A hospital’s mini-tribute to Griffith Stadium

After Washington’s Griffith Stadium was torn down in February 1965, nearby Howard University acquired the 8.5-acre property for $1.5 million, to build what is now a 250-bed teaching hospital. A historic marker noting existence of the stadium from 1911 until its demolition finally was placed outside the hospital in 2011, but nothing more.

In 2013, however, floor markers depicting a home plate and the batter’s boxes were placed where they are believed to have been when the site was home to major league baseball. The marker and mural tracing the history of the ballpark are in the lobby leading to the hospital’s main elevators and the emergency room. Unfortunately, hospital rules don’t encourage baseball tourists, especially in the time of Covid-19. “Only persons having legitimate business will be allowed to enter the hospital,” the medical center’s website states.

The mini-museum in an area of the lobby known as Freedmen’s Hall features photos of Griffith Stadium, of U.S. presidents throwing out opening day pitches and of  the men who played there: the American League’s Washington Senators and, in the 1940s, the Negro National League’s Homestead Grays.

Few other physical features of Griffith Stadium still exist. Just 1,498 people bought tickets to see the final major league game there on September 21, 1961, when the expansion Senators played the team that had left D.C. after the 1960 season, the Minnesota Twins. Nobody stormed the field to grab bases or other souvenirs. The vacant stadium was heavily vandalized before it was demolished, 54 years after it was built on the site of an earlier ballpark..

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York, has Walter Johnson’s Griffith Stadium locker on display.

National Baseball Hall of Fame collection

In 1979, Rosecroft Raceway sold off for $10 each some 75 seats it had salvaged from the stadium. A thousand Griffith Stadium seats that had been transported to Tinker Field in Orlando, Florida, were sold off for $100 a pair when that former Twins’ spring training ballpark was demolished in 2015. The Hall of Fame museum also has at least one seat from the stadium, and the National Ballpark Museum in Denver has two of them. The Senators longtime public address announcer, Charlie Brotman, as recently as 2013, had four seats from the presidential box in his basement.

The stadium did not take on the name of the longtime Senators owner, Clark Griffith, until 1923, three years after he gained majority ownership with silent partner William Richardson. The previous ballparks on the site had been called at various times Boundary Field, National Park and American League Park.

The stadium’s location was just off Georgia and Florida avenues, roughly bounded by Fifth Street, U Street and W Street, in the LeDroit Park neighborhood in the District of Columbia’s Northwest quadrant. The area already was home to a mostly middle-class Black population by the time the ballpark became Griffith Stadium. The neighborhood was home to Howard University, long one of the most prestigious places of higher education for Black Americans. Vice President Kamala Harris is a graduate.

The Senators’ half-dozen stockholders paid for the stadium’s construction after a March 1911 fire burned down the previous ballpark. Griffith became the stadium’s owner when he gained majority control of the team. Revenue from stadium rentals for college and NFL football, Negro League baseball, boxing matches and religious events helped Griffith turned a profit.

Not yet 11 years old, I attended my first big league game at Griffith Stadium in 1959. An older friend and I sat in the bleachers. I seem to remember the Senators lost to Kansas City that afternoon. It most liklely was Saturday, July 18 — a hot and sunny afternoon. I recall a home run ball landing not far from us. The fans were cheering, so it must have been hit by the home team. The Nats’ Roy Sievers homered that day. But the team also had sluggers Harmon Killebrew, Jim Lemon and Bob Allison. Too bad those Nats had little pitching beyond Camilo Pascual. On July 19, Washington embarked on an 18-game losing streak before finishing the season in last place.

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