WASHINGTON — A journalist and a lawyer in addition to being a Democrat and dyed-in-red Cardinals fan, Frank Mankiewicz spent several decades as an influential and prevalent presence in Washington politics. He managed a presidential campaign, spent years running National Public Radio, and established himself as a political strategist for his ability to work the hallways, wade through the backchannels, and map the contours of the nation’s capital.
He also always knew where to find the high ground.
That’s where the Cardinals came in clearest.
The exact date has been lost to time, but the legend hasn’t – and shouldn’t.
On summer nights, whenever possible, Mankiewicz would drive along Wisconsin Avenue and park near the National Cathedral, at or close to the highest point he could find in D.C. He started noticing the same cars each night. They must be looking for the same sweet spot he was – somewhere they could lock their car radio in on KMOX/1120 AM and hear the Cardinals.
One time, Mankiewicz decided to get out of his car and strike up a conversation with one of the other Wisconsin Avenue regulars. In the early 1960s, that’s how he met Robert B. Semple, Jr., a New York Times writer. Soon after Vic Gold, a New Orleanian and Republican fixture, joined the group. The Democrat who cheered for the westernmost team as a boy and the Republican who adored the southernmost team found common ground with a baseball team and the honest pursuit of better radio reception. Semple would later write how “silently in our cars at midnight in a tight pennant year” the group would gather – and from that an idea was born.
The Stan Musial Society convened in 1989, 30 years ago this season.
No fees. No newsletter. No networking. No Beltway.
“Word got around,” Mankiewicz said before the group’s meeting in 2007, “and we had 100 calls from interested members without a couple (of) days. … We probably have three times that many members.”
Through the years of covering the Cardinals, I’ve written often about the Stan Musial Society – out of respect for many of its members and out of a deep fondness for it. I pulled some of the origin story above from a book I wrote about Cardinals history several years ago and revised before the start of the 2019 season. (Gratuitous plug here.) I had the pleasure of getting to know some of the Musial Society members, about hearing how the late Marty Hendin nurtured the Society, would attend annual meetings, and a few times even brought Musial along. He would, of course, play his harmonica.
What took the Musial Society out of the cars and into formal gatherings was exactly what you’d expect – the rivalry with the Cubs. In 1975, a group of Cubs fans organized in Washington and would go on to claim members as diverse as Dick Cheney, writer George Will, Hillary Clinton, and Donald Rumsfield. The Cubs’ group named itself the Emil Verban Society. It dripped with appropriate sarcasm. Verban was a light-hitting infielder who – get this – had hit .412 with the Cardinals in the 1944 World Series. After Gold suggested “The Gas House Gang” and Mankiewicz countered with the “Swifties” as the name for their group, Alan Makovsky, a St. Louisan and foreign affairs official, offered the obvious name.
“Unlike the Cubs’ fans,” Mankiewicz told me later, “we didn’t want any of that irony.”
John Danforth, a former senator from Missouri, was a member, and had the same goal as other members – a clearer signal of KMOX. He approached Barry Goldwater, senator from Arizona and a ham radio enthusiast, for advice. Danforth later described Goldwater’s car as having so many antennae that it was “Batmobile-like.” Goldwater boosted Danforth’s signal so at least the static was louder.
The Musial Society meetings stopped happening all that frequently through the years, though some members would gather at Nationals Park for Cardinals-Nationals series. Several times through the years, I’d get a chance to have lunch with one of the members who kept the Society aglow, New York Times political writer Adam Clymer. Shortly before Mankiewicz’s death in October 2014, Clymer worked with the Cardinals to get a jersey for Mankiewicz’s 90th birthday. The Cardinals put his age on the back. Gold died in June 2017.
A year ago, I had lunch with him a few blocks from the White House and he peppered me with questions about the current manager Mike Shildt and what went awry for the previous manager, Mike Matheny. He talked nostalgically not about the Society, but the group of friends it created and the games they had together when baseball came back to the Beltway.
Mr. Clymer, who covered eight presidential campaigns and got one of the highest compliments ever from President George W. Bush on a hot mic, died a few days later, in Sept. 2018.
It’s unclear who will tend to the Musial Society now.
Here’s hoping it finds new champions. Even in these fractured times Washington powerbrokers with Toaster Ravioli on their breath and provel in their veins can agree keeping the designated hitter out of the National League. They just no longer need to gather near the cathedral to discuss disdain for the DH, not when there’s a coffee shop run by two brothers with St. Louis ties and Cardinals fondness (Wydown) or a pizza place that has its roots in St. Louis (Pi). Heck, there’s a Panera in DuPont Circle. The game comes with them as fans carry the Cardinals in their pockets these days. Don't have to look far for Cardinals reminders, after all. At the Smithsonian, in the Hall of American People, there rests a gift from Musial — the bat he used for his 3,000th hit, complete with a brass plaque fastened to the sweet spot. A Cardinals beat writer and a Cardinals executive happened to bump into each other, unplanned, at the bat's display Tuesday morning.
It’s loud and clear that there remains a strong Cardinals Nation presence in the capital, and here the team has come for the National League Championship Series, the first in Washington history. If the Musial Society was still at its peak, somewhere up there on Wisconsin, imagine the reception.