Wednesday, September 29, 2004

It would be difficult to select the lowest competitive point of the District’s 71 major league seasons in the 20th century, given that its clubs occupied last place for 15 of those campaigns. Like most successful jokes, the vaudeville refrain of “Washington: first in war, first in peace and last in the American League” was painfully close to the truth.

However, there is no problem picking the zenith for the Senators/Nationals (the names were pretty much interchangeable). Let’s call on Grantland Rice, the deceased dean of sportswriters, to do the job:

Destiny, waiting for the final curtain stepped from the wings today and handed the King his crown. … It was something beyond all belief, beyond all imagining …

That might not match the subsequent fame of Granny’s famous “Four Horsemen” lead, written a couple of weeks later to describe Notre Dame’s backfield, but it effectively captured the moment at which a Washington ballclub won its only World Series in more than seven decades.

The date was Oct. 10, 1924, and the Senators were in the bottom of the 12th inning of Game 7 against the heavily favored New York Giants. After playing 16 seasons with mostly bad teams, all-time ace Walter Johnson was pitching in his first Series. He was the luckless loser in Games 1 and 4, but now he had blanked the Giants in relief for four innings with what was left of the incredible fastball that ultimately yielded 417 victories over 21 seasons.

As the crowd of 31,677 at Griffith Stadium — including President and Mrs. Calvin Coolidge — fidgeted in the stands, the Senators obviously needed a break. They got no fewer than three.

With one out, Washington’s Muddy Ruel lifted a foul popup behind the plate. Giants catcher Hank Gowdy was poised to grab it when he stumbled over his mask and dropped the ball. (This is why catchers, 80 years later, still toss their masks far, far away while pursuing foul balls.)

Thus reprieved, Ruel doubled and stood on second base as the potential Series-winning run. Johnson, batting for himself, reached base on an error with Ruel holding. Then came break No. 2: Earl McNeely slapped a routine grounder to third that hit a pebble and bounced over Fred Lindstrom’s head. Ruel rounded third and lumbered toward the plate as men in the crowd stood and hurled their hats and caps skyward.

Break No. 3: Ruel was the slowest runner in baseball, and left fielder Irish Meusel conceivably could have nailed him at the plate. But instead of throwing, Meusel tucked the ball in his pocket and trotted toward the dugout. The Senators, under 27-year-old “Boy Wonder” playing manager Bucky Harris in his first season, had become masters of all they surveyed.

Were divine forces at work and affecting the outcome of a mere baseball game? Jack Bentley, the Giants’ losing pitcher, thought so. “I guess the Good Lord just couldn’t stand seeing Walter Johnson lose again,” he said.

Johnson, supposedly headed downhill at age 37, was standing on second base when McNeely’s freakish hit made him and the Senators winners. “I was so happy it didn’t seem real,” he recalled years later in grandson Henry W. Thomas’ marvelous biography of the great pitcher. “They told me President Coolidge kept watching me all the way into the clubhouse, and I remember somebody yelling, ‘I bet Cal’d like to change places with you right now, Walter.’ ”

That evening as fans snake danced along Pennsylvania Avenue, baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis stood watching with sportswriter Fred Lieb at the window of his room in the Raleigh Hotel. “Freddy, this could be the highest point of what we affectionately call our national sport,” Landis said.

No doubt, at least as far as the Senators were concerned. They won the American League pennant the following season and again in 1933 but lost both World Series. Pittsburgh vanquished them in another seven-game Series in 1925 that oddly seemed a backward version of ‘24. This time Johnson won his first two starts as the Senators claimed a 3-1 lead. But the Pirates won the next three games, the last a 9-7 atrocity on a day when heavy rains made the footing around the mound tenuous at Forbes Field and Harris left Johnson in to take a pounding.

American League President Ban Johnson ungraciously fired off a telegram to Harris saying, “You cost the American League a World Series victory because of sentiment.”

Undaunted, Bucky fired right back: “I’d do it the same way again. We went down with our best.”

Another veteran Washington club won the pennant in 1933 under another young playing manager, Joe Cronin, but lost a lackluster World Series to the Giants in five games. After that, fans had to endure too many second-division finishes before the Senators moved to Minnesota and became the Twins following the 1960 season.

The American League immediately plunked an expansion club into Griffith Stadium, but the new Senators were even worse for most of the 11 years before owner Bob Short took them to Texas for the ‘72 season.

From then until now, nothing doing. Many area fans defected to Baltimore and the Orioles. Others abandoned baseball as baseball had abandoned them. Still others kept a candle in the window for the return of a Washington area club as the years sped past in gloomy procession.

Baseball was played in Washington as early as 1859, when government clerks spent their lunch hour frolicking on the Ellipse. The city was represented in the National League from 1886 to 1889 and 1892 to 1899 — tall, skinny catcher Connie Mack was a fan favorite — but Washington found itself without a major league club when the league cut from 12 to eight teams in 1900.

Not to worry, because Ban Johnson and Charlie Comiskey were hatching a plan to rechristen their Western League as the American League, declare it a major circuit and go to war against the 26-year-old National League in 1901 with Washington a key eastern member.

Unfortunately for D.C. fans, their team staggered along with bad managers, bad players and bad finishes. From 1901 to 1911, the Senators finished eighth four times, seventh five times and never higher than sixth. Only two rays of light penetrated the darkness, Walter Johnson’s arrival to pitch in 1907 and William Howard Taft’s appearance in 1910 as the first of 11 presidents to throw a ceremonial first pitch on Opening Day. There was also Johnson’s 1908 feat — incredible then, surreal now — of shutting out the New York Highlanders three times in four days.

Then a former star pitcher and pennant-winning manager named Clark Griffith rode into town from Cincinnati, starting an association with the Senators that lasted until his death in 1955. Suddenly, Washington had a contending club that finished second in 1912 and 1913 as Johnson, at his peak, won 33 and 36 games.

In his 1954 book “The Washington Senators,” longtime sports columnist Shirley Povich relates how Griffith took out a second mortgage on his Montana ranch to buy 10 percent of the Senators in 1912. Eight years later, Griff bought a controlling interest with partner William Richardson and became club president. Two years after that, he gave up managing as first Clyde Milan, then Donie Bush kept the seat warm for Bucky Harris.

When Griffith first took over the Senators, his shrewd judgment in signing players overcame his lack of wherewithal. But gradually, as other clubs began to develop farm systems and rich men like New York’s Jacob Ruppert and Boston’s Tom Yawkey joined ownership ranks, the Senators found themselves in big trouble financially. Usually, his player deals evolved with money accruing to the Senators. In 1934, after the club slumped from first to seventh place, Griff peddled Cronin to the Red Sox for $250,000 and brought back Bucky Harris for the second of his three terms as manager. It mattered not a whit that Cronin was married to the former Mildred Robertson, Griffith’s adopted daughter.

“Gosh,” more than one comedian cracked, “I wish I could sell my son-in-law for a quarter million dollars.”

In the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s, many distinguished players labored for the Senators: Bob Allison, Ossie Bluege, Alvin Crowder, Goose Goslin, Joe Judge, Harmon Killebrew, Buddy Myer, Sam Rice, Luke Sewell, Roy Sievers, Cecil Travis, Mickey Vernon, Earl Whitehill, Early Wynn and Eddie Yost. But there were never quite enough to make a serious pennant run — except during the war season of 1945, when the Senators’ surprising challenge to the Detroit Tigers fell 1½ games short.

Vernon, the graceful first baseman, won batting championships in 1946 and 1953, but the postwar Senators were better typified by the 1949 “Wondrous Nats” who won nine straight on an early-season western swing, basked in the bizarre glow of a Pennsylvania Avenue parade, then became just the second Griffith-owned club to finish last.

After Griffith’s death six years later, adopted son Calvin Griffith became club president. Meanwhile, both team and attendance were lagging, the latter from a high of 1,027,216 in 1946 to just 425,238 in decrepit Griffith Stadium in 1955. And rumors began flying about the club being moved. This despite the addition of sluggers Allison, Killebrew, Jim Lemon and Sievers improving the team and helping increase attendance to 743,404 by 1960.

“The Senators will never leave Washington in my lifetime,” Griffith once declared. When he accepted a fat offer to move to the Twin Cities near the end of the 1960 season, Povich wrote, “Calvin Griffith posthumously moved his ball club to Minnesota yesterday.”

Retired Air Force Gen. Elwood Quesada and his partners were awarded the new Washington franchise for 1961 and scored points by naming the popular Vernon as manager. Staffed by an assortment of has-beens and never-wases, the Senators played .500 ball for their first 60 games. Then came a horrid series in Boston in which they lost all four games, including one they entered in the bottom of the ninth inning with a 12-5 lead. Thus deflated, Vernon’s club finished 61-100 and tied for ninth place in the 10-team league.

Over the next seven seasons, playing out of new D.C. (now RFK) Stadium, the Senators finished 10th three times and eighth or ninth three times. Manager Vernon yielded to longtime Brooklyn Dodgers star Gil Hodges in 1963, and Quesada’s group sold the club to stockbrokers James Johnston and James Lemon the following year. Still the losing continued, though slugger Frank Howard and classy pitcher Dick Bosman provided some thrills.

When Minnesota politician Bob Short bought the club early in 1969, he created instant excitement by luring Ted Williams, the reclusive former Boston slugger, out of retirement. Under Teddy Ballgame’s tutelage, every regular player seemed to add 20 or 30 points to his batting average. Then, astonishingly, his team was finishing with an 86-76 record — an improvement of 20½ games — as attendance zoomed from 546,661 in ‘68 to 918,106.

However, after his dynamite debut, Williams and his Senators belly-flopped back to reality. After they lost the final 15 games of 1970 to finish 70-92, Short — who egomaniacally served as his own general manager — traded stalwart third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and shortstop Eddie Brinkman to Detroit for washed-up right-hander Denny McLain, whose only season in Washington brought a 10-22 record.

In 1971, the Senators finished fifth, 33 games below .500, as 655,156 hardy fans trickled through the turnstiles with the common knowledge that carpetbagger Short was about to steal out of town with his ballclub.

The final game was a travesty that seemed to mock Washington’s 71 seasons as a major league town. Slugger Howard gave a crowd estimated at 18,000 one last thrill with his 237th homer as a Senator in the sixth inning — a pitch on which New York Yankees pitcher Mike Kekich admitted he “didn’t try too hard to get him out,” according to the Washington Star. But in the top of the ninth, with Washington leading 7-5, souvenir hunters overran the field, and the Yankees were declared 9-0 winners by forfeit.

On the Senators’ radio network, broadcasters Tony Roberts and Ron Menchine made their farewells, with Menchine adding, “No one believed there would not be major league baseball in the nation’s capital.”

Then there was a silence, one that would last through seven presidents, 33 dark summers and untold frustration.a

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