Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Term-Limited Senators of Washington

"FIRST IN WAR, FIRST IN PEACE and last in the American League."

A playful riff on a eulogy for the first U.S. president, the phrase is credited to baseball writer and humorist Charles Dryden. His ire was directed at the incumbent cellar-dwelling Washington Senators of 1904, also known -- if less well remembered -- as the Washington Nationals.

The "Mad Men" Era Senators Mark II
In addition to word-smithing, it's possible Dryden dabbled in clairvoyance or was merely a keen judge of big league talent (or the lack thereof). Washington finished last that year, and again in 1907 and 1909. They'd place no higher than seventh in the eight-team A.L. until 1912.

During their six decades the Senators would land in the league basement 10 times, finish next to last 14 times and in sixth place, nine times. Their 18 non-losing seasons included just three first place finishes -- none after 1933 -- and a lone championship in 1924.

They were bad. Historically bad.

Six-hundred and forty-one games under .500 bad.

Mythically bad.

In 1955, they went a woeful 53 and 101 while inspiring the Broadway musical "Damn Yankees,"  the story of a Senators fan who made a deal with the devil to deliver a pennant. It was, of course, fiction. The reality was another onset of awfulness during which they'd bring up the American rear four more times in six years.

Damn Yankees, the 1994 revival
starring Jerry Lewis as the devil.
And then they were gone -- to the land of 10,000 lakes -- to exorcise their demons and be reborn as the (Bloomington), Minnesota Twins.

Bereft, the nation's capital received an immediate replacement Senators squad. If the objective was continuity, they were a smashing success.

The Mark II-edition Senators lost at an even faster clip than their forerunners, rolling up a 292-game win-loss deficit in 11 seasons. They cobbled together only one winning year before being whisked off to Arlington, Texas and renamed the Rangers.

Their brief stay, a year shy of two U.S. Senate terms, wasn't without its legacies.

Though they began life in the notch-cornered Griffith Stadium  from which the Minnesotans had absconded, in 1962 the neo-Senators moved into the brand-new District of Columbia Stadium.

The first of the multi-use municipal stadiums now ruefully recalled as "cookie-cutter" DC stadium was a bull ring of a ballpark with more than half it's seats located in the upper tiers (though perhaps this was merciful, given the team's performance).

Built in line of sight with the Capitol and Washington Monument, it featured low-profile stadium lights affixed to a curvy roof over an equally curvy grandstand.  It's first star was 6'7", 255-lbs slugger Frank Howard, a/k/a The Capital Punisher.

The Washington of that era was town of serious men, having serious discussions, dressed in sharp-brimmed hats, Botany 500 suits. At least some drank hard liquor.

Sharp dressed men
One of those serious men, attorney and Senators board chairman James Johnston, died of cancer in 1967. Manager Gil Hodges was traded to the New York Mets after that season, led his new club to a World Series title in 1969, then died of a massive heart attack near the end of Spring Training in 1972.

By then, the Senators had been acquired by trucking magnate Robert Short who hired hall of famer Ted Williams as field boss. Teddy Ballgame led the Washingtonians to their only winning campaign, 86-76 in 1969. Two years later they reverted to form, losing 96 games before just over 655,000 paying customers and be shipped out by Short.

In 2005, the refugee Montreal Expos settled at DC Stadium (known as RFK Stadium since 1969) as the Washington Nationals, now an entry in the National League's eastern division.

In a nod to those erstwhile Senators of the sixties, the new Nats adopted the Frank Howard-worn Curly W as their logo, taking it with them to a new, baseball-specific ballpark opened for them in 2008. As of this writing, they're first in the National League.*

What would Dryden have said about that?

Cheers! from 1966

* Specifically, the Eastern Division thereof.

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