Third time at bat for D.C. sure to be a hit, broadcaster says

October 01, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

THE NAME FOR Washington's new baseball team should be an old, familiar one.

"It has to be the Washington Senators," 83-year-old broadcaster Bob Wolff said last night on the phone.

"No question. It can't be the Robins or something new. Senators has the right feel," he said.

Wolff called the 1958 NFL Championship game on the radio the day the Colts beat the Giants in overtime at Yankee Stadium in the greatest game ever.

He came back to Baltimore the next day and heard his call replayed on the air every half hour.

"A local brewery bought the rights to the broadcast and printed highlights of the game. They played it in jukeboxes all over the city. I'd walk into a place and it would be playing," Wolff said.

Now in his eighth different decade of radio broadcasting, working for the Madison Square Garden network, Wolff was also in the booth the first year the Washington Senators were on TV. That was 1947.

He can remember those days pretty clearly, too. Like the time Wolff organized a group called the Singing Senators, enticing crooners on the team bus with his ukulele.

The Singing Senators were booked for gigs all over the place, including the Today show in 1958.

The lead singer was Albie Pearson, a crooner in the Frank Sinatra vein. Wolff was relieved when the Senators won the 13-inning game the night after their Today show appearance, otherwise he was sure the Singing Senators would have been canned.

"I have great memories of Washington and Baltimore," Wolff said.

"I don't think Baltimore has anything to worry about. They've got such a treasure there now. There's enough to share," he said.

That is, there's enough to share after Major League Baseball agrees to protect the Orioles from the financial impact a baseball team in Washington will have.

After that, D.C. is sitting on a gold mine. That's Wolff's take on the return of baseball 33 years after the Senators' second disappearing act.

First to Minnesota, then to Texas. Doesn't matter. Baseball belongs in D.C., he said.

"It's called the national pastime. How can you have a national pastime when you don't have baseball in the nation's capital? What were we supposed to do, root for Northern Virginia? How can you root for a territory?" Wolff asked.

Baseball relies on ghosts and history more than any other sport, for better or worse.

The true fan needs these artifacts and archetypal memories, like an odd addiction to dust and cobwebs - not to mention grainy photographs of the old legends.

Hence the many reproductions this week of Ted Williams as the manager of the Washington Senators and Frank Howard standing ready to blast another homer into the seats at RFK Stadium.

The past is always better in baseball. Retro stadiums. Throwback jerseys.

And cringe as we must at the fiscal shenanigans that the major league cartel of owners foists upon local governments, taxpayers and fans, along comes a witness to history to rekindle affection for baseball's lure.

Wolff saw enough Washington baseball during the games he called at Griffith Stadium to have a feel for what kind of baseball town it was - and will be.

"The crowds always cheered equally for the visiting team as it did for the Senators. People there were from Cleveland, New York, Baltimore," he said.

"It's a very neutral city. It's a great place for baseball as a spectator sport because you can sell the game, not just the home team. Mickey Mantle's coming to town, so people would come to see the visiting teams," he said.

Funny, they do that here in Baltimore these days when the Red Sox and Yankees are in town - yet here it is taken as a sign of the Orioles' inability to fill Camden Yards instead of a boon to ticket revenues, the better with which to buy more players like Miguel Tejada.

Wolff agrees Angelos is doing the right thing to protect the Orioles from an erosion of revenue. He's doing it for himself and the city of Baltimore, Wolff said.

However, he's convinced the market is big enough, just like Chicago and New York.

"And just think about the kind of interleague rivalry the Orioles look forward to against a National League team 35 miles to the south," he said.

For better or worse, the $435 million stadium deal promised by D.C. to the new owners makes the market conditions for baseball far different from when the Senators jumped not once but twice to better economic climates.

Wolff went with the team after the 1960 season when then-owner Calvin Griffith moved the Senators to Minnesota.

"Griffith lived in a modest house, he had one or two scouts and he evaluated a lot of the talent. What happened was when big corporations started owning teams, he wound up struggling. They started pouring money into the teams. Then Minnesota wanted a new team and they had a big beer sponsor, Hamm's, and they came after him. [Griffith] really didn't want to leave, but financially he had to," Wolff said.

When the Senators were reborn a year later, fans "resented the new team," Wolff said.

"It was an expansion-type team, and they had players riding out their careers. They were hard to adopt. The team had no roots in Washington, and when a better deal came along [in Texas] they took it," Wolff said.

His advice was for baseball to get the right owner, not some "fly-by-nighter."

We shall see if the eyewitness to history's warnings are heeded. Bob Wolff does not want to see some parts of Senators history repeated.

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