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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 1955 Broadway musical “Damn Yankees” featured a baseball fan named Joe who was so loyal to his hometown team, the Washington Senators, that he was willing to compromise with the devil to beat those “damn Yankees” and enjoy a winning season. Just “one long ball hitter,” Joe cried in despair, “I’d sell my soul for one long ball hitter!” Poof! A cloud of smoke! A stranger appears. “Would you like to be the greatest ballplayer in all history?” the mysterious man asked Joe. And I probably don’t need to tell you what happened next.

At one time, Washington baseball fans didn’t need help from the devil. They had Arthur Pue Gorman! Born in Woodstock, Maryland, in 1839, Gorman became a Senate page at the age of 12, then served as messenger, doorkeeper, and finally postmaster. Throughout his Senate service, Gorman’s evenings and weekends were devoted to baseball. He even used his political connections to acquire space for a ball diamond on the White House grounds.

In 1859, with a growing reputation as both player and promoter, the 20-year-old Gorman became a founder of the Washington Nationals Base Ball Club. The first recorded game in D.C. took place on May 5, 1860. Games continued through the Civil War years, culminating in a grand tournament in 1865, carefully orchestrated by Gorman. Unfortunately, the Nationals lost the tournament. After the war, Gorman was named president of the National Association of Base Ball Players and seemed destined for sports fame. Instead, he turned to politics. After serving in Maryland state government, the state legislature elected him to the Senate in 1880 and he served nearly four terms—but he never stopped promoting baseball.

As Gorman’s political career advanced, however, Washington’s baseball prospects stumbled. A series of teams appeared and disappeared in the post-Civil War years. In 1891, the Washington Statesmen joined the National League and then, in tribute to Arthur Gorman, changed the name to the Washington Senators. Unfortunately, the National League dumped several teams in 1899, including the Senators. When the American League was founded in 1901, Washington again got a team. It was officially named the Washington Nationals, but for the next half century the team was popularly known as the Senators—an indication of Gorman’s enduring legacy.

The Washington Senators enjoyed a brief success in the 1920s. With the help of great players like Bucky Harris and Walter Johnson, they beat the Yankees in 1924 to take the league pennant, then defeated the New York Giants to win the World Series. But that was an aberration. Year after year, the Senators were a laughingly bad team, prompting famed sportswriter Charley Dryden to joke: “Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” By the 1950s, no one was surprised when a hit Broadway musical featured a Senators fan as its desperate deal-maker.

Washington lost its team in 1960 when it moved to Minnesota and became the Twins. A new expansion team, also called the Senators, left in 1971. Finally, in 2005, the current team arrived, but it did not adopt the “Senators” label. Perhaps the team chose “Nationals” in an effort to distance it from the Senators’ sorry record? Some suggested they were just returning to the old team’s official name. Or maybe they didn’t know their history. They had forgotten that baseball in Washington, D.C., owed a great debt—not to the devil, but to a United States senator named Arthur Pue Gorman.