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Why the Washington Nationals Were Once Known as the Senators

March 11, 1839

Photo of Senator Arthur Gorman of Maryland

The Broadway musical Damn Yankees set its plot around a Washington Senators baseball fan so desperately loyal to his team that he sold his soul to the devil so the Senators could get a “long ball hitter” who could beat those “damn Yankees.” For many years, Washington baseball fans rooted for a losing team. No matter how high their hopes, the Washington Senators usually ended their season in the cellar. Perhaps for that reason, the current Washington team calls itself the Nationals. In fact, the older team that we remember as the Washington Senators spent most of its history officially named the Nationals. It was their fans who called them the Senators, in honor of a United States senator who had once played for the Nationals.

Arthur Pue Gorman was born in Howard County, Maryland, on March 11, 1839. At the age of twelve he became a page in the House of Representatives. There he attracted the attention of Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who brought him over to become a Senate page, and in turn a messenger, doorkeeper, and postmaster. Gorman also made friends with Tennessee senator Andrew Johnson, who later became president. The Senate’s bitter fight with President Johnson over Reconstruction eventually cost Gorman his job.

While still on the Senate staff, Arthur Gorman avidly played baseball in the evenings and used his connections to President Johnson to acquire space on the White House grounds for the local team to play and to store its equipment. In 1867, Gorman was elected president of the National Association of Base Ball Players, but the next year he won his first election to office in Maryland, and from then on limited his passion for baseball to being a fan. He served in the Maryland house of delegates and state senate. In 1880 he was elected as a Democrat to the United States Senate. Off and on between 1890 and 1906, he served as chairman of the Senate Democratic Conference, the equivalent of today’s Democratic floor leader.

During those years, various Washington baseball teams operated under the name Washington Nationals. In the 1890s, while Senator Gorman was leading the Senate Democrats, the team became popularly known as the Senators—although that name was not made official until 1956, after Damn Yankees had opened on Broadway. Those Washington Senators left the capital in 1960 to become the Minnesota Twins. A new expansion team was also called the Senators, but they left in 1971 to become the Texas Rangers. After years without baseball, the capital at last regained a team in 2005, when the Montreal Expos moved south to become the Washington Nationals.

So the next time you’re at Nationals Park, consider that if perhaps one of the team's star players, or your favorite player, ever runs for office, the Washington Nationals might someday regain their historic name as the Washington Senators.