Sunday, July 10, 2016

Washington's 70 Years of Mostly Bad Senators*

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

A playful take -- if there is such a thing -- on a eulogy for the first U.S. president, the phrase is credited to baseball writer and humorist Charles Dryden.

His dig was directed at cellar-dwelling Washington Senators of 1904, also known -- if less well remembered -- as the Washington Nationals, not to be confused with the latter-day Washington Senators or with the current Nationals formerly known as the Montreal Expos.

A new team but the same old story.
Dryden's remark wasn't uncalled for. But for a notable 10-year stretch, the original Washington Senators were bad. Really bad. Historically bad. Mythically bad.  Six-hundred and forty-one games under .500 bad.

They finished last in 1904, last again in 1907 and yet again in 1909. In fact, they finished no better than seventh in the eight-team American League until 1912.

During their six decades in D.C., the Senators landed in the A.L. 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 and none after 1933.

Their brief run to respectability, if not consistency, started in 1924 with their lone championship led by legendary pitcher Walter Johnson, outfielder Goose Goslin and a boy genius, 27-year-old player-manager Bucky Harris, Hall of Famers all. They took a back seat to the powerhouse New York Yankee teams of the late 1920s, then rallied for one last shot of glory in 1933, led by two more future Hall members, shortstop Joe Cronin and an outfielder named Heinie Manush.

And that was it for championship caliber Washington baseball, until now.

In 1955, the original Senators went a woeful 53 and 101, inspiring Damn Yankees, a Broadway musical -- and later a movie -- about a Senators fan who made a pact with the devil to deliver a pennant. It was, of course, fiction. Even the uplifting dittyYou've Got to Have Heart couldn't alter the reality: another spate of awfulness during which they'd bring up the American rear four more times in six years.

The born-again Senators claimed
the mantle of their predecessors
And then, after the 1960 season, they left for the land of 10,000 lakes, where they exorcised their demons and were born anew as the 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 Senators lost at an even faster clip than their forerunners, rolling up a 292-game win-loss deficit in only 11 seasons. They cobbled together just one winning year before being whisked off to Arlington, Texas, and rechristened the Rangers.

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

Though they began life in the same notch-cornered Griffith Stadium from which the old Senators 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, distancing fans from the team's dismal performance.

Built in line of sight with the Capitol and the Washington Monument, it featured low-profile stadium lights affixed to a curvy roof over a wavy grandstand. President John F. Kennedy threw out the ceremonial first ball at its inaugural home opener. Seven years later, the ballpark would be renamed for his slain brother, United States Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

The stadium's first star was 6'7", 255-lbs slugger Frank Howard, a/k/a The Capital Punisher, who slammed 237 homers and drive in 670 runs over seven seasons in the capital, twice finishing among the top five vote-getters for A.L. Most Valuable Player.

The Capital Punisher, aka The Washington Monument

If the ad content of a mid-term Senators scorecard is any indication, Washington of that era was town of serious men, having serious discussions, dressed in sharp-brimmed hats and Botany 500 suits. At least some drank hard liquor.

One of those men, attorney and Senators board chairman James Johnston, died of cancer in 1967, a month after the team traded manager Gil Hodges to the New York Mets, whom he skippered to a world championship two years later.

While Hodges was performing miracles, the Senators were being acquired by trucking magnate Robert Short who hired Hall of Fame slugger Ted Williams as field boss.

Teddy Ballgame, as he was known -- along with another more colorful nickname -- led the Washingtonians to their only winning campaign, 86-76 in 1969. The next season, they reverted to form, losing 92 games and then 96 in their last D.C. campaign before just over 655,000 paying customers.

The new Senators at the new D.C. Stadium
Low attendance and a resultant lack of revenue prompted Short to sell. When he couldn't find a buyer to meet his reported $12 million asking price, he resolved to relocate to Arlington.

Their final home game, on Sept. 30, 1971 against the no-longer particularly damned Yankees, ended in forfeiture and fiasco as angry diehards from an announced crowd of less than 15,000 stormed the field, preventing the contest's completion.

And that was it for D.C. baseball for the next 34 years.

In 2005, the star-crossed and effectively homeless Montreal Expos settled at DC Stadium as the Washington Nationals, now an entry in the National League's Eastern Division.

In a nod to those erstwhile Senators of the sixties, these new Nats adopted the Frank Howard-era Curly W as their logo, made it their own and took it along to a new ballpark built just for them in 2008.

On Oct. 15, for the first time in their franchise history, and for the first time for Washington since 1933, the capital baseball team won a pennant.

Neither last, nor in the American League, they've rendered Dryden's statement fully inoperative. On Tuesday night, Oct. 22, they'll represent the N.L. in World Series game 1 in Houston.

* First published in July of 2016, this article has since been substantially revised and updated.

-- Follow me on twitter @paperboyarchive

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