Senators Love Old Name, but Not All of Congress Agrees

Posted October 4, 2004 at 6:31pm

John Sununu has thought long and hard about what the District of Columbia’s new baseball team should be named.

Here’s a hint: It’s a moniker near and dear to his heart.

“Because Senators are really, really important, and they work and live in Washington so it’s appropriate,” the New Hampshire Republican deadpanned. “I’m biased.”

Considering the constituency, it’s no surprise that in Roll Call’s highly unscientific survey of the world’s most exclusive club, the edge went to the Senators. In addition to the lawmakers’ obvious personal connection, Senators is a sentimental choice for many in D.C. It was the name of the American League team that played in two incarnations in Washington prior to permanently leaving in 1971 to become the Texas Rangers.

In addition to Sununu, Sens. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and John Warner (R-Va.) all came down on the side of tradition.

“What better name than the old name? What other town could name their team the Washington Senators?” declared Brownback last week.

Even Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who said he hadn’t given the topic much thought, conceded that Senators “has a ring to it.”

But some worried that the Senators’ less-than-stellar performance, which, after all, inspired the phrase “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League,” might be an impediment to the team’s success.

“As long as they are not losing … it’s a good name for a winner,” joked Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.).

Warner, who said he’s hoping for some better peanuts this time around, was so tickled by the idea of reprising the appellation that the Virginia Republican said he’d “like to introduce legislation to call them the Senators.”

“I hope that doesn’t mean I have to give D.C. a vote to get it,” Warner laughed.

Funny he should mention that.

D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams (D) has already rejected Senators on the grounds that it is an inappropriate name for a team from an area whose population has no representation in the Senate.

“I’m with Mayor Williams and the District on this, I think we need the Senators in the Senate,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), before adding, on the off-chance there was any confusion, “My favorite team is the Orioles.”

In a statement, the District’s nonvoting Delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton (D), said she also opposes the Senators, because giving a “high-profile District entity a name that falsifies our status” would only complicate efforts to obtain full voting rights for D.C.

One of the other league candidates for the team name is getting support on the other side of the Capitol. Among some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, Mayor Williams’ suggestion that the club be called the Grays, after the Homestead Grays, a Negro League team that played part time in Washington during the 1940s, holds considerable appeal.

The name seemed like such a good idea to newly elected Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) that he began circulating a “Dear Colleague” letter Monday requesting that Members join him in “urging Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and the future ownership of the Washington, D.C. baseball team to adopt the name ‘Washington Grays.’”

Butterfield, who replaced Rep. Frank Ballance (D) in an July special election, said he was inspired to begin lobbying fellow Members to support the name because the Grays’ star slugger and first baseman, Buck Leonard, grew up in his district, in Rocky Mount.

“At first I was trying to think of a name that would embody Buck Leonard’s name,” said Butterfield, who noted that Leonard had been invited to join the major leagues prior to Jackie Robinson. “Then I thought about the Homestead Grays, and it sounds good. It’s got a good ring.”

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) said naming the team the Grays could serve as “as a source of pride” for younger generations of black Washingtonians. “It’s important that our young people know our history,” the Lone Star State Representative said. Johnson added that Senators would also be appropriate because “they became the Texas Rangers.”

“If they want to reach back and give tribute to history it should be the Grays,” she said. “If they want to look forward to the future and what they desire, they’d say the Senators.”

Johnson’s sentiments were echoed by Rep. Al Wynn (D-Md.), who shared the same “two favorites.”

But Wynn said he is partial to the Grays because “it would send a wonderful signal of diversity … particularly in light of this unfortunate reality that segregation led to the creation of the Negro Leagues.”

As for the notion that the name Senators should be rejected because of the District’s lack of Congressional representation, Wynn said, “I don’t know if that particular issue ought to be addressed in the context of naming a baseball team.”

That didn’t seem to stop Rep. Mel Watt (N.C.), the Democrats’ man on the mound during the Annual Roll Call Congressional Baseball Game, from proposing (humorously, according to his press secretary) that the team could be dubbed “The Unrepresenteds.”

But there was hardly anti-Senators unanimity within the caucus.

Rep. Major Owens (D-N.Y.), for instance, said in a statement that he supported “bring[ing] back the Senators.”

Or Washington could bring back the Nationals, the name of one of the earliest professional baseball teams in Washington. (The American League Senators, which came into being in 1901, were also known as the Nationals, or Nats.)

Among this name’s supporters were Virginia Reps. Tom Davis (R) and Jim Moran (D), who both preferred the Nationals, according to their spokesmen.

“The District doesn’t have voting rights in Congress so we can’t call them the Senators,” said Moran spokesmen Austin Durrer.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), whose wife, Lucy Calautti, is Major League Baseball’s top lobbyist, also favored that designation. “I kinda like the Nationals,” he said.

The name was also the apparent choice of Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), a baseball Hall of Famer. When asked his preference, Bunning threw his hands in the air as if at a loss, before calling out just before the elevator doors slammed shut: “The Nationals, whatever.”

Other Members had their own more personal takes on what the team should be christened.

Stealing yet another move from the NFL playbook, Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), whose home state had also been vying for the Montreal Expos, cast his vote for the Patriots.

And Louisiana Sen. John Breaux (D) suggested the future name could benefit from a little ethnic flavor.

“I’d like to call it the Washington Cajuns,” said Breaux. “There’s no other Cajun team in professional sports.”

That claim led a nearby scribe to interject, “What about the New Orleans Saints?”

“Saint is an unfit name for anyone from New Orleans,” Breaux shot back.

Breaux, who will retire at the end of this Congress, said he still plans to attend games even though it means, “I’ll have to buy [tickets] myself.”

He added, grinning: “It’s depressing.”

Meanwhile, there was some disagreement among GOP Senators over just how much of a role sensitivity should play in the selection process.

“I think we should do a search for the most politically incorrect name we can find,” quipped Sen. John Ensign (Nev.), a reliable standout for the Republicans at the Congressional baseball game, as he pondered the question on the Senate’s East Front steps Thursday afternoon.

That’s a suggestion unlikely to go over well with the Senate’s only American Indian, Colorado Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Campbell said he didn’t care what the club was called “as long as they don’t use some derogatory Indian name like some other teams I know.”