Washington has only been home to the Nationals for 11 years, but between 1891 and 1971 the District of Columbia enjoyed a rich, though rarely successful, professional baseball tradition. The Washington Statesmen threw out the first pitch in 1891. It was a major league franchise in the American Association.
The team switched to the National League the next season and changed its name to the Senators. A few years later, they changed the moniker back to the Nationalss. They were never very good. During their best season the Nats — probably short for National as in the league, but the city is built on a swamp and has plenty of gnats — drew 223,000 fans in 1895 their best year at the gate, but, never came close to a .500 winning percentage.
The club mercifully folded after losing 101 games in 1898 and 98 in 1899. The fact that the club drew only 86,000 that year, or next to last in the NL, may have figured into the decision.
The city had a new team, the Nationals and new league, the American League, in 1901 for a new beginning. The only problem was this team played like the old ones. A few years later, they were the Senators again. It was the same old story for another decade, until 1912 when Walter Johnson and Bob Groom combined for 57 wins between them.
Contrary to popular belief the Senators were not always losers. In fact, Washington was competitive with those Damn Yankees during the roaring ’20s. The Senators went to three World Series and won one. Naturally, most of the best players in DC history date back to those days. However, two play on the Nats today.
Sorry Bryce, Hondo and Max, but you guys don’t even get honorable mentions yet. The Homestead Grays, who played half of their Negro League home schedule in DC during the war years and two-thirds it during the late 1940’s, have a few players.
Hall-of-fame first baseman Buck Leonard played for the Grays in Washington between 1943 and 1948. It’s hard to compare Leonard’s numbers to white players, because segregation banned him from the majors. Still Leonard compiled a .300 batting average and 19 home runs in Washington. Bucky Harris was the second baseman/manager of the Senators in the club’s glory years of the ’20s. Harris batted .275 with 64 triples. Joe Cronin spent seven years a Washington’s shortstop in the 20s and 30s. He was a two-time all-star for the Senators. Ryan Zimmerman was on the hot corner between 2005 and 2013. In that time he was a solid .280 hitter, Zim offered 20+ HR potential each season and he brought runs home.
The best leftfielder in Washington baseball history is Goose Goslin. He hit .323 during his 12-year career, held an .888 ops and scored 100 or more runs three times in his career. The Homestead Grays of the Negro League played parts of their seasons in Washington and Pittsburgh during World War II. Their centerfielder, James “Cool Papa” Bell, is the best to ever play the position in DC. He played the final four seasons of his 24-year career with the Grays. Bell’s statistic’s amounted to what an average position player starting in the majors with 511 at bats. Cool Papa hit .344 at the ages of 40 – 44. Noted for his speed throughout his career, Bell stole 16 bases for Pittsburgh/Washington. Nineteen-year veteran Sam Rice roamed various outfield positions for the Senators, but mostly right field. The career .323 hitter collected 183 triples, 200 or more hits five times, 346 stolen bases and an .804 OPS.
Walter Johnson is the best pitcher Washington ever had. It’s in a book, look it up! The Big Train twice won more games in a season that Max Scherzer will start this year. Johnson won 25 or more games in seven consecutive seasons. Johnson struck out more than 3,500 in his 21 years, pitched more than 5,900 frames and kept an ERA of 2.17 over his career. Did I mention his .600 career win/loss record in spite of playing on some awful teams? By the way, the Big Train was a career .235 hitter, with 24 homers and a .616 OPS. The southpaw is none other than Gio Gonzalez. While his numbers are not great, Gio has a .586 win/loss percentage and a 3.51 ERA in Washington. If you didn’t like the Gio selection, you’ll probably like this even less. Darold Knowles was a fireman with the expansion Senators. Beginning in 1967 he was called on to keep the team in games and even save the few those Nats’ won. Over 229 games, Knowles hurled 374 innings, struck out 268 batters in 374 frames, saved 60 games and kept his ERA around 2.45.
The best catcher in Statesmen/Nationals/Senators/Grays/Senators/Nationals is Josh Gibson. He hit .381 during the last four years of his career with the Grays. That included 33 home runs in 483 at bats. “There is a catcher that any big league club would like to buy for $200,000,” Walter Johnson is attributed as saying after his career ended. “His name is Gibson…he can do everything. He hits the ball a mile, and he catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow.”