Sports History

The Golden Age of D.C. Sportscasters

It was Super Bowl XVII in Pasadena, California. The Washington Redskins were set to take on the Miami Dolphins in a rematch from their meeting in Super Bowl VII a decade before. Outside of a Pasadena hotel designated for the media, a group of sixteen men jovially sang and hugged each other. At their center, a recognizable voice could be heard over the merriment.  “Ladies and gentlemen this is the class of ’83. These sixteen men ran up the highest hotel bill in the history of Western civilization.”

The voice belonged to Glenn Brenner, Washington’s comedic evening sports broadcaster from Channel 9 news, celebrating with his crew. The men did indeed tally up a massive hotel bill, yet there was one detail that Brenner left out of his speech. He had charged the bill to George Michael’s room, his rival sportscaster at Channel 4.

Vin Scully postcard (Photo source: Official Vin Scully website)

Vin Scully Gets His Start on WTOP

If you are a baseball fan, you know Vin Scully. Heck, even if you aren’t a baseball fan you probably know Vin Scully. He’s been broadcasting Dodgers games since 1950 – first in Brooklyn and then in Los Angeles. His smooth delivery and anecdotes have captivated listeners for decades. That's why he’s been called the “best of all time” and “a national treasure” amongst other lauds.

But had it not been for a summer job in Washington, who knows how Scully’s career would have turned out?

President Taft probably didn't realize he was starting a tradition when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the Washington Nationals' Opening Day game in 1910. (Source: George W. Bush White House)

President Taft Starts a Baseball Tradition in Washington, 1910

“Scan all the annals of Washington base ball as you will – go back to the very inception of the national game – there will be found no day so altogether glorious no paean of victory changed by rooters and fanatics half so sweet as that witnessed yesterday in honor of the opening of the season on 1910.” So read the Washington Post the morning after the Washington Nationals’ 3-0 season-opening victory over the Philadelphia Athletics.

The account may have been a bit rhetorical, but D.C. had reason to be excited, beyond the normal good cheer of baseball’s opening day and the happy result of the game. On April 14, 1910, the city had made history by inaugurating a now-famous tradition: the Presidential first pitch.

Baseball But No Palm Trees: Nats Wartime Spring Training

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, shown here in throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Griffith Stadium in 1934, recommended that baseball continue during World War II. However, teams were expected to curtail travel and conduct spring training close to home. (Photo source: National Archives)

Ah, Major League Baseball Spring Training, the annual spring rite when ball clubs escape the cold of the north and go to Florida or Arizona to shake off the winter rust. Teams have been doing it for over one hundred years.

In fact, our hometown Washington Nationals began the trend – sort of –  in 1888 when they became the first club to hold camp in Florida, setting up shop in Jacksonville. The experiment was a little before its time. When the Nats finished the 1888 season with a 46-86 record (a mere 37 and a half games out of first place), they and other teams decided traveling South to train was not a recipe for success.

It took a few years, but teams eventually reconsidered and – thanks largely to a sunshine state building boom – Florida’s Grapefruit League was well established by the 1930s. The Washington Senators camped in Orlando in 1936 and stayed there until 1960, except for a memorable three-year stretch during World War II.

The Greatest Game Ever Played

Lew Alcindor throws down a slam dunk in the 1965 game between Power Memorial Academy and DeMatha Catholic at Cole Field House. Dematha won the game and ended Power Memorial's 71 game winning streak. (Photo source: The Washington Star)

On January 30, 1965, DeMatha Catholic High School clashed with the aptly-named Power Memorial Academy out of New York City. Led by 7'1" center Lew Alcindor (who later became the all-time leading scorer in the history of the NBA as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Power Memorial was riding a 71-game winning streak and had been tabbed as the mythical #1 high school team in the nation.

DeMatha, which had made a name for itself in the Washington area prep circuit under then 33-year-old coach Morgan Wooten, was no slouch either. The Stags were riding a 23-game winning streak of their own. Still, it was clear Wooten's squad would have its hands full with the New Yorkers and, in particular, Alcindor, "a 17-year-old who is not only big but quick, smooth and agile" who was drawing comparisons to Wilt Chamberlain.

What happened that night at Cole Field House has been called the greatest high school basketball game ever played.

A Roman-style Colosseum on the Potomac?

Perhaps D.C.'s recent bid to host the Olympics would've been more successful if this stadium had been built on the Potomac. Then again we would've lost out on the Lincoln Memorial.(Photo source: Washington Post)

If a local architect and a couple of U.S. Senators had been able to get their way, instead of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington might have honored the 16th President with a grandiose stadium patterned after the Roman Colosseum.

It was January 1911, and Congress was about to pass legislation to create the Lincoln Memorial Commission, to advise on the final plan for a monument to the slain president along the banks of the Potomac. But architect Ward Brown, secretary of the Washington chapter of the American Institute of Architects, dreamed up an exotic alternative to the shrine and statue that most others had envisioned. The Washington Post, in a lengthy article entitled "Planning a Gigantic Stadium in Washington to Dim the Glory of Rome's Noble Colosseum" described Brown's plan for a marble and concrete elliptical stadium 650 feet long and 550 feet wide, and standing 10 to 12 stories in height--roughly the size of Roman Colosseum, except that the latter was slightly taller. The proposed structure featured other classical affectations as well, including two great triumphal arches, 40 feet wide and 85 feet high, which would serve as the main entrances. Six smaller portals would have surrounded them. The stadium would have seated 87,000, with room for another 15,000 standing spectators.

Alexandria's Earl Lloyd broke the color barrier in professional basketball when he debuted for the Washington Capitols on October 31, 1950. (Photo source: NBA.com)

Alexandria's Earl Lloyd Breaks Basketball's Color Line

Earl Lloyd was a rising basketball star at West Virginia State College, but little did he know how soon he would become an important part of sports history. Toward the end of Lloyd’s senior season he was heading to class with a classmate and she told him she heard his name on the radio that day. Unaware of what she was referring to, Lloyd simply asked what she heard. She told him some team in Washington called the Washington Capitols had drafted him.

“You’re going to Washington and they’re going to try you guys out, so show them your best,” said Lloyd’s college coach, Marquis Caldwell. Being from Alexandria, Virginia, it was almost a homecoming party for Earl Lloyd. Before he was at West Virginia State, he graduated from Parker-Gray High School in 1946, Alexandria’s only African-American high school.

Coach "Lefty" Driesell puffed on a cigar while his players huffed and puffed around the track at midnight on October 15, 1971. (Photo source: NCAA.com)

Midnight Madness Starts at Maryland, 1971

Coaches are always looking for an edge on the competition but former University of Maryland basketball boss, Charles “Lefty” Driesell may have been the best – or at least the most original. Case and point: October 15, 1971.

In an effort to keep everything fair and just, the NCAA has rules. [Insert your own joke here.] One of those rules concerns when teams are allowed to begin practicing at the start of a season. In 1971, the magic date was October 15 and Driesell wasn’t about to let any time go to waste.

So, at 12:03am – when presumably the competition was sleeping… or doing what college kids do in the wee hours of the morning – he blew the whistle to start his team’s first practice. In doing so, he unknowingly created a fad, which took off – first at Maryland and, soon, at other schools.

Pages