Thom Loverro: Grays' legacy strong 75 years after arrival

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Photo - ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO
Grays first baseman Buck Leonard was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1972.
ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO Grays first baseman Buck Leonard was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1972.
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The Washington Nationals will celebrate Black Heritage Night on Thursday at Nationals Park with a program that includes a tribute to late D.C. music legend Chuck Brown and an interview by Nationals minority investor and broadcasting great James Brown about the Negro Leagues.

Just like the Nationals -- who came here from Montreal -- the most notable chapter of Negro League baseball in Washington was an imported team as well. This team, one of the greatest Negro League franchises, came from a steel mill town outside of Pittsburgh known as Homestead, Pa.

There were at least four black pro baseball teams that carried the Washington name -- the Washington Potomacs in 1924, the Washington Pilots in 1932 and 1934, the Washington Elite Giants in 1936 and 1937 and the Washington Black Senators in 1938.

But the Negro League team that made the history of the game so rich in the District was the Homestead Grays. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Grays' arrival in the District, which became their home away from home.

Owner Cum Posey was looking for a way to generate new revenue and found a willing partner in Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith, whose mercenary heart was willing to make money off black ballplayers even though he refused to have any on his team.

So the Grays began splitting games between Homestead and Washington. The team had such greats as Hall of Famers Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson, who is immortalized in one of the three statues in the center-field plaza at Nationals Park. Whether that depiction is an honor is subject to debate.

Griffith rented out his stadium to the Grays, and it was a profitable venture for all involved. It was also a chance for Washington baseball fans to see quality, winning baseball. The Senators, four years removed from their 1933 American League pennant, were falling into a spiral of losing that would last for decades.

"Sometimes we outdrew the major league teams," former Grays pitcher Wilmer Fields once told me in an interview. "When we would play in Washington at Griffith Stadium on a Sunday or a holiday, we would sometimes get 20,000 fans when the major league team would be drawing about 7,000.

"When Satchel Paige and the Kansas City Monarchs would come to town, we could get a crowd of about 30,000," Fields said. "But they were mostly black fans and not that many white fans. They missed something great. They were great times."

Those great times -- the Grays won nine straight Negro National League championships, playing some of the best baseball in Washington history -- are worth celebrating.

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.

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