The All-Star Game returns to the nation's capital for the fifth time
All-Star Games of years past that were played in Washington were full of history: the historic arrival of a president, the effective end of a great pitcher’s career, a media campaign to pack the starting lineup, the first all-star Most Valuable Player award, and an announced starting pitcher who missed the start of the game because of his teeth.
As baseball fans prepare for the 89th All-Star Game, in the nation’s capital on July 17, 2018, many will be unaware of the history made the first time the game was played in Washington. The historic moment arrived even before the first pitch was thrown in Griffith Stadium on July 7, 1937, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The All-Star Game, including FDR’s arrival to the stadium, was filmed by a Washington Senators player, Jimmie DeShong, whose family donated the video to the Pennsylvania State Archives.
President Franklin Roosevelt attends the All-Star game at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C., on July 7, 1937. Pennsylvania State Archives, MG-254 Audio Visual Collection, Jimmie DeShong Motion Picture Film (1937).
Following the 1937 game, Washington hosted the all-stars in 1956, 1962, and 1969.
This year’s game at Nationals Park should break a tie. The National and American leagues each have won 43 games, and two ended in ties.
The 1937 game was no contest, as the American League—starting with Lou Gehrig’s two-run homer—dominated in an 8-3 victory led by five New York Yankee starters. But the most important play seemed pretty uneventful at the time. Cleveland’s Earl Averill hit a ball up the middle that broke St. Louis Cardinal pitcher Dizzy Dean’s toe. "Dean returned to action too soon," wrote Joel Zoss and John S. Bowman in The History of Major League Baseball, "and in favoring the painful foot he changed his pitching motion, placing an unnatural strain on his arm which eventually ruined it." After seasons of 20, 30, 28, and 24 wins, he only won 17 of his career 150 victories after the injury.
The players who participated in the 1937 teams were chosen by American League manager Joe McCarthy of the Yankees and National League skipper Bill Terry of the Giants—a change from the fan-picked teams who voted with newspaper ballots. Five of McCarthy’s starting nine were Yankees, and except for Yanks pitcher Lefty Gomez, all starters played the entire game. One headline sarcastically read "Yankees Win Another," as Bill Dickey, Gehrig, Red Rolfe, and Joe DiMaggio combined for seven hits. Washington fans never got to see their all-stars play. McCarthy didn’t use Senators’ catcher Rick Ferrell, his brother Wes, a pitcher, or second baseman Buddy Myer.
In the 1956 game, it was the Cincinnati Reds with five starters chosen by the fans in a media-organized ballot campaign. The Nationals won 7-3, but Reds power hitters Frank Robinson, Gus Bell, and Ed Bailey were hitless. While six of the National League’s 11 hits came from Reds players, the winners’ lineup was powered by home runs from Willie Mays and Stan Musial. Mickey Mantle and Ted Williams homered for the losers.
Six of the 38 players who appeared in the 1956 game were African Americans: Robinson, Mays, Roy Campanella, and Hank Aaron for the Nationals and Vic Power and Harry Simpson for the Americans. The Nationals had three other African Americans players who didn’t play, including eventual Hall-of-Famer Ernie Banks of the Cubs. "The National League, the oldest and presumably the more mature, has three times as many colored players in its ranks than has the junior American League," reported the Baltimore Afro-American.
The first two All-Star games in the capital were at Griffith Stadium, where the capacity attendance for the 1956 contest was 28,843. But in 1961, the original Senators moved to Minnesota and Washington had both an expansion team and a new stadium—filled with 45,480 fans for the 1962 game.
President John F. Kennedy threw out the ceremonial pitch and both teams had a roster of home-run hitters, but the key to the National League’s 3-1 victory was the Dodgers’ speedy shortstop Maury Wills. He entered the game in the sixth inning as a pinch runner, stole second, and scored on a single. He singled in the eighth, and went to third on another single. He scored again on a foul popup. Wills savored the first-ever Most Valuable Player award for an all-star game and kept on running, until he reached a season record of 104 steals that broke Ty Cobb’s record of 96.
By the 1969 game, the District of Columbia Stadium had been renamed in honor of the slain Robert F. Kennedy. The National League won, 9-3, but the game became notable before it started: The designated American League starting pitcher, Detroit’s Denny McLain, hadn’t arrived at game time. The game had been postponed by rain the previous night. McClain, a pilot who had landed his plane in time for the original start, flew back to Detroit to have nine teeth capped the morning of the rescheduled game. He piloted his plane back to the capital on game day, but missed the start by 15 minutes. McLain entered the game in the fourth inning when the victors already had an 8-2 lead—including two-run homers by Cincinnati’s Johnny Bench and Willie McCovey of the Giants. McCovey also hit a second home run—with McLain on the mound.
Larry Margasak is a retired Washington journalist and volunteer at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. He previously has written on New York in the last half of the 1800s through the eyes of piano manufacturer William Steinway, Steinway’s attendance at a Giants-Reds game at the Polo Grounds in 1894 and the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
Join us on July 13, 2018, for Giving and the Game, part of the All-Star Baseball Film Festival. Celebrate and explore Latino baseball culture and the impact of baseball on communities with baseball players and leaders, philanthropists, and historians. The program is made possible by the Fidelity Charitable Trustees’ Initiative, a grantmaking program of Fidelity Charitable, through the museum’s Philanthropy Initiative. The initiative is also made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein. In addition, Giving and the Game is supported through a gift from Cordoba Corporation and a partnership with the Smithsonian Latino Center and La Vida Baseball.