Washington Nationals clinch the division: If only Shirley Povich could have seen this

Shirley Povich was sports writer, sports editor, and sports columnist for The Washington Post. Photo: Fans go wild as Washington Nationals take the division AP

WASHINGTON, October 4, 2012 — During Monday night’s tumult, shouting, and squirting of bubbly at Nationals Park, I couldn’t help thinking, “I wish Shirley Povich were alive to see this.”

Mr. Povich followed Washington ball clubs for 75 years. That’s right, 75 years. And much of that time, Washington ball clubs followed the other ball clubs in the standings. Too often Washington ended up the season in the bottom berth and most of that time in the lower division. They were dubbed “cellar-dwellers.”

For all those 75 years, Mr. Povich, not only watched baseball, he reported baseball. Povich was sports writer, sports editor, and sports columnist for The Washington Post. (Is this a case of Macy’s praising Gimbels?) His daily column, “This Morning,” gave Washington citizens a reason to get up, and editor Ben Bradley said it was the reason people bought the paper.

If you had listened to the game on the radio, Povich brought it to visual life. If you’d watched it on television, he showed, as if by replay, what you may have missed. If there was some on-field controversy or umpire miscall, he dissected it, disemboweled it. Then he reassembled it for acceptable reading with your morning breakfast.

Many times through this season, I have wished Mr. Povich could see this 2012 Washington Nationals ballclub. Sure, all of them are too young to remember this Dean of American Sportswriters, this man who talked with Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, and all the greats. But how he would love them!

He would be incredulous as he studied a lineup in which every batter at any time is capable of hitting a homerun. His old Underwood manual typewriter keys would be clicking and clacking like a ticker tape machine.

Shirley Povich, 1955

“Washington clinches their division and earns a post season spot,” he might write. “This is the first time I’ve been able to write these words since Washington played of Griffith Stadium in 1933. And what a happy time that was.

“President Roosevelt, who told us we had nothing to fear but fear itself, was on hand when the Senators played in the World Series against the awesome New York Giants. With FDR and a league pennant, Washington fans certainly felt they had nothing  to fear.

“In 1933, happy days were here again. Prohibition was ended, and there was plenty to sing about, with songs like “Night and Day,” “Stormy Weather,” and “We’re In the Money” topping the charts. Wurlitzer came out with its first coin-operated music machine, the Debutante, which offered a selection of 10 records.”  

Washington was a “loveable” ballclub, posing a real threat to no one through the years. At various parks and stadiums on the road, the team garnered a contingency of sympathy supporters. Washington’s players of that era, who were paid peanuts and Cracker Jacks by today’s standards, were a bunch of rag-tag characters straight out of Central Casting.

They took the field and the hearts of America. Yet the Washington Senators or Nationals (used interchangeably) could never lay claim to being the best of ball clubs. If, however, there were a “Messy Congeniality Award” for the most enjoyable teams, Washington would clinch and clutch that statue.

The teams were often a juggling act of Keystone Kops comedy and vaudevillian melodrama.

Take, for example, the time a sun-blinded outfielder cost the team a pennant when a fly ball caromed off his dome. Or the season opener in which a third baseman knocked down his own pitcher with a throw to first. Or the time a shortstop threw wild over first base and into the stands, fatally hitting a fan. Some comedian joked that the Nats were not just good losers; they were perfect. But then, they had so much practice at it.

Washington Senators devotee Richard Nixon often said, “You have to be a real baseball fan to be a fan of the Washington Senators.”

But, now…this year…this team…this lineup…this outfield…this double-play combination …this bullpen…this rotation…this management…this Washington baseball season. It’s wonderful to be a part of  it all. If only as a fan. But as the legendary Sammy Davis Jr. once told me, “Never  say ‘only a fan.’”

I wish Shirley Povich were alive and writing today. One of his most classic sentences opened his column of October 8, 1956, (56 years ago this coming Monday), after he watched the New York Yankees Don Larsen pitch the first perfect World Series game. When a young writer asked how he came up with that sentence, he replied, “I stared at that white sheet of paper in my typewriter for so long that snow blindness threatened to set in.”

Today, he might reprise that opening: “The million-to-one shot came in. Hell froze over. A month of Sundays hit the calendar.”

Only now, he might add: “Tonight the Washington Nationals ballclub clinched their division and moved into post season play with the best record in baseball, and with all players strong, able, and ready to go.”

In fact, he might even uncharacteristically add,  “Go Nats!”

Vance Garnett’s writings have appeared in major newspapers and magazines. They have won the praise of such luminaries as Paul Harvey, William Safire, and Dean of Sportswriters Shirley Povich. Vance has shared his life experiences and knowledge of D.C. with the Washington Historical Society, the Kiwanis clubs of the Washington area, and on WAMU’s “Kojo Nnamdi Show.”


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Vance Garnett

Vance Garnett is an eclectic observer of life, politics and sports. 

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