The University of Maryland, the Nats and MLB

College Park, home of the University of Maryland’s main campus, is just eight miles by car outside of Washington, D.C. The proximity came into play during World War II when travel restrictions forced major league teams to find spring training sites nearer their home cities.

In 1943, ’44 and ’45, the Senators arranged to train in College Park, using the Terrapins’ athletic fields and the basketball fieldhouse. The University’s president, Harry Clifton “Curly” Byrd, agreed to charge the team no more than it cost the school to let the Nats set up camp and use a dormitory and dining hall. In earlier years, Clark Griffith had let the Terrapins baseball team play at Griffith Stadium for a similar minimal fee. “We’re glad to repay your kindness,” Byrd told Griffith.

“We’ll have the best training setup in the country,” Griffith gushed after a February 20, 1943, tour of the varsity baseball diamond on the College Park campus. “Maryland’s field right now is better than we had in Orlando,” where the Nats had been training.

Given the time of year, many of the baseball activities had to take place in Ritchie Coliseum, at the time the largest gymnasium on campus and home to the basketball team. Manager Ossie Bluege would hit grounder to his infielder off the gym’s wooden floor — no bad hops — but Nats players reportedly spent much of their time indoors running up and down the court, dribbling and shooting baskets.

The team’s recently acquired pitching machine, in need of a new belt, couldn’t be used for a time because of war-imposed rubber rationing. Surely, that was just one of many shortcomings of having to spend several weeks in the cold. The players spent much of the time complaining.

An oft-repeated story, perhaps apocryphal, about the Nats’ cold springs involved the large contingent of Cuban players in camp. One day early on, it snowed in College Park. Several of the Cubans, amazed at what they were seeing for the first time, scooped up balls of the white stuff and tried sticking them in their pockets as souvenirs.

Banned from going south, all other teams faced similar problems. The Red Sox trained at Tufts University, outside of Boston; the Indians at Purdue in Indiana. The Dodgers set up shop at Bear Mountain and West Point, N.Y. The Yankees and Giants spent their spring at camps on the New Jersey Shore, playing exhibition games against military teams at nearby bases. The Senators traveled as far as Norfolk to play military teams stocked with major leaguers.

In Frederick, Md., in 1944, where the Philadelphia Athletics were training, the A’s played their lone exhibition with another major league team against the Yankees. The game took place during a snow storm, which forced play to end in the eighth inning.

A large flagship state university, Maryland likely has sent more football players to the NFL than baseball players to the major leagues. Of the 40 or so MLB players known to have attended the university since the start of the 20th Century, 14 lasted no more than a season. Only a dozen had substantial major league careers; none of them Hall of Famers.

Five former students at the University of Maryland (or its predecessor) had more than a brief trial with the A.L. Senators. The first – infielder Bob Unglaub (from 1899 to 1903 at what then Maryland Agricultural College) — was a regular from mid-way through the 1908 season through 1910. He hit .301 in 1909, but died in a railroad accident in 1916 at age 36.

Next was infielder Sherry Robertson (1937-38). He had the advantage of being the owner’s nephew. Robertson played in all or part of 10 seasons for the Nats, starting in 1940, interrupted by two-and-half seasons in the military. He later served in the Nats’ front office.

Another former Terp (1944-45), catcher Hal Keller, played briefly for the Nats in 1949, ’50 and ’52, but went on to become the farm director for both the original and expansion Senators during more than 50 years in baseball.

Pitcher Lou Sleater, who attended Maryland in 1946, spent most of 1952 with the Senators during his seven seasons in the majors. He had the distinction of retiring Walt Dropo at Griffith Stadium on July 12, 1952, after the Tigers’ first baseman made the last of his record 12 hits in 12 plate appearances.

Two-sport star Tom Brown was drafted out of Maryland by the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, but decided to sign with the expansion Washington Senators in 1963. After an outstanding spring training, Brown, who went to Montgomery Blair High in Silver Spring, was anointed the opening-day starter at first base for the Nats. His lack of experience showed, however, and Brown was optioned to Double-A York. He soon gave up on baseball to become a successful defensive back for the Packers, playing in the first two Super Bowls before ending his football career with the Washington Redskins.

Outfielder Justin Maxwell is the only Maryland grad to play for the current Nationals franchise. in 2007, ’09 and ’10. He later played for the Astros, Royals and Giants through 2015.

Maxwell more recently has served as a substitute host on Nats Extra and as a substitute analyst on TV with play-by-play broadcaster Bob Carpenter. Maxwell’s father Austin, a U.S. Navy dentist, provided dental care for two U.S. presidents, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Starting in 2022, the younger Maxwell had begun studying to become a dentist at the University of Maryland’s School of Dentistry in Baltimore.   

Charlie Keller

Hal Keller, the catcher, was the younger brother of the most prominent major leaguer who attended the University of Maryland (1935-36), Charlie Keller. A star outfielder for the New York Yankees from 1939 to 1944. Charlie Keller grew up on a farm outside Frederick, Md. At the peak of his career, Charlie missed a year and a half serving in World War II. He played regularly for one more season before he hurt his back, but he was a five-time All-Star and stayed in the majors through 1952.

A member of the 1969 “Miracle Mets,” outfielder Ron Swoboda, was born in Baltimore. He attended Maryland in 1963. Swoboda spent spent nine seasons in the majors, made a memorable catch in the World Series, and later became a TV sports broadcaster.

Former Terps’ head baseball coach Tom Bradley (1991-2000) also graduated from the university, majoring in Latin, before pitching in the majors for parts of seven seasons (1969-75). He won 15 games two seasons in a row for the White Sox.

Pitcher Brett Cecil, who attended Maryland (2005-07), went to DeMatha catholic high school in Hyattsville, Md., a stone’s throw from the College Park campus. He made the A.L. All-Star team in 2013 with the Blue Jays and spent 10 years in the majors.

Pitcher Eric Milton attended Maryland from 1994 to 1996. He spent 11 years in the majors, threw a no-hitter on Sept. 11, 1999, won 15 games for the Twins and made the 2001 All-Star team. In recent years, he and his family donated money to upgrade the Terps’ clubhouse at the team’s long-time home, Shipley Field.

As this is written, five former Terps remain active in the majors. With Maryland winning its first Big 10 baseball championship in 2022, that number may increase before long. The Nationals, however, drafted no players from the recent Terps’ teams.

Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe was a star with the 2014 and ’15 Maryland teams. He was drafted in the third round by the Rays. Lowe hit 39 home runs in 2021 and was named to the All-Star tam in 2019 as an injury replacement. He played in the 2020 World Series.

Pitcher Adam Kolarek was with the Oakland A’s for part of 2022. Born and raised in the Baltimore area, he was drafted in 2010 after pitching for Maryland for three seasons.The left-handed reliever appeared in the playoffs in 2018 and the World Series in 2020 with the Dodgers (and struck out follow Terp Brandon Lowe).

Outfielder/first baseman LaMonte Wade Jr. was drafted in 2015 by the Twins after playing for Maryland for three seasons. Wade went to high school in Baltimore County, Md. After reaching the majors with the Twins in 2019, he was traded to the Giants, where he hit 18 homers in 109 games in 2021 and appeared in five post season games.

Infielder Kevin Smith was drafted by the Blue Jays after playing for Maryland from 2015 to 2017. He debuted with Toronto late in 2021 and was traded during the 2022 spring training to the Oakland A’s. He appeared in 47 games there in 2023.

Pitcher Jose Cuas made his MLB debut with the Kansas City Royals in 2023. An interesting story, he was drafted in 2015 as a position player Cuas had been an infielder in his three seasons at Maryland, leading the team in homers the last two. The Brewers released him after he failed to hit in the minors. He signed with the independent Long Island Ducks as pitcher and did well enough to be signed by the Diamondbacks. With the minor leagues shut down for 2020, he was released again. The Dominican-born player gave it a last shot in winter league there, where he excelled. As a result, the Royals signed him, soon leading to his MLB debut. Stay tuned.

The author is a graduate of the University of Maryland, where he was editor of the campus newspaper, the Diamondback, in 1971-72.

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