Donovan’s Baseball House: Finest Bar in The Country

Baseball House advertisement - 1899
Baseball House advertisement – 1899

Washington is a baseball town. There is no doubt about that. In fact, there is a rich history going back to the 19th century including an Irishman’s bar fully dedicated to the love of the game.

We were without a team for 34 years, so it’s taking a little time to shake off the rust, but with the Nationals soaring to the top of the NL East in 2012, we’re really starting to see baseball fever back in this city. Last year was pretty disappointing, but expectations were unrealistically too high. But, Opening Day is just around the corner!

So, we came across something awesome in The Washington Post from back in 1899. We found an old advertisement for a place in D.C. called the “Baseball House.”

It was located at 1528 7th St., NW and owned by a William J. Donovan. Back in Donovan’s day, Washington baseball fans could head over to Boundary Field at the current intersection of Georgia and Florida Ave. (also where Griffith Stadium was built).

1894 advertisement for the Baseball House
1894 advertisement for the Baseball House

Mr. Donovan was well known in Washington and was a huge advocate for the game of baseball, especially in our city. Below is an article that we found in The Washington Post from July 1st, 1894.

William Donovan
William Donovan

Thousands of Washingtonians will recognize the above portrait as that of Mr. William J. Donovan, the genial proprietor of the Baseball House, who has brought himself into prominence by the invention of the Baseball House puzzle, which is shown in full below. Mr. Donovan has always been popular with the players and is well known to all baseball enthusiasts as a patron of the game, but his last move promises to give him a national reputation, as he has already received hundreds of requests from all parts of the United States for copies of the puzzle, which was reproduced in The Post a short time ago. Twenty-fize thousand of the puzzle cards have been distributed in Washington and may be found on almost every desk from the Capitol to the White House. Senators and Representatives have puzzled their brains for the answer, and one of them may wear the handsome solitare [sic] diamond which Mr. Donovan has offered for the first correct solution.

We’re putting the Baseball House puzzle in a separate post as a GoDCer challenge for you! Stay tuned tomorrow morning.

The paper on October 2nd reported that the diamond ring was awarded to a Mr. J. T. Hodgkin, of 913 7th St., NW for his correct answer. Officer James M. McGrath and Mr. W.A.D. Cole came in second and third respectively.

We also found the answer to the puzzle, but we’ll publish that at the end of the day, so you can try and figure it out. Stay tuned!

American League Park, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia vs. Washington. May 6, 1905
American League Park, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia vs. Washington. May 6, 1905

Source: Library of Congress

Below is a great puff piece from The Washington Post about Donovan’s bar. It seems like everyone in town loved him and his place.

Mr. Donovan’s eventful experience in catering to the desires of men who are prominent in both public life and baseball circles renders it next to impossible for him to make a mistake in regard to what is good to drink, and combined with this is the happy faculty of remembering the names, faces, and particular likes of his numerous customers and friends, both political and social. And this is the brief story of the man of an iron nerve.

Mr. Donovan has made many new improvements to his establishment. He now has the finest bar in the country. France is noted for its high tower. Washington is known to have the largest monument, and it is true that Mr. Donovan has the largest bar with the exception of Columbia Park, Chicago.

1911 Baseball House advertisement
1911 Baseball House advertisement

William Donovan was Irish by birth and arrived in the United States from Ireland in 1880, at the age of 16. In his early twenties, he met and married his wife Katie in 1887, who was born and raised in Washington by parents also from Ireland. (It may be hard to believe now, but there used to be a sizable Irish community here in the city, primarily in a neighborhood called Swampoodle.)

William and Katie had five children by 1900, James, William, John, Bryan, and Ella, between the ages of 11 and 3. And, according to the 1900 U.S. Census, they were living at  1617 8th St. NW, a block primarily made of locals and a few folks from Illinois, New York, Virginia, and Connecticut. Donovan was the only foreign-born person on the block.

Donovan family in the 1900 U.S. Census
Donovan family in the 1900 U.S. Census

One of the best articles that we found about him was from the September 26th, 1909 edition of The Washington Post. According to the article, William had just been declared the most popular Irishman in the city, garnering a total of 3,849 votes. For the honor, he was awarded a diamond horseshoe pin.

William J. Donovan is the most popular Irishman in the city, according to the outcome of the popularity contest held by the Ancient Order of Hibernians in connection with their fair and field day at Benning September 22 and 23.

The second prize, an order for a suit of clothes on Saks & Co., went to P. F. Carr, who received 2,035 votes. P. T. Moran was third in the list and Fred W. Miller fourth.

After thanking Commissioner Macfarland and the A. O. H. for the prize he had received, Mr. Donovan said:

“It is with extreme pleasure that I take this prize, a token of esteem from my fellow-countrymen. I did not enter the race with the idea that I was going to carry off the first prize, and would have been content had I received only a large number of votes. I want to thank my friends who voted for me, and you, Mr. Commissioner, for the part you have played in the presentation.”

Mr. Macfarland remarked that there were many Irish-Americans in the city, and that they always made good citizens. “They are always first to come forward when need is required, and this country is fortunate to have so many Irishmen to boast of.”

Mr. Carr was well pleased with the prize he received. He declared he had won a prize which would be useful to him this winter, and after thanking Commissioner Macfarland and Isaac Gans, manager for Saks & Co., who was present, said that he would not make a mistake by taking a summer suit instead of a winter outfit.

So, there you have it. William J. Donovan and the Baseball House. It’s too bad we don’t have anything like this anymore, but with the resurgence of America’s Pastime in the District, maybe it’s time for someone to open up the next Baseball House. I think the city is ready.

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  • Ben Fortney

    Fantastic post. Any idea what that building might be in the background on the righthand side of the Boundary Field photo? Wonder if it’s still standing?

  • Jay Roberts

    Bill Wagner, a friend of mine, wrote about the ballparks of Washington.

    Here are briefs of each, using his first few sentences.

    If you could post photos of these, that would be great, especially the early ones.

    Ben, I will email Bill and see if he knows about that building.

    National Grounds:
    14th, 15th, S and T Streets NW. This was the city’s first enclosed
    ballpark, built in what was then a sparsely populated portion of the city in
    the summer of 1867 by the city’s dominant amateur team, the National Base Ball

    Olympic Grounds: 16th, 17th, R and S Streets NW. The Olympic BBC
    was the chief rival of the National BBC between 1866 and 1872, and their
    ballparks stood just blocks apart.

    Athletic Park; 9th, 10th, S and T Streets NW.

    Washington baseball shifted to a former circus lot in 1883 with the opening of Athletic Park, built to attract attention from the existing major leagues.

    Capitol Grounds: New Jersey, 1st, B and C Streets NW.

    Part of the reason the AA Washingtons failed was the competition from the Washington Nationals of the short-lived major league, the Union Association of 1884. Not only were the Nationals a better club, they had a more centralized location for their ballpark.

    Capitol Park: North Capitol, Delaware, F and G Streets NE.

    This is the site to which the Nationals (now called the Statesmen) carted their dismantled ballpark, a much larger lot leased from Colonel Enoch Totten of Fort Totten fame. Reassembled and modified, it was not much of a ballpark, and the neighborhood in which it was located–called the Swampoodle–was in poor shape.

    Association Park and National Park (also called Boundary Field) 7th and Florida

    In 1891 Washington rejoined the American Association and leased the site of what had been Baier’s Seventh Street Park, a summertime resort spot next to Freedman’s Hospital (now Howard University Hospital).

    American League Park, Trinidad, Florida Avenue and Bladensburg Road NE.

    With Washington joining the upstart and rival American League in 1901 and the National League still holding the lease on National Park, the Senators club built a park on land leased from the Washington Brick Machine Company. Again, as with most of the early parks in Washington, it was a small ballpark, this one with a
    single-deck, wooden grandstand and simple bleachers extending down the line to
    just past the infield.

    National Park and Griffith Stadium. Florida and 7th Street NE.

    This is the legendary field of Washington–so far. Here it was that Washington had its first major league team that finished with a winning record (1912), all the rest from 1871 to 1911 having posted losing records. Here it was also that the
    Senators won their only World Series in 1924 and competed for a second in
    1933. And it was here that the first true classic-era ballpark in
    Washington developed.

  • Jay Roberts

    My pleasure. Love your work here.

  • dan

    awesome post. keep the baseball history coming!

  • Sheila

    My father was born in DC in 1920 and used to go to Griffith Stadium all the time, and he also took me to all the local high Schools to watch him play baseball, when I was about 3-4 years old, 1951-52. They are the only memories I had at that age too. I remember all the huge trees that surrounded the fields and, me walking off and him having to come get me. It was after the war and many men used to go to the ball fields back then. My husband went to Griffith Stadium right up until it closed. I remember even into the late 50-60’s all over DC there was always a game going on somewhere. Back then entire families would go to watch the men play and stay all day. There were playgrounds there for the children too. Huge playgrounds, and all the families would picnic there for the rest of the day. My father gave my oldest son his Senators flag before he died, and it’s his prize possession. DC really was a family kind of “Home Town” back then. I miss it.