Earlier this week, of course, Stephen Strasburg gave Washington, D.C. sports fans a reason to get excited about baseball again, striking out 14 batters in 7 innings against the Pirates, while walking none and allowing just four hits. Strasburg’s dominance was a lot of fun, obviously, and The Common Man really hopes that Strasburg’s arrival, coupled with the rise of Ryan Zimmerman, the promotion of Drew Storen, and the drafting of Bryce Harper means that baseball is headed for another long period of stability and success in the nation’s capitol.
What’s that? Another period of stability and success? When we talk about Washington baseball’s past, we tend to focus on the team’s 1961 move from D.C. to Minnesota, and the short-lived expansion team that turned into the Texas Rangers. It’s natural, as anyone who actually saw the original Senators play in Washington would be at least 50 years old now, and these most recent failures are freshest in our memory. But for 60 years, baseball was played in Washington, and while it didn’t always thrive, it survived quite nicely.
True, the Senators were not always good. In fact, at first they were terrible, posting a 610-1008 record, a .377 winning percentage, in their first 11 seasons. They lost 100 games three times, including an incredible 113 in 1904, when they started out 1-16 under manager Malachi Kitteridge. They featured terrible players like Kittridge himself, who hit .219/.277/.274 in his career, as the starting catcher, Hunter Hill (.216/.257/.253) at shortstop, Casey Jones (.233/.276/.304) in the outfield, Muskrat Bill Shipke (.199/.280/.261) at the hot corner, and Bill Cunningham (.208/.271/.301) at 2B.
In 1912, however, prominent manager, and former pitcher Clark Griffith bought a 10 percent stake in the team and was named manager. Griffith added by subtraction, trading catcher Gabby Street (.208/.273/.256) to the Highlanders and the aforementioned Cunningham to Montreal in the International League for Chick Gandil. Gandil was a great pickup, who was immediately installed at 1B, and would post a 116 OPS+ for the next four seasons. The club also picked up 25 year old 3B Kid Foster in an unknown transaction. Foster would play at least 154 games in three of the next four years, and would offer above average offense from what was then a defense-first position. Danny Moeller was also picked up in an unknown transaction, and provided strong on base skills (though he was prone to strike out). The 1912 team improved by 75 runs over the 1911 squad. But even more importantly, the pitching excelled under Griffith, dropping its runs allowed by almost 200, despite not really changing personnel.
The club’s record, obviously, improved tremendously. They won 91 games in 1912, and 90 in 1913. They finished above .500 in each of Griffith’s first four seasons (and missed by a game in 1916), and in five of his first seven. After purchasing the team outright after the 1920 season, Griffith moved upstairs and the team had even more success. From 1921-1933, the Senators finished 1102-887, a .554 winning percentage. More importantly, they went to the World Series three times, winning once (1924). In his tenure as manager and owner, Griffith brought in Hall of Famers Sam Rice, Goose Goslin, and Joe Cronin as youngsters. He made a steal of a trade to get HoFer Stan Coveleski from the Indians for something called Carr Smith and By Speece. He paid a high price in Goslin to acquire another HoFer, Heine Manush and General Crowder, who had the best years of their careers with the Senators. He made canny deals to bring in valuable role players with good on-base skills like catcher Muddy Ruel and SS Roger Peckinpaugh. He also recognized and developed other role players with strong on-base and fielding skills, like 1Bs Joe Judge and Joe Kuhel, 3B Ossie Bluege, and 2B Bucky Harris (who would become a Hall of Fame player-manager with Washington), and 2B Buddy Myer. Griffith was an impressive judge of talent who almost built Washington into a perennial powerhouse.
Alas, the economic realities of the game crept up on Griffith. The Senators drew a high of 817,000 fans in 1925, and finished as high as 2nd in the AL in attendance, in 1933 (with only 437,500 to see a pennant winning team at the height of the Great Depression). Griffith was even forced to sell his son-in-law, Cronin, in 1934 for $225,000. After their third World Series appearance in 1933, the Senators were mostly a below .500 team. They popped above .500 in ’36 (3rd), ’43 (2nd), ’45 (2nd), and ’52 (5th), and only were close to the leader in ’45. It was a dismal stretch that popularized the phrase, “First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League,” though the club finished 8th in the American League only 3 times between the time Griffith joined the club in 1912 and when he died in 1955.
At Griffith’s death, his stake in the club was divided between two of his children, Calvin and Thelma (actually his niece and nephew, who he Clark had adopted after their parents died). Calvin would run the team until 1984. Those last five seasons in D.C. were tough for the Senators, as they finished last three times (all consecutively), 7th three times and 5th once. With attendance falling, Griffith made his famous decision to pack up and leave for Minnesota, who had built a new stadium for the team.
The old Senators were replaced immediately by the new Senators, and it must have been like the old team never left. The club lost 100 games in each of its first four seasons, finished dead last in four of its 11 seasons, and only finished above .500 once (1969).
The new team had constant turnover at an ownership level. General Pete Quesada first owned the team, but sold in less than two years to three men, James Johnston, James Lemon, and George Bunker. In 1965, apparently instituting a James-only policy, Johnston and Lemon bought out Bunker. Finally, in 1969, the two remaining owners sold to Bob Short, which was pretty disastrous. Short, ironically from Minnesota, had previously purchased and moved the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Short up and moved the club to Texas at the first chance he got. Indeed, in a Major League-esque plot, he has been alleged (by his own broadcaster, Shelby Whitfield!) to have deliberately sabotaged his team to make moving to Arlington more likely.
By far, the most prominent faces of Washington baseball in the 1960s and 70s were Frank Howard and Ted Williams. Howard arrived in 1965 after the Dodgers became disenamored of his strikeouts and declining power numbers. With Washington, Howard blossomed, regaining much of his lost power immediately, and adding to it. He would lead the American League in homers, with 44, in each of 1968 and 1970. In between, he hit 48. The Capitol Punisher was probably the most feared hitter in the American League, and walked an amazing 132 times in 1970.
Williams was hired by Short immediately after he bought the team in 1969. Given a great deal of free reign, despite never having managed or coached before, Williams was initially very successful. Teddy Ballgame is given a lot of credit for the team’s offensive turnaround, as the Senators improved their scoring by more than a run per game from ’68 to ’69, and the Senators surged to their lone winning season. In actuality, due to expansion and the lowering (and standardization) of the pitching mounds, the American League’s scoring rose by .68 runs per game all on its own. Washington only rose from 7th in the league in scoring (in a 10 team league) to 6th in a 12 team league. What actually helped the Senators immensely was improved pitching. In a pitcher’s league, Washington hurlers gave up 4.13 runs per game in 1968, and gave up 50 runs more than their closest competitor. In a better hitters’ environment, Washington actually dropped its runs allowed by 20, and would finish fifth overall. Most of that improvement came from a couple big steps forward from 22 year old Joe Coleman and 25 year old Dick Bosman, both of whom were excellent in ’69. The bullpen was also much better, thanks to the emergence of Bob Humphreys, Darold Knowles, and Casey Cox, who logged major innings in relief.
Both improvements ended up being a mirage, as the club fell backward on both sides of the ball in 1970. After the season, Short would make the infamous deal that sent the team’s starting SS, 3B, and ace starting pitcher to the Tigers for Denny McLain and change, a deal alleged to have been designed to secure the Tigers’ vote to approve the move. 22 McLain and 96 team losses later, the Senators were no more.
You may have noticed that The Common Man didn’t mention the most prominent player to make his way through Washington in this history lesson. TCM will be back tonight to discuss this player and others in an exploration of other prominent debuts in Washington baseball history, as Washington Week continues here at The Common Man.com.