No other sport can match baseball for statistical and historical minutiae, so it was no surprise that hundreds of “cranks” - as fans were called in the very old days - overran the District’s JW Marriott Hotel this week for the 39th annual convention of the Society for American Baseball Research.
Want to know what Babe Ruth ate for breakfast on the September day when he whacked his record 60th home run of the 1927 season at Yankee Stadium? Chances are somebody in attendance could tell you.
Heck, somebody might even know where the bachelor Bambino, a world-class roisterer, spent the previous evening. SABR members are very sharp indeed.
Considering the location, it was entirely appropriate that both deceased versions of the Washington Senators were spotlighted in presentations here. I imagine some of the listeners had tears in their eyes, or maybe they were just thinking of the currently going, going, woebegone Gnats.
(As the amended slogan says, first in war, first in peace and last in either the American or National League.)
To the presumed rending of garments and gnashing of teeth, SABR member Rich Schabowski recalled the dark evening of Sept. 30, 1971, when spectators at RFK Stadium overran the field in the ninth inning and prevented the expansion Senators from completing their last game.
And how’s this for an obscure fact? Outfielder Rusty Torres, a deservedly anonymous member of the visiting New York Yankees (lifetime batting average: .212), was present for that debacle and also for two of the decade’s other three major league forfeits: 10-Cent Beer Night in Cleveland in 1974 and Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park in 1979.
“What are the odds of that?” Schabowski inquired, a tone of wonder in his voice.
Perhaps the same as the odds of club owner Bob Short, the rotten rascal who shanghaied the Senators to Arlington, Texas, being elected mayor of the District afterward?
Although that game has been dissected locally nearly as much as Watergate, Schabowski managed to offer a few new insights. He related to the pain and pathos of the occasion all too well because he remembers when the Braves abandoned Milwaukee for Atlanta in 1966.
At one point, he recalled, angry fans at RFK hung a huge sign reading “Short stinks.” When the police tore it down after 10 minutes, spectators speedily produced another: “Bob Short still stinks!”
And before Senators star Frank Howard slammed his memorable home run off Mike Kekich’s fastball down the middle in the sixth inning, Yankees catcher Thurman Munson alerted the so-called Capital Clouter, “Here it comes.” In other words, be ready for a deliberately fat pitch.
Days later, we learned, Yankees president Mike Burke asked American League president Joe Cronin to overturn the forfeit. Cronin refused, apparently forgetting where he came from since he starred with the original Senators and managed them to their last pennant in 1933.
While interviewing former Senators players, Schabowski heard this poignant tale from reliever Joe Grzenda, who threw the last pitch in the ninth inning and returned to RFK 34 years later to toss out the first ball before the Nationals’ first home game.
“When the fans came onto the field, a big, bearded guy headed right for me,” Grzenda said. “Was he going to attack me? I didn’t know, but all he did was hug me.”
In another of several presentations involving D.C. teams, SABR member Eric Weiss examined head-to-head competition between all-time super-dupers Ruth and Walter Johnson between 1914 and 1927.
Fastballer Johnson won 417 games for the Senators in 21 seasons. Ruth first faced him as a 19-year-old in his third major league game and struck out. In another meeting, Ruth became possibly the only pitcher ever to bat cleanup. And before he hung up his toeplate to become a full-time outfielder, the Babe won six of seven duels with the Big Train, three of them by 1-0 scores.
Want more trivia? Well, Johnson’s final appearance in the bigs came as a pinch hitter against the Yankees on Sept. 30, 1927 - the same day Ruth smote No. 60.
For those of us who still regard baseball as worthwhile, such tidbits can be much more fascinating than the sight of today’s knickered millionaires often going through the motions. Years and decades ago, you see, rounders was really the national pastime.