What Sports Looked Like at the Birth of the Story of the Century
Jun 11, 2012 -- 10:42am
     Father's Day marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break in, June 17,1972.  I had just finished the eighth grade.  By the time I graduated high school four years later, the world was a different place.  Richard Nixon had become the first President to resign, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became the most celebrated journalists in history and "All the President's Men" had become a best-selling book and a blockbuster movie. 
     Obviously the political landscape was very different 40-years ago and so was the local sporting landscape.  I thought it would be fun to look back on what D.C.-area sports looked like on the day the story of the century started to unfold.
     The first summer without a baseball team was nearly half over.  The Senators had left town for Arlington, Texas eight months earlier.  RFK Stadium, save for a few soccer games, was vacant.  If you wanted baseball, it meant a schlep to Memorial Stadium in Baltimore - which was not just off I-95.  From D.C. in rush hour, you'd have a tough time making it for the first pitch once you'd negotiated your way through the neihborhoods to get there.  There were rumors of Giant Food magnate Joseph Danzanky buying the San Diego Padres and moving them here, but rumors is what they were. 
     If you chose to adopt the Orioles as your team, at least you were getting a good one.  The night before, Jim Palmer pitched a shutout over the Twins for his eigth win to keep the O's tied with Detroit for first place in the American League east.  The Tigers kept pace with Baltimore by beating the Angels behind a shutout from Joe Coleman, who also earned his eigth win.  Lots of irony there.  The Twins had been the original Senators, having left town after the 1960 season.  And Coleman had been part of the disastrous Denny McLain trade in 1971 that sealed the expansion Senators fate.  After McLain's 22-loss season, the Senators left town.  McLain lasted one more season and Coleman went on to win 20 games for the Tigers twice.
     There was no NBA or NHL team in town, nor was there a suitable arena to play in.  The ancient Washington Colesium and the D.C. Armory offered the only large indoor venues.  The Baltimore Bullets had scheduled a few games at Cole Field House, but that hardly made us an NBA town.  And hockey was a sport that few Washingtonians had ever seen.
     College basketball was just starting to matter.  Lefty Driesell's Terps with sophomore stars Tom McMillen and Len Elmore had won the National Invitational Tournament a few months earlier.  And Georgetown, a decade away from making a Final Four for the first time, had just hired a 30-year-old coach that the Washington Post identified as, "the fifth current black basketball coach at a predominitley white college."  John Thompson was his name and was reported to be the second choice after DeMatha coach Morgan Wootten withdrew his name from consideration.  Maryland assistant George Raveling was also reported to have been a finalist for the job.  American University had a rising-senior star in Kermit Washington, but the Eagles played their home games at Fort Myer, where the heat rarely worked.
     Is it any wonder that the Redskins dominated the sports news?  The Skins were six months removed from making the playoffs for the first time since World War II.  With Charley Taylor returning from a broken ankle that crippled the offense when he went down at midseason, there was a feeling this might be the year.  Only six Super Bowls had been played at that point.  The last one had been won by Dallas.  If they could get by their main rival, who knew what might happen.  Training camp was a month away at Carlisle, but chances are, if you were a sports fan here on June 17, 1972, you were thinking Skins.
     Funny thing looking back on that 1972 season that would follow, was how eager Nixon was to jump on the bandwagon.  Chummy with coach George Allen (referred to in print by my friend Len Shapiro as "Nixon with a whistle"), the President liked to hang around Redskin Park.  He even suggested a play for the Super Bowl, that Allen actually ran.  It lost yardage - as did the President in the days and years that followed.
Spirit of 1969
     So now that I'm a big Twitter machar (you can follow me @andypollin1), I tweeted after Sunday's sweeping win in Boston, "What in the name of Ted Williams is going on here?  We haven't had this spirit since 1969. 
     I was referring to that '69 season, when Williams as a rookie manager, led the Senators to an 86-76 record.  The Nationals haven't come close to matching that in their seven seasons here.  But at 12 games over .500 after 58 games, they seem to be on their way to matching and possibly topping the best D.C. baseball finish of the last 79 years.
     However, in three trips to Fenway, while the '69 Senators went a respectable 5-5 against the Red Sox, they never swept them.  You know how much "Teddy Ballgame" would have wanted to beat the team he made his Hall of Fame bones for. 
     I remember that summer, including the All Star game that was played at RFK, this one could match that one for magic - and maybe even top it. 

Return to: Andy Pollin Blog