Sports

When the Home Team Hits the Road

The fans who don’t abandon the franchises that abandoned them.

Logos, memorabilia, and players from the Washington Senators, Montreal Expos, St. Louis Browns, and New York Giants.
Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo. Photos by Library of Congress, Thinkstock, and Otto Greule Jr./Stringer.

My father is a huge Minnesota Twins fan, despite the fact he’s never lived in Minnesota, doesn’t know anyone in Minnesota, and has only seen the Twins play at home once, in 2012, when we made a father-son road trip to Target Field. He’s a Twins fan because he was born in D.C. and spent his boyhood following the Senators, during that difficult era when Washington was said to be “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” He cherished no baseball card more than that of 1953 batting champ Mickey Vernon, and he was in Griffith Stadium when Mickey Mantle hit his famous 565-foot home run.

When the Senators moved to Bloomington, Minnesota, in 1961, he decided to stick with the franchise, even though Washington was getting a replacement version of the Senators. His reasoning was simple: The Senators-turned-Twins had a bunch of star players, among them Harmon Killebrew and Bob Allison. They would be a lot more fun to follow, he reasoned, than the cast-offs who’d fill the roster of the expansion Senators.

It was a smart choice. Killebrew and Allison took the Twins to the World Series in 1965, while Senators 2.0 had one winning season before again jilting the city and moving to Texas in 1972. The Rangers have never won a World Series. Neither have the Nationals. The Twins won the greatest World Series ever played.

My dad was also making an emotional choice. If you were a young Washingtonian in the 1950s, rooting for the underdog Senators was a much bigger part of your identity than being a Senator was for Mickey Vernon, or owning a team in D.C. was for the Griffith family. To them, it was just a business, to be carried on wherever it was most profitable. Boys and girls who grew up in baseball’s pre-relocation, pre-expansion era are men and women in their 70s and 80s now, and most of them have never gotten over the baseball teams of their youth, no matter where they went or what they now call themselves. The child is father to the fan.

The San Francisco Giants still have a significant following among New Yorkers. After the Giants won the World Series in 2010, the trophy made a 3,000-mile trip to Bergino Baseball Clubhouse in Manhattan, where members of the New York Giants Preservation Society gather to watch their team. The society successfully lobbied the gift shop at AT&T Park to sell caps with the interlocking “NY” logo stolen by the Mets.

Eddie Logan was the batboy for the New York Giants in 1957, the team’s last year in the Polo Grounds. (He got the job because his father was clubhouse manager.) More than six decades after they left his hometown, Logan still roots for the Giants.

“Being a Giants fan is in my blood, my DNA,” Logan says. “I grew up in the clubhouse. I always had a uniform. One of my jobs was to look after Leo Durocher’s kid. He was 5 years old. I was 12. I was 10 years younger than Willie Mays.”

When the Giants moved to San Francisco, Logan’s dad went along to manage the clubhouse. Logan attended Arizona State University, near the Giants’ spring training stadium (“my dad said, ‘If you go there, we can see each other during spring training’ ”), and settled in Arizona after an Air Force career. For years, he was a Giants season ticket holder and attended a New York Giants Day in San Francisco, where Willie Mays autographed baseballs “just for four or five of us old batboys.”

Mays is a big reason that so many Giants fans kept following the team and that the team is so eager to celebrate its New York roots. But what if your team never did much worth celebrating? Yes, I’m referring to the St. Louis Browns, who won a single pennant before turning into the Baltimore Orioles in 1954 and are best remembered for putting a one-armed outfielder in the lineup and sending a little person to the plate. According to the Orioles’ website, the franchise’s history essentially didn’t begin until the team left Missouri, when “baseball’s owners unanimously agreed upon the move of the St. Louis Browns to Baltimore. The move followed a season in which the Browns went 54-100 and drew a crowd of only 3,174 to their season finale, an 11-inning loss to Chicago.”

In 2003, the Orioles wore Browns uniforms in a game against the St. Louis Cardinals to commemorate the all–St. Louis 1944 World Series. But unlike the Los Angeles Dodgers, who sell Brooklyn-era Jackie Robinson jerseys in their team store, the Orioles otherwise haven’t cared to associate themselves with their ancestors. So the flame is kept alive in St. Louis, where this month, the local PBS station premiered the documentary The St. Louis Browns: The Team That Baseball Forgot, narrated by St. Louis native Jon Hamm and based on The St. Louis Browns: The Story of a Beloved Team, a book co-written by Browns die-hard Ed Wheatley.

Wheatley was born in 1953, the Browns’ last year in St. Louis. He never saw the team in Sportsman’s Park but got to know ex-Browns Hank Arft, Roy Sievers, and Ned Garver, who hung around St. Louis after their major-league careers ended and played semipro ball with Wheatley’s dad. Every year, Wheatley organizes a St. Louis Browns Banquet, which always features a member of the team’s dwindling roster. (There are now only 12 living Browns. This year, Yankees legend Don Larsen is coming back to St. Louis to commemorate the club he debuted with in the majors.)

Even though he’s too young to remember the Browns, Wheatley still has a chip on his shoulder regarding the team’s demise. During the 1964 World Series, between the Cardinals and the Yankees, “I was the only kid there with a Yankee hat and a Yankee jacket.” He eventually gave in and bought Cardinals season tickets. Unlike the Orioles, the Cardinals have carried on the legacy of his beloved Browns, placing a statue of Hall of Famer George Sisler in the team’s Ring of Honor and selling Browns caps in Busch Stadium. Wheatley can’t even get the Orioles to carry his book in the Camden Yards gift shop.

“The Orioles had nothing to do with the Browns,” he says bitterly. “They disparage them.” Wheatley quotes an Orioles publicist who once said, “The Browns are dead and buried in St. Louis; they did not come east.”

Almost every city that’s lost a major-league franchise either got a new team (Washington, Seattle, Kansas City) or already had another one (New York, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Boston). The exception is Montreal, which has been without baseball since losing the Expos after the 2004 season. Annakin Slayd so mourns the Expos that he has written several songs about the team, including “Tip That Cap,” a tribute to Tim Raines, the only ex-Expo to request that the team’s cap adorn his Hall of Fame plaque. Slayd sang the song last summer at Raines’ induction in Cooperstown, New York, after driving five hours with a crew of Expos fans to throw a party for the Rock, and he’ll sing it at this month’s Expos Fest, which he helped organize.

A fan holds a sign reading, "Bring Back Expos."
A fan calls for a return of the Montreal Expos at a Blue Jays game at Montreal Olympic Stadium in 2015.

Like most Expos fans, Slayd hasn’t cottoned to the Washington Nationals, even though they’ve inducted ex-Expos into their Ring of Honor. (The Nats are in the unique position of carrying on the legacy of three departed teams: the original Senators, the expansion Senators, and the Expos. The capital’s confusing baseball saga is recorded at D.C. Baseball History, a site maintained by Mark Hornbaker, who grew up as a fan of the expansion Senators, halfheartedly rooted for the Orioles, and now follows the Nats.) Nor has Slayd adopted Canada’s surviving baseball team, the Toronto Blue Jays, who play an annual exhibition game at Olympic Stadium. That’s because he hasn’t given up hope that a new Expos franchise will arise in Montreal.

“I don’t follow the Nationals,” he says. “Not a lot of Expos fans follow the Nationals. There is a bit of resentment for them. I love the game, and I’m holding out for the Expos to come back. I don’t want to be in the position of my friends supporting the Jays. What are you going to do if the Tampa Bay Rays become the Expos?”

If that happens, a lot of Florida baseball fans are going to have to spend the rest of their lives wrestling over which they love more: their town or their team. For my dad, that was an easy call: His heart belonged to Harmon Killebrew.