The question is simply this: Can this nation long endure without a baseball team in her capital? Did the answer come, mayhap, from the otherwise knowledgeable Washington, D.C. cab driver who, when instructed to take the passenger to Robert F. Kennedy Stadium, inquired, "Where?" Or from the veteran government agency man who, when asked to give his opinion on the fate of the Senators, replied, "Which one? Muskie? McGovern? Birch Bayh?"
Then, inevitably, there is Robert E. Short, the impoverished millionaire whose tenuous ownership of the Washington Senators is up for grabs. He says in response to almost any question concerning his property, "No way." And Calvin Griffith, who abandoned his surrogate father's city and found mammon in Middle America, asserting unsentimentally that only a baseball freak, financed by Fort Knox, could survive the socio-economic rigors of sporting life on the Potomac. Short, who has accumulated $5.5 million in debts since he opened for business there in 1969, would agree. And as he, Griffith and any number of unhappy investors, past and present, will loudly proclaim, there are many, many reasons why the National Pastime is no fun in the Nation's Capital. To name a few:
Washington has virtually no industry save government, so it has no blue-collar, hard-hat mass to support a baseball team day in and day out, year in and year out. The city's working population is composed largely of transients, whose loyalties, sporting and otherwise, are elsewhere. It is a cocktail town, not a beer town, whose assorted VIPs prefer to get discreetly bashed in their suburban homes rather than risk the exposure of a night on the town. The Nation's Capital usually leads the majors in per-capita muggings.
Washington is less than an hour's drive from Baltimore, a beer town it once freely tapped for attendance. Now Baltimore wins everything, making Washington suffer more by comparison. Comparison is easy, too, since it is no trick for most Washingtonians to pick up the champion Orioles on Baltimore TV.
The capital inner-city population is 71% black, many of whom are without pocket money to spend on anything quite so frivolous as baseball, particularly in a stadium that charges the highest admission prices in the league.
So how come a Gomorrah like this has been favored with major league baseball for 71 years? Credit, if that's the word, belongs to Clark Griffith, the uncle who reared the defector Calvin, and TRADITION. The elder Griffith survived as owner of the Senators for 36 years on guile and penuriousness. He developed players for their market value, selling them for a profit at a time when such transactions invariably involved "cash and a utility infielder." Griffith even sold the man who married his niece—Joe Cronin, now, coincidentally, president of the American League and one of the traditionalists determined to keep a team in Washington. But Clark died in 1955 and his heir, Calvin, who lived with the old man after the death of his own father, could scarcely wait to flee the hallowed ground. The American League wouldn't let him, though, not until it expanded to 10 teams in 1961. Then Griffith was permitted to take his Senators to Minnesota and call them Twins, providing Washington with a patchwork gaggle of expansion Senators in return.
So TRADITION prevailed. The Twins won a pennant, and Washington remained first in war, first in peace and last in the American League. Baseball is quite frankly afraid to move a team out of the capital. For one thing, it would look bad—should London not have a soccer team? Should Peking be without Ping-Pong? Secondly, there is always the ominous possibility that a Congress miffed by the loss of a home team would be encouraged to launch another one of those dreaded and periodic investigations of the reserve clause.
This is what confronts potential buyers of Short's franchise today. Short does not particularly care to whom he sells the ball club, be he Texas oilman or New Orleans riverboat gambler. He only wants out from under the load. But he is also under considerable pressure from the baseball hierarchy to peddle his wares to Washington interests, wherever they may be.
Short is under even more pressure from his creditors. If he doesn't sell the team before Oct. 31, the American Security and Trust Co., to which he owes more than $2 million on the loan he took to buy the team, may just foreclose on him and—together with the estate of the late James Johnston, to which Short owes another $2.2 million, and former majority owner James H. Lemon, to whom he owes still another $1.1 million—take over the Senators and put them up for bid. As Short ruefully observes, "There are a lot of people waiting in the weeds to get in on that kind of bargain."
Short himself is offering no bargain buy. He is asking not only the $9.4 million—most of it borrowed—that he paid for the team but compensation for the $3 million he estimates he has lost operating it. The $12 million price tag already has repelled many shoppers, including that expert sick-franchise doctor, Bill Veeck, who lives just across the way on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. There are those, in fact, who think Short paid too much for the Senators in the first place. Short is among them.
"I knew it was a bad deal," he almost cheerfully admits, "but I thought I could negotiate for a new lease and do better on radio and TV revenue."
He did do better with the media, signing contracts that will bring him a record (for Washington) $440,000 in radio and television money in a market notoriously short of sponsors. But his lease on the stadium expires at the end of this season and Short is already more than $160,000 behind in his rent. The current lease calls for him to pay his landlord, the District of Columbia Armory Board, a minimum of $65,000 for the year or 7% of his gross, whichever is greater. He receives 20% of the concession revenue but gets nothing from parking. He must also pay for the upkeep of the building and grounds, for the lighting and for police protection, which in Washington is both considerable and vital. Short estimates it costs him about $10,000 a game to play baseball in Kennedy Stadium, a figure tabulated from money he pays out and money he does not receive from concessions. He has asked the Armory Board to forgive him his overdue bills, to charge him no rent until after one million attendance is attained—a figure reached only once in the team's history—and to give him more of the concession money and all of the parking revenue.
"He wants everything," says Armory Board Manager Arthur (Dutch) Bergman.
The Armory Board itself is not standing in clover. As the agency in charge, it is required to pay some $800,000 annually in interest on the $20 million owed for construction of the stadium. Payments have averaged only $300,000 a year, and the District has had to go hat in hand to Congress for the remaining $500,000. In 10 years not a penny of the principal has been paid on the stadium bonds.
Short can empathize with a fellow debtor but he smugly points out that if a baseball team were not playing at Kennedy the Board would be in even direr straits. He also has vigorously supported legislation that would transfer the stadium to the custody of the Department of the Interior, which owns the land. If the government took over the building, Short argues, then its cost would be paid by taxpayers all over the republic, not just in the District of Columbia. Unfortunately for Short and fortunately for taxpayers in, say, Hawaii, the Department of the Interior withdrew support from the bill and, in effect, killed it.
Almost everybody on Capitol Hill is involved somehow in Short's problems—the District, Congress, Interior, the National Park Service and the Bureau of the Budget. Bergman has been meeting with the various government officials in an effort to find some workable agreement on stadium rental. Even the President would help if he could, says Short, who once served as Hubert Humphrey's campaign manager and was national treasurer of the Democratic Party. "Mr. Nixon is a great baseball fan." He even showed up not long ago on a night when only 3,887 private citizens were in attendance.
But the rent question is now fairly academic to someone like Short, who is looking for the quickest way out of town. As the bank's Oct. 31 deadline approaches, Short can almost hear that $3 million bathwater running. Moving to another city would not solve his problems, but if someone from the hinterlands wants to buy his team and take it with him, Short will sell. Dallas is most often mentioned as a new home for the Senators. The money men from that city almost snared Griffith's old Senators, for that matter, but Griffith was offered too good a deal to pass up Minneapolis-St. Paul. He pays only 7% of his net receipts, receives 90% of concession money and is not charged for stadium maintenance or police protection.
There is a close kinship between Griffith's Twins and Short's Senators. Short lives in Minnesota and operates his other, more profitable, businesses from an office in the hotel he owns in Minneapolis. He went to law school at Georgetown University in Washington and worked there as an Assistant U.S. Attorney before returning to his native Minnesota. When Griffith made his move, he took with him virtually all of the old Senators' tradition. There is a "Clark Griffith Alcove" in the Twins' ball park where yellowing photographs of such Washington immortals as Walter Johnson, Bucky Harris, Joe Judge and Goose Goslin hang on the walls. There is also a picture there of a 13-year-old Calvin Griffith as bat boy of the 1925 American League champions.
But in the presence of all this memorabilia, Griffith remains unmoved by nostalgia. "I wanted to leave Washington long before my late uncle [he always calls his old guardian that] died. The league wouldn't let me until they got another team there, but I don't think they could have kept me much longer. My late uncle told me that if I wanted to stay in baseball, I'd better get out of Washington. Heck, what we would take in total gross in Washington, we make here in concessions alone."
In the five years Griffith operated the Senators between the time of his "late uncle's" death and the escape to Minnesota, the team averaged only 525,000 in attendance. In 10 years in Minnesota, the Twins have averaged 1.3 million a year. Griffith has said he would vote in favor of moving the Senators out of Washington. "I would vote for anyone who has given his best effort to make a go of it in Washington," he says, "and Bob Short has been very sincere."
Sincere may not be the word Washingtonians would use, but even his severest critics credit Short with giving his best effort toward building a gate attraction. He lured Ted Williams off the Florida Keys to manage the team, and in his first season, 1969, the Senators drew 918,106, the second-highest attendance in the team's history.
Short stages as many promotional extravaganzas as any other owner in baseball, including that formidable showman, Charles O. Finley. He has, in fact, borrowed freely from Finley. The Senators even started wearing white shoes for home games last month. Short's most profitable trade, if not the most artistically successful, was also with Finley's A's. Short gave Finley Pitcher Darold Knowles and First Baseman Mike Epstein in return for First Baseman Don Mincher, Pitcher Paul Lindblad, Catcher-Outfielder Frank Fernandez and an estimated $300,000 in cash. Shades of Clark Griffith!
Short's more notorious player transactions are now history, of course. In his quest for faces, he acquired the sad-eyed visages of Denny McLain and Curt Flood. A shoulder injury which has had him on the disabled list for three weeks will probably keep McLain, baseball's last 30-game winner, from losing 30 this season. Flood, baseball's most determined litigant, didn't stay with the Senators through April. Plagued by doubt and fear, he disappeared one night and turned up the next in Spain. Now he is in Majorca.
"Curt had so many problems," says Short sympathetically, "not even he could keep up with them."
Many of these were financial, which should have made him just one of the boys on the Washington team. Both McLain and Catcher Paul Casanova have gone through bankruptcy and Short himself is in a slump at the bank. At least Flood's departure saved him about half the outfielder's $110,000 salary. That leaves him with only McLain and the Brobdingnagian Frank Howard in the $100,000 range. Short has also doled out more than $250,000 in bonuses to young talent, at least $150,000 of that to the Dartmouth-educated pitcher, Pete Broberg, one of the highest-paid Ivy Leaguers since Bill Bradley. But he has economized by peddling off players in the so-called middle-income range.
Under any circumstances, it is difficult for the ordinary wage-earner to share Short's grief over his financial misadventures. In addition to the baseball team, he owns two truck lines, an airline distribution business (also up for sale), much valuable downtown Minneapolis real estate and six hotels, including one in St. Paul staffed almost entirely by women. "A bellgirl comes for your bag," says Short. "You end up carrying it for her, then tipping her. It's perfect."
These other enterprises are independent of his baseball operation, Short hastily explains. He will not, he says, rob his hotel Peter to pay his baseball Paul. Besides, business isn't that good anyway. "There is no way this all goes into the same pot," he says. "Bankers don't like good money going after bad."
Not all of Short's sporting investments have been as unrewarding as the Senators. He was one of 117 civic-minded Twin Cities citizens who bought the floundering Minneapolis Lakers basketball team in 1957. He eventually became the majority owner by forfeit, moved the team to Los Angeles in 1960, and five years later sold it to Jack Kent Cooke for $5.2 million. Short, whose investment in the Lakers was under $100,000, realized a profit of some $3 million—about what he stands to lose on the Senators, if his bad luck holds out.
A committee consisting of Baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, American League President Cronin and Short himself is now groping for a solution to the Washington problem. Short is hopeful the three of them can find either a buyer or a rich partner for him—somebody who can carry his bags and tip him for the privilege. In the meantime, he has been asked to tone down his comments on moving the team. Indeed, such loose talk did little for Short's public relations in Washington.
"He comes in here with a credit card," said one newsman. "He can't make the payments so he threatens to take the team out of town and bad-raps the fans."
Few fans are less deserving of a bad rap, for Washingtonians have endured athletic mediocrity longer and with greater patience than their more fortunate counterparts in other communities. The Senators have won only three pennants in their history, the last one in 1933. The football Redskins, who sell out Kennedy Stadium for their home games, have not won a championship since 1942 and have had only four winning seasons in the past 25 years. At least there is no adequate arena in town, a fact which spares the District fans from suffering losing basketball and hockey teams too. Even Short pays his fans grudging tribute.
"You get 800,000 people to pay our prices to see our team in that stadium and you've gotta believe they're dedicated," he says.
Some might even say demented. But do they deserve to be deserted?
Baseball wouldn't dare.