By Kent Carter
After three disappointing seasons, 1889 was make or break for the beleaguered Washington Nationals. There was reason for some optimism. Their ballpark held 6,000, and due to the street grid the left field fence was a mere 225 feet from home plate – a hitter’s dream. The Nats’ twenty-three year old catcher was future Hall-of-Famer Connie Mack. And, most importantly, there was a large potential fan base nearby: because this was Swampoodle.
It was an Irish slum, yes, known for its swamps and its puddles, when the banks of the Tiber Creek, flowing north to south parallel with North Capitol Street, overflowed. It was known too for its crime, street gangs, prostitution, for its public drunkenness. But it was a densely-packed, working class neighborhood where anyone might have craved a diversion. And it was teeming with activity at all hours of the day: from the fruit vending stalls that lined Jackson’s Alley and Cabbage Alley; from the rail yard facilities operated by the B&O Railroad and the Pennsylvania Railroad; from the large feed supply warehouse (McDowell’s Grain Elevator) just beyond the right field fence; from the Government Printing Office a block away at H and North Capitol, where more than 2,000 men and women worked round-the-clock shifts as typesetters, binders, and press feeders. But would they show up for a ball game?
Alas, the answer was no – and perhaps for just cause. The Nats in 1889, after all, would finish dead last again with a 41-83 record, 42 games out of first place; their manager would be replaced mid-season; the team collectively would hit only 45 homers. The seats in the grandstand remained largely unoccupied.
At 2:20 p.m., on a brisk fall day, September 21, 1889, the Nats would take the field for the last time – and lose to the Boston Beaneaters. The club would be disbanded, the ballpark abandoned, with baseball in its next iteration in Washington relocating to Boundary Street (today’s Florida Avenue) and Georgia Avenue, the site of the future Griffith Stadium (1911-1961).
In Swampoodle and its immediate environs, meanwhile, the first seeds of a reform movement had been planted as early 1890, with calls to beautify the Nation’s Capitol, beginning with the unsightly rail yards – the tangled configuration of trackage utilized by the B&O to supply its New Jersey Avenue Station at C Street (a block north of today’s Constitution Avenue) and by the Pennsylvania Railroad at its competing station at 6th and B (the site of the National Gallery of Art).
The deal to consolidate would not be finalized until 1901 – its viability bolstered by the availability of a large tract that had mostly been forgotten since 1898. In 1902, a Senate Committee would issue its Report on the Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia (the McMillan Report) – the first master plan since L’Enfant’s. With the removal of the B&O and Pennsylvania Railroad stations it envisioned the creation of a National Mall. On the site of Swampoodle Grounds it proposed the construction of a grand new terminal. Washington, as we know it, was about to take root.