Washington Nationals (NA)

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The Washington Nationals were the first important baseball club in the nation's capital. They played part of one season or parts of two seasons in the National Association, the first professional league, so they are considered a major league team by those who count the NA as a major league. Several baseball clubs in Washington have used the historic name Nationals.

The team may also be known as the Washington Blue Legs, and played their home games at the Nationals Grounds and the Olympics Grounds. According to Retrosheet, they played two seasons in the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players as the Nationals, playing 11 games in 1872, and 39 games in 1873.[1] But according to Baseball-Reference, the franchise lasted just the 1873 season, and were nicknamed the Blue Legs.[2]


The first team in Washington, the Potomac Club, was formed in the summer of 1859, and the Nationals were formed in November of the same year; both teams consisted mostly of government clerks. The two teams practiced in the backyard of the White House and played each other in the spring of 1860; the Nationals consistently lost to the superior Potomacs, but the latter disbanded on the outbreak of the Civil War while the Nationals kept playing, and by the end of the war were "solidly in the esteem of Washington fans, with the club's shortstop, slight, 23-year-old Arthur Pue Gorman, the darling of the spectators. Young Gorman quickly rose to stardom on the not-too-brilliant Nationals."[3] (Gorman later became a U.S. Senator from Maryland and a power in the Democratic Party in the late 19th Century).

In the summer of 1865 the Nationals invited the Philadelphia Athletics and Brooklyn Atlantics, two of the major teams of the era, to Washington, losing to the former 87-12 and to the latter 34-19, before 6,000 spectators, including President Johnson. They "jealously guarded their amateur status by refusing all payments, including travel expenses."[4]

By 1867, the Nationals were much improved, and the new national network of railroads prompted them "to do the previously unthinkable by becoming the first Eastern team to venture west of the Alleghenies."[5] They defeated the best the locals had to offer, crushing Columbus 90-10, the Cincinnati Red Stockings 53-10, and the Cincinnati Buckeyes 88-12, beating Louisville, Indianapolis, and St. Louis as well before falling to the Rockford Forest Citys (with future Hall of Famer Albert Spalding) 29-23. The Nats ended the road trip the next day by beating the Chicago Excelsiors 49-4. The "considerable expenses" of the tour were made possible by generous sponsors and "by the indulgence of the Treasury Department."[6]

Washington was one of the early homes of commercialism:

One writer, Thomas Henry, said the U. S. Treasury Department was "the real birthplace of professional base ball in Washington." As a source of patronage for good players, this department was widely exploited after the Civil War. In addition, Washington players benefited from the collection plates passed at games. By this kind of enterprise Washington clubs were able to keep a cadre of good players and to offer excellent accommodations. In 1867 the Nationals' park was located on a field four hundred feet square, surrounded by a ten foot fence, and shaded on the north side by roofed stands. To discourage gamblers, a sign which read "Betting Positively Prohibited" was posted.[7]


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The 1872 Nationals home games were played at Olympics Grounds in Washington, D.C.. They lost all 11 games before going out of business.[1] The manager for this season is listed as either Warren White[8] or Joe Miller.[2] The team's leading players include: 1B Paul Hines, 2B Holly Hollingshead, and SS Jacob Doyle.[9]


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They won 8 games and lost 31. The Blue Legs were managed by Nick Young. Their top hitter was left fielder Paul Hines, who went 60-for-181, a batting average of .331.


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The 1875 NA rendition fared better, as they won 5 games and lost 23. Hollingshead was again their top hitting regular, though with a much lower batting average of .247. He was also one of the club's managers, along with Bill Parks.

The Washingtons went out of business in St. Louis, Missouri, after playing the local Red Stockings on July 3 and July 4. Next day the players announced by telegraph that a club official had absconded with the funds but (Ryczek 1992: 194) concludes that "the tale had been planted by the players in an effort to find enough good samaritans to foot the bill for the trip home". The club probably failed by "unappealing play" and consequent receipts too small to support travel. On the final trip, they lost two in Philadelphia and five of six in St. Louis. The final game was a 12-5 victory but the two local teams outscored Washington 42-5 in the first five games, which must have been repelling.[10]


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  3. Shirley Povich, The Washington Senators (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1954), pp. 3-4.
  4. David Quentin Voigt, American Baseball. Vol. 1: From Gentleman's Sport to the Commissioner System (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1979: ISBN 0-271-00334-0), p. 10.
  5. Peter Morris, But Didn't We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball's Pioneer Era, 1843-1870 (Ivan R. Dee, 2008: ISBN 1-56663-748-1), p. 138.
  6. Morris, But Didn't We Have Fun?, p. 139.
  7. Voigt, American Baseball. Vol. 1, pp. 17-19.
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  10. Independence Day or July 4 was a vital date for all ballclubs that played for paying customers. In 1875, it fell on Sunday, when many people resisted commercial baseball and most locales outlawed it. The Red Stockings - Washington game was the only NA game played that day. The Brown Stockings and White Stockings played on Saturday in Chicago and on Monday in St. Louis.

Further reading

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