Unhanging the Stars

Redskins greats Art Monk and Russ Grimm learned over the weekend they’d been elbowed out of the Pro Football Hall of Fame for at least another year by some dead dude named Bennie Friedman. Thanks to the RFK Stadium renovation, Monk and Grimm have also recently been removed from an elite roster of local jocks.

Actually, the whole roster’s been removed. The Washington Hall of Stars needs a new home.

For more than a quarter-century, the names of dozens of luminous—and some not-so-luminous—sports figures from the city’s past have hung on large red-on-white panels from the loge level above the RFK Stadium field. But when the Washington Nationals open up play with an exhibition game with the Mets on April 3, the panels will be long gone.

The space taken up by the Hall of Stars will hereafter be sold to advertisers.

Tony Robinson, spokesperson for the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission, says no decision has been made on where a tribute to the Hall of Stars inductees will be located in the redesigned RFK. The hope is to find someplace within the stadium, he says. Whatever location is chosen, the old name panels will not be part of the display. For now, those panels “are in storage,” Robinson says, and their long-term prognosis looks bleak.

“Artistically, these are not works of art,” says Robinson, “so we’ll figure out what to do with them, whether that’s go to the families or whatnot.”

The Hall of Stars was never meant to rival the gems of Cooperstown or Canton in its flashiness. The local hall’s inaugural class of 1979 was an intentionally eclectic mix of folks whose only sporting connection was D.C. roots. Among that group: all-time Redskins (including Sammy Baugh and Sonny Jurgensen), greats from the dearly departed Washington Senators (Bucky Harris, Walter Johnson, Frank Howard), boxer Holly Mims, golf’s Lee Elder, basketball’s Bones McKinney, and local sports entrepreneur Abe Pollin.

“Even though this was at RFK, we decided we’d be recognizing contributions people had made to the city in all sports, not just baseball and football,” says Andy Ockershausen, a longtime figure in D.C. media, who was on the Hall of Stars selection committee from the beginning.

Each summer, the committee would reassemble and vote on inductees for a ceremony to be held at a Redskins game the following fall. Over the years, the panel continued voting in the wholly obvious—Monk (Class of ’99) and Grimm (Class of ’96)—alongside the highly inspired—PR man Charlie Brotman and stadium manager Dutch Bergman (both in ’99).

Ockershausen admits the group’s informality sometimes caught up with it.

“I know one year we elected a guy who was already in,” says Ockershausen. “After that, we said, ‘Maybe we should look up at the wall next time before we decide.’”

Ockershausen also recalls with much glee the process surrounding the induction of Cecil Travis in 1993. Travis hit .312 in his 12 major-league seasons, all with the Washington Senators, and his 218 hits in 1941 were the most in the American League that year, the same year Ted Williams hit .406 and Joe DiMaggio went on his 56-game hitting streak. Travis then lost four years to military service during World War II. So everybody on the committee agreed he deserved to be put in the Hall of Stars. The selectors, however, liked voting in people who could have a representative attend the induction ceremony, and they wanted to make sure a Travis representative would show up if he were to join the club.

“We all thought Cecil was dead, so we tracked down his family to see if they could come up for the induction, and we called them up,” says Ockershausen. “Cecil answered the phone.”

Oops. (Travis is still alive, by the way.)

The Hall’s history also has its poignant moments.

Former Washington Senator Ossie Bluege, who played on three pennant-winning teams between 1924 and 1933, was all but forgotten by the baseball world when he was invited to the induction ceremony in 1985. He went back to his Minnesota home and died of a stroke just days after his Hall of Stars plaque was hung at RFK.

And Jerry Smith, the Redskins tight-end great, used the announcement of his impending induction to the Hall of Stars in the summer of 1986 to publicly disclose that he had AIDS. Smith was among the first celebrities, and the first pro athlete, to admit having the disease, which at the time was considered a death sentence. His disclosure quickly became international news. In an interview with the Washington Post, his mother asked writer George Solomon if the Hall of Stars committee would rescind its invitation when it found out about her son’s condition.

The committee, of course, kept Smith in its plans. But he died weeks after his announcement, before his Hall of Stars induction ceremony.

Because ceremonies had historically been held during Redskins games, the flow of new blood into the hall slowed to a trickle after the team left RFK for Raljon, Md., in 1997. As it stands, the last Hall of Stars ceremony took place in October 2001, during the “United We Stand” concert, featuring Michael Jackson, at which a panel dedicated to generic “9/11 Heroes” was raised. That brought the total number of inductees to 80. And whatever its selection methods, in the end, the hall did have some cachet: A New York Times profile of Mia Hamm in 2003 highlighted her lack of recognition on the stadium wall as a tragedy.

Until a home is found for the Hall of Stars within the redesigned RFK, there are some folks who will miss it.

The Judge family among them.

“Yes, the Hall of Stars is a big deal to us,” says Mark Gauvreau Judge, a writer from Potomac, Md., and grandson of ex-Senators first baseman and Hall of Stars inductee Joe Judge.

Mark, a former Washington City Paper contributor, is the author of Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington’s Only World Series Championship and has long railed in print about Joe Judge’s omission from the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Not only was Grandpa, who died in 1963, a career .300 hitter and the best-fielding AL first baseman of his era, but family lore holds that he was also the inspiration for the character of Joe Hardy, the protagonist of Damn Yankees. The Judges contend that Joe’s cantankerousness was the only thing that kept him out of Cooperstown.

A bad attitude, however, isn’t enough to keep a guy out of the Hall of Stars, as the family found out when they were invited to attend his induction ceremony in 1990. (Most witnesses to that year’s affair remember inductee John Riggins running out on the field dressed in his entire football uniform, helmet included.) And while a plastic sign at RFK hasn’t made up for the hurt of no bronze bust in Cooperstown, it has eased the Judges’ hurt over the years.

And now this.

“The Hall of Stars isn’t the Hall of Fame,” says Mark. “But it’s all we got. And now, to hear that they’re taking it down for advertising—well, that seems so typical. Here’s a guy who gave 40 years of his life to baseball, now they’re taking him down to put up an ad for T.G.I. Friday’s.” —Dave McKenna

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