmas.

At a ceremony on November 22, 2004, it was announced that the Washington baseball team would be named the "Nationals." It had been understood that the new owners of the franchise would have discretion to choose the team name. The reason behind this name choice was essentially political: Mayor Anthony Williams made it plain that he strongly opposed calling the team the "Senators" because there are no senators from Washington, just a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives. MLB officials apparently "jumped the gun" in announcing the team name in order to give Mayor Williams more political support as the critical votes on funding the new stadium in the D.C. Council approached.

Further obstacles emerged in late 2005, as some members of the D.C. Council complained about escalating cost estimates. A tentative deal was reached in December, but renewed disputes soon arose, and not until a late-night council meeting in February 2006 was final approval given to fund the new ballpark. Ground was broken in May, and the Nationals franchise was sold to the Lerner family in June. This officially completed the transfer of the team, which is now well established in Washington.

In spite of all the past disappointments, all's well that ends well. With that in mind, let's all give a round of applause to the Major League Baseball officials for finally putting an end to the travesty and bringing baseball back to Washington! Thanks, Bud!

What about Virginia?

Until August 2004, Northern Virginia was considered to have at least as great a chance of landing the Expos franchise as the District of Columbia. The Virginia Baseball Club prospective franchise ownership group was led by William E. Collins. On the public side was the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, led by veteran baseball executive Gabe Paul, Jr.

A devastating blow to Virginia's hopes came on July 18, 2003, when Arlington County Board member Paul Ferguson wrote a letter to Michael Frey, Chairman of the Virginia Baseball Stadium Authority, announcing that county government would no longer support a baseball stadium built within its jurisdiction. This was a huge setback to hopes for relocating the Montreal Expos to the Washington area for the 2004 season. Given MLB's perpetual stalling and pressure for more public funding, however, Arlington's decision is certainly understandable. Here is the key paragraph from Ferguson's letter to Frey:

Your supporters attempted to work with the Arlington community in hopes of reaching general consensus and support for a Major League Baseball Stadium. However, with no award of a team, it made it impossible for you to enter into a site plan process. The uncertainty led to more opposition. The County Board maintained a neutral position despite community division knowing that Major League Baseball had set the All-Star Break as its goal for announcing relocation. The divisive nature of the issue with no certainty of any decision by Major League Baseball in the future leads the Arlington County Board to end the path of uncertainty that Major League Baseball imposes in hopes of a better deal. The arrogance of Major League Baseball is unbelievable. In the sports section of the July 15 Washington Post , Major League Baseball President, Robert DuPuy, is quoted as saying a decision will come, "when the moons and suns and the dollars are aligned correctly." It is hard to believe that you and the other applicants have failed to give them the necessary information to make a decision. Whether one is for or against baseball in Northern Virginia, this type of statement is an insult to our community.


In early 2004, Virginia officials unveiled a bold plan to build a new baseball stadium in Loudoun County near Dulles Airport, as part of a huge resort community. Doubts arose because of the lack of mass transit to that area, and the heavy traffic that slows commutes in Northern Virginia. The area is very wealthy, but not densely populated, and thus not very suitable for an essentially urban sport. This plan came unraveled late in the summer when it was learned that one of the land owners declined to sell to the resort/stadium partnership. After that point, the District of Columbia was back in the driver's seat, and in late September, D.C. clinched the deal.

As the D.C. Council "balked" on the stadium lease provision on February 7, 2004, the new Governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine, said he was willing to negotiate bringing the Nationals to the Old Dominion, but nothing much came of it.

Politics: D.C. Council stadium funding votes

After Major League Baseball announced the move of the Montreal Expos to Washington in late September 2004, political maneuverings began in the D.C. government. Council chairwoman Linda Cropp initially favored the proposed stadium deal, but later changed her mind and insisted on revised terms. The district council vote on Nov. 30 was 6 in favor to 4 opposed, with 3 abstentions, and the votes on both Dec. 7 and Dec. 21 were 7 in favor to 6 opposed. Five of the six African-American council members voted "yes," while only two of the seven white members did; see color coding in the table below. Three incumbent members of the D.C. Council were defeated in their bids for reelection in the Democratic primaries in September 2004: Harold Brazil, Kevin Chavous, and Sandy Allen, all of whom favored the stadium funding bill. The three winners in those races -- Kwame Brown, Vincent Gray (who later was elected mayor of D.C.), and former Mayor Marion Barry, who are marked with asterisks in the table -- all campaigned in opposition to public funding for a baseball stadium, which set the stage for another round of difficulties in the latter months of 2005. Several members of the D.C. Council complained about escalating cost estimates, and balked at passing the required stadium lease legislation. In January, 2006 Major League Baseball invoked the mediation and arbitration option to resolve the issue. After a scheduled vote in late January was postponed, the Council debated the issue on February 7, and voted 8 to 5 against the revised bill that was crafted under the mediation process and was submitted by Mayor Williams. The Council remained in session until after midnight, however, and finally passed (by a 9 to 4 margin) an alternative emergency stadium lease bill, including a provision that puts a firm cap on the cost of construction, which was introduced by Chairwoman Cropp. All three new Council members, plus Carol Schwartz, switched their votes based on that cost cap. MLB accepted the revised stadium lease terms, the last hurdle in making the Nationals a permanent institution in Washington.

Ward 2003-2004 members 2004 stadium votes 2005-2006 members 2006 votes
Nov. 30 Dec. 14 Dec. 21 Feb. 7 Feb. 8
Chairman Linda W. Cropp Abstain Yes Yes Linda W. Cropp Yes Yes
At Large Harold Brazil Yes Yes Yes Kwame R. Brown * No Yes
At Large David A. Catania No No No David A. Catania No No
At Large Carol Schwartz No No No Carol Schwartz No Yes
At Large Phil Mendelson Abstain No No Phil Mendelson No No
1 Jim Graham No No No Jim Graham No No
2 Jack Evans Yes Yes Yes Jack Evans Yes Yes
3 Kathy Patterson Abstain No No Kathy Patterson Yes Yes
4 Adrian M. Fenty No No No Adrian M. Fenty No No
5 Vincent B. Orange Sr. Yes Yes Yes Vincent B. Orange Sr. Yes Yes
6 Sharon Ambrose Yes Yes Yes Sharon Ambrose Yes Yes
7 Kevin Chavous Yes Yes Yes Vincent C. Gray * No Yes
8 Sandy Allen Yes Yes Yes Marion Barry * No Yes

SOURCE: Washington Post,

Selling the franchise

For several years, the Expos were in the awkward position of being the only MLB franchise without an owner. Former owner Jeffrey Loria was given a "sweetheart deal" to buy the Florida Marlins, after their former owner John Henry bought the Boston Red Sox in 2002. It was like a game of musical chairs. As the battle of relocating the former Montreal Expos raged on, and as negotiations over funding a new stadium dragged on, MLB Commissioner Bud Selig kept stalling on the sale of the franchise. Why? Because until the stadium deal was finalized, the value of the franchise was much less. On May 3, 2006 it was announced, at long last, that MLB had decided to sell the Nationals franchise (for $450 million) to Theodore and Mark Lerner & family (Maryland), joined by Stan Kasten, formerly with the Atlanta Braves.

The also-rans:

Each of the individuals or partnerships listed above placed a $100,000 deposit to become eligible to purchase the Washington Nationals franchise from Major League Baseball, according to various news reports. (SOURCE: Washington Post, April 30, 2005.) The names are ranked in rough order of most-to-least likely to win the bid.

The Homes of the Nationals (and Senators)

RFK stadium thumbnail

For half a century (1911-1961), the Washington Senators played ball in Griffith Stadium, located two miles north of the Mall. Today, the Howard University Hospital stands on that site.

Congress approved funds to construct a modern, multi-use stadium two miles east of the U.S. Capitol building. The Washington Redskins began playing in what was first called "D.C. Stadium" in the fall of 1961, and the Senators began playing there the following spring. In 1969 it was renamed "Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium" (RFK Stadium for short) in honor of the senator from New York state who was assassinated while running for president in May 1968. The (second) Senators left Washington after the 1971 season and relocated to Arlington, Texas, after which they became known as the "Rangers." For the next thirty years, the Redskins were the only tenant at RFK Stadium. Finally, in September 2004, it was announced that the Montreal Expos would relocate to Washington, and from 2005 through 2007, RFK Stadium had a second life as home of the Nationals.

After long political wrangling (see news chronology), in May 2006 construction began on Nationals Park. The structure was completed in the summer of 2007, the turf was laid in November, and as of February 2008, only a few finishing touches need to be put in place in time for the 2008 season. An exhibition game with the Orioles is scheduled for March 29, and the official Opening Day game will be on March 30, as the Nationals host the Braves. It is one of the rare cases of a government project in Washington being completed on time and within the budget.

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