- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 29, 2005

In June the baseball world first began to notice. Against all expectations, and in defiance of deep-seated memories, the Washington Nationals surged into first place. Although in the bottom half of the league in run production, and dead last in total home runs, the Nats were contriving to win the close games. Pitching was strong. Hitting was timely.

A national fandom eager to support the underdog and to see the perennial front-runner displaced, began risking its heart to the fate of the Washington nine.

Is this 2005? No. It’s 1924 I’m talking about.

Eighty-one years ago the Washington Nationals — and in the capital press they were the Nationals, not the Senators — brought home the first pennant and only World Series championship a Washington baseball team ever won.

No one had foreseen the success. Even their new manager, Bucky Harris, had promised only that his team would “play out the string, win, lose, or draw at all times.”

But June was the magical month, and before it was over, the Nats had driven past their rivals into the heady world of first place. And that wasn’t all. Redoubling their magic, they topped their extraordinary pennant success with a World Series victory (over an arrogant New York team) that even today remains unexampled for postseason diamond excitement.

The star of the team was the great Walter Johnson, who in 1924 regained much of the pitching prowess that stamped him, more than a decade earlier, as baseball’s finest hurler. Two future Hall-of-Famers, Goose Goslin and Sam Rice, anchored the outfield. Veterans like Muddy Ruel, the foul-mouthed catcher, and Roger Peckinpaugh, the smooth-fielding shortstop, lent stability to the squad. And Harris, though younger than many of his players, had the wit to knit these men into a cohesive unit that did not self-destruct.

But what made the team successful was a remarkable strategic conjunction of the reactionary with the revolutionary. On the one hand, even in the fifth year of the age of Babe Ruth, the Nationals continued to play the older “scientific” game — squeezing out runs with singles, stolen bases, and bunts. Astonishingly, they hit all but one of their paltry 22 home runs on the road. On the other hand, as no team before, they cultivated relief pitching. Firpo Marberry collected the unprecedented total of 15 saves (as determined by latter-day historians), and baseball’s march toward the carving out of specialist roles for hurlers was launched.

The 2005 season is not yet half-finished. Fans can be confident only that the coming months will see a rich portion of both triumphs and heartbreaks. But the Nats of today should keep the Nats of 1924 in mind.

That distant summer too was long and arduous. The Nats’ rivals charged back hard, and Washington slipped as low as third place (and as late as August) before regaining the lead. But in the end the reliable trio of solid pitching, opportune hitting and dependable fielding — along with a measure of good fortune — prevailed, and the Nationals ended the season as champions.

If the present Nationals continue displaying the vitality that has served them well so far, another parallel will surely blossom. As in 1924, the eyes of the baseball nation will increasingly focus on Washington, and the pulse of the baseball nation will increasingly rise and fall with career of Frank Robinson’s squad.

It is not impossible — you read it here first — that come October, Hernandez and Guillen and Johnson will assume their places alongside Goslin and Rice and an earlier Johnson in the capital’s baseball pantheon, and Washington will once again be first in war, first in peace and first in the national pastime.

Reed Browning is professor of history at Kenyon College in Ohio and author of “Baseball’s Greatest Season, 1924” and of other books on European and baseball history.

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