The record books say the Senators. The owners, programs, and some writers say the Nationals. The official 1924 World Series program says ‘Washington Base Ball Club.’ Who’s on first here?
This story was updated on March 3, 2020.
The Washington Nationals beat the odds to rally from a 19–31 start to win the 2019 World Series. Many believe this team was the first D.C. squad with that nickname to do so, since MLB record books, media reports, and other sources say the only other D.C. team to win a World Series was the 1924 Washington Senators.
But is that really true? That 1924 team was also called the Washington Nationals, according to owners of the team back then, as well as some authors and bloggers. The official program from 1924 merely refers to the squad as the “Washington Base Ball Club.”
When the team made the World Series again in 1925, the official program called it the “Washington Baseball Club.” The squad had graduated to the point that it only needed three words, not four. But the 1933 World Series program called the team the Nationals.
Media called them all of the above, plus the Nats, Griffs, and other nicknames. Some baseball cards called them the Nationals, Senators, and Nats — all in the same card.
As Abbott and Costello would say: Who’s on first here?
Early D.C. teams called Nationals, Senators, and more
The problem began in the 19th century. While clubs formed as early as 1859 and there were entries into various associations, D.C.’s first team in the National League came in 1886 and was called the Washington Nationals. That squad didn’t come close to a winning record, folding in 1889.
Then came a one-year appearance by the Washington Statesmen in the competing American Association in 1891. When that league disbanded, the D.C. team joined the NL in 1892 with a new name, the Washington Senators, presumably because owners thought that might help put the squad on the winning road. It didn’t, and the club was put out of its misery in 1899.
In 1901, D.C. became the home of one of eight founding teams of the American League. The team, initially called the Washington Senators, also started badly, losing a then AL-record 113 games in 1904.
Owners ask fans for new nickname in 1905
In early 1905, the team was sold to new owners, who were “tired” of the Senators nickname, according to Karen and Kevin Flynn, authors of books on D.C. baseball history. Team president Thomas Noyes also “wasn’t happy” with the club’s record, according to blogger Jay Roberts.
So what did they do to improve the team? Management turned to fans to submit their favorite nicknames. More than 1,000 different suggestions were mailed, with Nationals being the most popular. Others included Senators, Rough Riders, Capitalists, Teddyites, Has Beens, Stahlwarts, Tailenders, Admirals, Big Sticks, Defenders, Empires, Olympias, Pensioners, and Presidents.
Noyes officially renamed the club Nationals in March 1905 and awarded a season pass to fan Frank McKenna for being the first to send that suggestion, wrote Brian McKenna, author of Clark Griffith: Baseball’s Statesman. He cited a story in the Washington Post on March 26, 1905.
Comically, many fans and sportswriters ignored the change and still called the team the Senators or something else, such as Nats — a hybrid nickname that could be taken from both the NATionals and SeNATors. It’s like if a football team’s owners called itself a name some didn’t like, and many fans and media ignored them and called them whatever the hell they wanted. I don’t know if that has happened, but you never know.
Anyways, the 1905 Nationals became the first MLB team to wear its nickname on uniforms, according to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. The team did go 64–87 that season, a 26-win improvement from 1904, yet still finished in seventh place in the AL. The following season, it only won 55 games and again placed seventh. The “Nationals” name was discarded, with owners merely putting a “W” logo on uniforms. Owners effectively conceded, saying we give up, call us whatever you want, as long it starts with “W.”
Newspapers went back and forth. The Post seemed to favor Nats, while the Washington Evening Star used Senators more often, wrote Post columnist John Kelly. Both papers would often just refer to the team as “Washington.” This went on for decades. No wonder Broadway featured a musical comedy with the D.C. team as butt of the jokes.
After Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson joined the club in 1907, the Nationals/Senators gradually improved. The team notched its first winning record in 1912, but it would take another dozen years to make the World Series.
So what was the official name of the team that won the 1924 World Series, as well as the ones that made the World Series in 1925 and 1933? Formally the Nationals, since a nickname change back to the Senators did not officially occur until 1956. But since the owners didn’t seem to care all that much what people called the team as long as fans supported it, that might be a moot point.
Look at the front covers of the programs — then called score cards — for those World Series, at left. You can see how the 1924 and 1925 ones referred to the D.C. team only as the “Washington Base Ball [or Baseball] Club.” As in we are staying out of this, even though we are the ones who own the team.
The 1933 score card called the team the Washington Nationals. Inside the program, a page refers to officers such as president Clark Griffith as being with the Nationals. So by then, it looks like owners got tired of the confusion and wanted to take another stand.
Baseball cards from the 1930s through 1956 continued to be split between calling the squad the Nationals and Senators, said Phil Wood, a radio show host and D.C. baseball historian. Some called them the Nats. And some called them all three nicknames.
At left is a 1956 Topps team card that called the club the Nationals, Senators, and Nats — all in the same card. That was in the last year before the formal change to Senators. That card best reflects the comical confusion over the team’s nickname.
I mean, I can see sometimes calling the team the shortened version of Nats, but both the Senators and Nationals? C’mon, pick one.
D.C.’s baseball history gets even more complicated. The team that was formally the Nationals for most of the first half of the 20th century, though many called it the Senators or Nats or something else, moved to Minnesota in 1961 to become the Twins. A new franchise called the Senators formed in D.C. until running off to Texas as the Rangers in 1972. Then the Montreal Expos transferred to D.C. in 2005 to become the Nationals.
MLB adds to confusion
To try to clear up the confusion over the D.C. team’s nickname between 1905 and 1956, I contacted John Thorn, historian for Major League Baseball. He said both Nationals and Senators, as well as Americans, were used as nicknames for the D.C. club during the first half of the 20th century. But they were “not the club’s official name,” Thorn said.
The formal name? “American League Baseball Club of Washington.” Um, okay. Really? Try getting that on a baseball card.
I wonder why MLB officially went with the nickname that fans and media preferred, rather than the actual owners, for its records. That, to me, is the ultimate comedy piece in all this. It seems the bigwigs at the league office decided to tell Nationals or Senators owners — who sat with them in the off-season during league meetings — that we side more with your fans and the media than you. Talk about no respect.
A timeline of D.C. baseball history from 1859 to 1959 by MLB says of this mini-controversy: “Following the 1904 season, Washington’s team name changes, effective in 1905, to the Nationals. Newspaper accounts use ‘Senators,’ ‘Nationals’ and ‘Nats’ interchangeably for next five decades.” For the references on that timeline between 1905 and 1911, MLB simply called the team “Washington.” There is no further reference until 1960, a few years after the formal change back to Senators.
They apparently gave up, as well.
Sure, in the grand scheme of things, this is not that big a deal. I don’t think MLB record books need to be rewritten or anything like that, though some who are sticklers for formal names might lobby for that. You can find sites that will call the team between 1905 and 1956 the Nationals.
But in an obscure sense, it’s interesting — and funny — to me. I don’t know of many other teams with such a confusing history over their nicknames. And I kind of like thinking that the Nationals team of today probably had the same nickname as the other D.C. team that won a World Series — at least according to owners.
If nothing else, it’s fun to learn that a relatively silly thing like a baseball team’s nickname can cause so much confusion. That, ultimately, is most appropriate for D.C.