Back when he was bartending at the old Hawk ‘n’ Dove — the original Capitol Hill version, fragrant with history and also bodily fluids — Baseball Bill used to host what he called “Interesting Story Hour” for his regulars.
“And people would tell stories that weren’t particularly interesting,” recalled Paul Meagher, another longtime Hawk ‘n’ Dove employee.
They should have turned to their host for inspiration. Because Bill Holdforth — bartender, raconteur, storyteller, guzzler of Budweiser, and one of the most famous sports fans in D.C. history — lived a life that could have filled dozens of story hours.
Holdforth, who died of a heart attack this week at 66, was perhaps best known as the smiling antagonist to Bob Short, the owner of the second Senators franchise and an archetypal Washington villain after he moved his team to Texas. Before that civic crime, Holdforth worked as an usher at RFK Stadium, a time he repeatedly referred to as the best three years of his life.
“The only bad thing about it,” he told The Washington Post’s Bob Levey in 1977, “was I couldn’t drink any beer while I was working.”
The good times ended when Short announced he was moving the team, and then took away the two daily freebies given to ushers. Baseball Bill, an Oxon Hill grad then in his early 20s, responded by parading around RFK Stadium with a Short effigy he found in the park, an act that cost him his job but started his conversion into a local sports hero. (“I saw it hanging there, and we had just enough beers in us to make it sound like a good idea,” he told The Post in 2004.)
The next year, the Senators were gone, so Baseball Bill and friends rode up to Baltimore to visit Short and his Rangers. Holdforth — “Baseball” or “Base” to his friends — knew the Memorial Stadium ushers, so he managed to work his way behind Short with another effigy of the owner, while a buddy held a “Short Stinks” sign. Washington sports fans had a message, and Baseball popped up to serve as their massive, jolly, grinning middle finger.
Short “kept asking us why we didn’t get the hell out of there,” Holdforth later told Levey. “I said, ‘Because you got the hell out of here. It was just a supreme satisfaction to get him to react that way.”
A young woman dumped a beer on Short’s head, an act that for years was mis-attributed to Holdforth, who always insisted he would never waste a beer like that. And when a photo of the hecklers behind an anguished Short ran in The Post and elsewhere, it cemented Baseball Bill’s status as the city’s chief Baseball Fan in Absentia.
“Washington’s most noticed, if not dedicated, baseball fan,” The Post’s Ken Denlinger called him in 1978.
“One of Washington’s characters, in a city where there aren’t many characters,” The Post’s Chuck Conconi wrote in 1984.
“If you asked him a Senators question, you finished six beers before he finished the answer,” Dave Kindred once observed.
“Some people said he was the heart and soul of Washington sports, as far as baseball,” said Pat Malone, another former co-worker and longtime friend, who was inspired by Holdforth to found the Washington Senators Fan Club, and to bring huge “Baseball in D.C.” banners to Redskins games at RFK Stadium.
The Short heckling “was something where every guy and every woman who was a Washington baseball fan said, ‘Aw [bleep], that’s me. That’s me. I’m with him. I’m with him.’ ” Malone said. “He really, really cared, because Baseball felt that we were robbed. And as much as we were robbed, he felt Bob Short was the guy that robbed us. And so yeah, he kind of took it as a personal mission to do whatever he could to screw Bob Short.”
That’s why, when the former Senators owner decided to run for a Minnesota Senate seat in 1978, Holdforth organized a fundraiser to help Short’s opponent. The Committee to Keep Bob Short Out of Washington raised enough money to pay for a Minneapolis newspaper ad attacking Short; David F. Durenberger, who won the general election, later came into the Hawk ‘n’ Dove looking for the right guy to thank.
In a perfectly Washington twist, Holdforth’s baseball love was split between the Senators and the Tigers, beloved by his mother, who died earlier this year. Put that aside because he was also the sort of local sports fan this city sometimes lacks, bursting with authentic fervor and irreverence. In one of his most famous stunts, he won $1,000 in a beer-drinking contest by downing something like 34 Budweisers; his response “was to sing a chorus of ‘Hail to the Redskins,’ ” reported Thomas Boswell, who covered the contest for The Post. Then Holdforth challenged anyone in the bar to take him on in a new one-hour drinking fest.
He declined to switch his allegiance to the Orioles (“It is not my lifelong dream to be paired up with Baltimore on anything,” he said), he filled his head with sports minutia (“a walking sports trivia encyclopedia,” The Post once called him), and even after accidentally bumping the cars of tailgating Giants fans at RFK, he won them over the same way he won over everyone he met: with alcohol and conversation.
“He was a bartender’s bartender,” Malone said. “ A guy who you could just see and you’d instantly smile.”
“The type of person that sometimes you don’t see much inside the Beltway,” said David Sheldon, another longtime friend. “Larger than life. He would bartend, but really, he would hold court.”
“He was really ‘Cheers’ before ‘Cheers,’” said Richard Danker, the co-founder of Glory Days, who employed Holdforth at his old Danker’s West spot in the District. “Hill workers, blue-collar workers, suits, anybody: They all could relate to Baseball.”
And so he had an alter ego: “Sunny Binghamton,” a lounge singer born from a SUNY Binghamton T-shirt he once saw. Tables, a bar industry magazine, called him one of the top 10 bartenders in the country. He and his friends once stayed up all night so they could ride the first Blue Line Metro train, keeping themselves company with a couple cases of beer. Many of the best Baseball stories, in fact, seem to involve beer: “Baseball Bill is so involved with beer that he sometimes uses it to measure time (as in: ‘It took us three beers to get to Baltimore’),” Levey wrote.
But many of the best Baseball stories also involve his favorite sport. He once gave Sheldon a box of baseballs personally autographed to him — from Frank Robinson, from Harmon Killebrew, from Warren Spahn — and he was proud not of the signatures but that these men all knew who he was. Reporters flocked to him after the Nats finally returned; “Ain’t it great to have baseball back!” he shouted to a stranger in 2004, a year before the games resumed. A crew of Hawk ‘n’ Dovers went up to Philadelphia for Washington’s first game in 2005; before they left, Baseball threw a ceremonial first pitch on Pennsylvania Avenue, just outside the bar. He interacted with everybody he met, and he interacted with baseball, too.
“People say baseball’s boring,” Holdforth told Boswell in 1972, just as his legend was beginning. “That’s because they don’t get involved in the game. You have to think. You can’t just sit there and say, ‘Entertain me.’ Football has natural excitement. With baseball, you get as much out as you put in.”
The nickname was spawned to differentiate the baseball-obsessed Holdforth from another Bill, who was a painter and who became Painter Bill. But after the incidents with Short, the nickname couldn’t have been more perfect. Washington, the city with no real baseball fans, was actually filled with them. They needed a voice or a face. And here was this smiling character, born on April Fool’s Day, fueled by beer and mischief and hometown love, telling Short off.
“He lived, in a sense, a mythic life. That’s what I would call it,” Meagher said. “His stage was everyday life, and he was accessible to everybody. You didn’t have to go to a movie or a play; you just went to his bar and talked to him, listened to him. After taking the effigy to Memorial Stadium, he was given prominence by his size and by his history. There was no choice but to continue it, and everybody liked for him to continue it. He was bigger than life because he had his own following. He was Baseball, Baseball Bill.”
A wake/celebration of Baseball Bill’s life will be held June 22 at the American Legion post at Third and D streets, SE. The “Interesting Story Hour” is expected to begin around 7:30 p.m.