‘Baseball Bill’ helped stop Bob Short from coming back to D.C.

“Baseball Bill” Holdforth was a longtime bartender and voracious beer drinker who also was a rabid Washington Senators’ fan. He was an usher at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium before the team moved to Texas. In 1978, Holdforth earned himself a place in Washington baseball history through his determination to ensure that Robert Short paid a price for moving the expansion Senators.

Holdforth had an encyclopedic knowledge of the team, which he gladly shared with anyone who asked. But his first newsworthy effort to pay Short back for what he had done came when Short attended a Rangers’ game in Baltimore in 1972. “Baseball Bill” and friends harassed Short by carrying a banner down to his box seat at the Memorial Stadium game. Bill reportedly knew ushers at the Baltimore ballpark, so nobody tried to remove the protesters.

Somebody – not Holdforth – famously dumped a beer on Short’s head that night, an action that made national news. “I’d never waste beer like that,” he told the Washington Post in 2004. Six years after the 1972 incident, however, Holdforth performed his most meaningful act of revenge on Short.

“Baseball Bill” Holdforth behind the bar (Smithsonian photo)

The story of how “Baseball Bill” helped keep Short out of the U.S. Senate was most recently recounted in a February 4, 2023, Washington Post article by Frederic J. Frommer, author of You Gotta Have Heart, a history of Washington baseball.

After Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota died in office in January 1978, his wife Muriel was appointed to fill the seat until a special election could be held that November. Humphrey’s term had four years to run.

Short had long been involved in Minnesota politics, running unsuccessfully for Congress in 1946 and toying with a race for governor there in the late 1960s while he owned the Senators. He had also been a top fund-raiser for Humphrey’s 1968 presidential race against Richard Nixon. So he had the credentials to mount a run for the Democratic-Farm Labor Party nomination to fill Humphrey’s seat.

When Holdforth learned of Short’s campaign, he formed “Baseball Bill’s Committee to Keep Bob Short out of D.C.” He and his friends managed to raise $3,500, enough to buy a display ad in the Minneapolis Tribune. The ad ran the Sunday before the primary.

 The ad’s big headline read: Don’t Be “SHORT” Changed. The ad summarized how Short had lied to Washington fans before moving the expansion Senators to Texas, leaving D.C. without a baseball team. The ad also got in a dig at Calvin Griffith, who had moved the original Senators to Minnesota after the 1960 season.

Despite the ad, Short managed to win the primary and went on to face Republican David F. Durenberger in November. Durenberger, who died earlier this year, was a moderate who hadn’t previously held public office. At that point, Minnesota hadn’t elected a Republican to the Senate in 20 years.

According to Frommer, Durenberger’s campaign called Holdforth’s committee to ask permission to reprint the ad and distribute it at Minnesota Vikings home games before the November election.  “We made it clear we wanted to see Short lose,” Holdforth said later about gladly agreeing to the campaign’s request.

Durenberger ended up defeating Short and serving in the Senate until the mid-1990s. Frommer wrote that an appreciative Durenberger said after he took office that Holdforth “was just one of those guys that I had to go meet… He’s really a larger-than-life character.” Holdforth told Durenberger that he wasn’t much of a supporter of the Republican “but just wanted to keep Short out of Washington, D.C.”

His effort to defeat Short helped cement Baseball Bill’s legendary stature as a Senators’ fan. The Post interviewed him when the Expos’ move to D.C. was announced in 2004. Post columnist Dan Steinberg eulogized Holdforth, who died of a heart attack at age 66 in 2017.

“People say baseball’s boring,” Holdforth told the Post’s Tom Boswell in 1972. “That’s because they don’t get involved in the game. You have to think. With baseball, you get as much out as you put in.” 

This also appeared in the April 14, 2023, edition of Here’s the Pitch, the online newsletter of the Internet Baseball Writers Association.

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