When the Nation's Capital Came Together for the MLB All-Star Game

In the throes of the Great Depression, residents and lawmakers rallied around the summer event.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt laughs with his son, James, between action in the All-Star Game in Washington on July 7, 1937. (AP)

On Tuesday, Bryce Harper will lead a clan of Washington Nationals in this year’s All-Star Game in Miami. Not many fans are still around to remember it, but 80 years ago this month, Washingtonians got to witness Joe DiMaggio, Lou Gehrig, Dizzy Dean, and other future Hall-of-Famers at Griffith Stadium, as the city pretty much shut down to host the fifth All-Star Game in history.

The star power was equally bright in the stands that afternoon. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, getting a respite from the brouhaha surrounding his controversial plan to “pack” the U.S. Supreme Court with extra justices, threw out the first ball. Much of official Washington was also there—including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, members of Congress, Cabinet secretaries, and military leaders—to watch “the most thrilling event of the summer social season,” as The Washington Post society editor put it.

July 7, 1937 was a typically hot and steamy summer day in the nation’s capital, with fans happily shelling out 10 cents for soft drinks, and men sweating through coats and ties, some resorting to rolling up their shirtsleeves to get a break from the heat. The All-Star Game, too, was a hot ticket—scalpers sold $1.65 box seats for $20 ($337 in today’s dollars).

The U.S. House adjourned for the day so members could attend the annual game between the American League and National League. But up to the last minute, there was uncertainty about whether the Senate would follow suit. The day before the game, Senate Majority Leader Joseph T. Robinson announced that the chamber would meet to debate a compromised version of FDR’s court-packing proposal. Robinson said there was no justification for suspending Senate action “in order that members may have an opportunity of attending a baseball game. I know there are a great many senators who would like to attend the ballgame, and they are at liberty to do so, with the understanding that they may be sent for if a quorum should not develop.”

In the end, he compromised, scheduling a morning session that would adjourn at 1 p.m.—early enough for senators to make it up to the old ballpark for the afternoon game. (The first night baseball game at Griffith Stadium was still several years away.)

Griffith Stadium, located on Georgia Avenue NW (now the site of Howard University Hospital), was a small ballpark, seating only around 32,000. The outfield wall was covered in advertisements for businesses like Coca-Cola, Quaker State, Orienta Coffee, Wheaties, and Woodward & Lorthrop—“The Store for Men.”

It was an era when two New York City baseball teams dominated the sport. The previous year, the Yankees defeated the Giants in the World Series, and would do so again in 1937, the second of the Bronx Bombers’ four consecutive titles. The Washington Senators, meanwhile, would finish in sixth place in ‘37, drawing just 398,000 fans over the course of the season—or around 5,000 per game, with the Great Depression and mediocre baseball keeping attendance down.

But Griffith Stadium had no problem attracting a crowd at the 1937 All-Star Game, and fans got to see FDR take center stage. A recently uncovered film, shot by Washington Senators pitcher Jimmie DeShong on his home camera, shows the president waving his hat from his convertible as the car makes its way down the field before the game, past players who are lined up to watch the procession. The film also offers a rare glimpse of FDR, who suffered from polio, walking with assistance to his seat. Later, as was the custom back then, the president threw out the first pitch from his box, up for grabs onto the field as players from both teams jockeyed for the ultimate souvenir.

The All-Star Game was still a new event on the American sports scene, when baseball was unquestionably king. An aging Babe Ruth hit a two-run homer at the inaugural game in 1933, fueling the American League’s 4-2 victory at Comiskey Park in Chicago. At the time, each league had just eight teams, mostly congregated in the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest, with none west of St. Louis. It would be decades before the number of teams ballooned to 15 in each league.

At the 1937 All-Star Game, The American League lineup featured five Yankees, or as the Post sportswriter Shirley Povich described it at the time, “A neat packing job by manager Joe McCarthy with President Franklin D. Roosevelt looking on—perhaps wistfully.”

The Yankees’ future and soon-to-be past anchored the lineup at Griffith Stadium that year: outfielder Joe DiMaggio, in his second season, and first baseman Lou Gehrig, still in his prime but in his second-to-last full season. The duo hit third and fourth, just as they did in the regular season, and between innings they ducked down the dugout steps to smoke cigarettes.

Other American League stars included shortstop Joe Cronin, who as player-manager of the Senators in 1933 had led Washington to its last pennant, only to be sold to the Boston Red Sox the following year; Yankees catcher Bill Dickey; and Detroit Tigers second baseman Charlie Gehringer, who would go on to win the American League batting title. The National League lineup was stacked with great hitters too, led by St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Ducky Medwick, who finished the season as the league Triple Crown winner.

In contrast to today’s All-Star Game, when managers try to get as many players in the game as possible to give fans a chance to see their favorite players, back then the leagues played to win at all costs. “I never wanted to win a ball game more in my life than I do this one,” said National League skipper Bill Terry of the New York Giants. He played seven of his eight starting position players the full nine innings. His fellow New York manager, McCarthy, was even stingier with substitutions, keeping his entire lineup in for the duration, except for two pitching changes (and one pinch-hitter). That kept several deserving stars withering on the American League bench, including Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg, who would finish the season with 40 home runs, second in the league only to DiMaggio’s 46.

The pitching matchup that afternoon pitted Lefty Gomez of the Yankees, starting for the fourth time in the five All-Star Games to date against the game’s most outsize personality, Cardinals pitcher Dizzy Dean, who initially said he wouldn’t show up. “I am tired of having people tell me what to do,” Dean declared. But the star right-hander relented, arriving by plane at the last minute, where hundreds of fans flocked to greet him.

Dean got through the first two innings unscathed, striking out Gehrig in their first encounter. But in the bottom of the third, DiMaggio singled and Gehrig homered to right field, giving the American League a 2-0 lead. As he crossed home plate, Gehrig waved his cap to FDR. The next batter, Earl Averill of the Cleveland Indians proved far more damaging to the Cardinals pitcher. Averill smacked a ball up the middle, breaking Dean’s toe. (Dean, just 27, wound up making things worse later that season, when he tried to pitch before the injury was fully healed, and his altered mechanics ruined his arm—and effectively his career.)

The American League coasted to an 8-3 victory—with Gomez picking up his third All-Star win. But local fans hoping to see their three hometown stars play left the game disappointed. American League manager McCarthy kept all three Washington All-Star reserves—second baseman Buddy Myer, and the pitcher-catcher brother duo of Wes and Rick Ferrell—on the bench for the full game.

“Seems that the two big leagues are taking this All-Star game altogether too seriously,” Povich wrote in a Post column the next day. “In the consuming urge to win and thus establish the prestige of their league, they appear to be forgetting the excuse for the game—the fans' desire to see all the big-shot stars in action on the same diamond.”

At Tuesday’s All-Star Game in Miami, the Nats will have a showing rivaling the Yankees in 1937, with four starters: Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, and pitcher Max Scherzer. That core should give DC fans plenty to cheer about when Washington hosts next year’s All-Star Game.

The 1937 All-Star Game will also resemble Tuesday’s mid-summer classic in one other key respect—American League dominance. The American League’s 1937 victory was its fourth in five years. This year, the league will be gunning for its fifth straight win over the National League.