History of the Washington Senators (1901–60)
For the history of the team from 1961 onward, see History of the Minnesota Twins.
The Washington Senators baseball team were one of the American League's eight charter franchises. The club was founded in Washington, D.C. in 1901 as the Washington Senators. In 1905 the team changed its official name to the Washington Nationals. The name "Nationals" would appear on the uniforms for only two seasons, and would then be replaced with the "W" logo for the next 52 years. For a time, from 1911 to 1933, the Senators were one of the more successful franchises in Major League Baseball. The team's rosters included Hall of Fame members Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, Joe Cronin, Bucky Harris, Heinie Manush and one of the greatest pitchers of all time, Walter Johnson. But the Senators are remembered more for their many years of mediocrity and futility, including six last-place finishes in the 1940s and 1950s. Joe Judge, Cecil Travis, Buddy Myer, Roy Sievers and Eddie Yost were other notable Senators players whose careers were spent in obscurity due to the team's lack of success.
A losing start for a charter franchise
When the American League declared itself a major league in 1901, the new league moved the previous Western League's Kansas City franchise to Washington, a city that had been abandoned by the National League a year earlier. The Washington club, like the old one, would be called the Senators.
The Senators began their history as a consistently losing team, at times so inept that San Francisco Chronicle columnist Charley Dryden joked: "Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League." The 1904 Senators lost 113 games, and the next season the team's owners, trying for a fresh start, changed the team's name to the Nationals. The Senators name remained widely used by fans and journalists—in fact, the two names were used interchangeably—although "Nats" remained the team's nickname. The Senators name was officially restored in 1956.
The ‘Big Train’ arrives
The club continued to lose, despite the addition in 1907 of a talented 19-year-old pitcher named Walter Johnson. Raised in rural Kansas, Johnson was a tall, lanky man with long arms who, using a leisurely windup and unusual sidearm delivery, threw the ball faster than anyone had ever seen. Johnson's breakout year was 1910, when he struck out 313 batters, posted an earned-run average of 1.36 and won 25 games for a losing ball club. Over his 21-year Hall of Fame career, Johnson, called the "Big Train," would win 417 games and strike out 3,509 batters, a major-league record that would stand for more than 50 years.
New stadium, new manager
In 1911, the Senators’ wooden ballpark burned to the ground, and they replaced it with a modern concrete-and-steel structure on the same location. First called National Park, it later would be renamed Griffith Stadium, after the man who was named Washington manager in 1912 and whose name would become almost synonymous with the ball club: Clark Griffith. A star pitcher with the National League's Chicago Colts in the 1890s, Griffith jumped to the AL in 1901 and became a successful manager with the Chicago White Sox and New York Highlanders. Walter Johnson blossomed in 1911 with 25 victories, although the Senators still finished the season in seventh place. In 1912, the Senators improved dramatically, as their pitching staff led the league in team earned run average and in strikeouts. Johnson won 33 games while teammate Bob Groom added another 24 wins to help the Senators finish the season in second place behind the Boston Red Sox. The Senators continued to perform respectably in 1913 with Johnson posting a career-high 35 victories, as the team once again finished in second place, this time to the Philadelphia Athletics. Starting in 1916, the Senators settled back into mediocrity. Griffith, frustrated with the owners’ penny-pinching, bought a controlling interest in the team in 1920 and stepped down as field manager a year later to focus on his duties as team president.
1924: World champions
In 1924, Griffith named 27-year-old second baseman Bucky Harris player-manager. Led by the hitting of Goose Goslin and Sam Rice and a solid pitching staff headlined by the 36-year-old Johnson, the Senators captured their first American League pennant, two games ahead of Babe Ruth and the New York Yankees.
The Senators faced John McGraw's heavily favored New York Giants in the 1924 World Series. Despite Johnson losing both of his starts, the Senators kept pace to tie the Series at three games apiece and force Game 7. The Senators trailed the Giants 3 to 1 in the eighth inning of Game 7, when Bucky Harris hit a routine ground ball to third which hit a pebble and took a bad hop over Giants third baseman Freddie Lindstrom. Two runners scored on the play, tying the score at three. In the ninth inning with the game tied 3-3, Harris brought in an aging Johnson to pitch on just one day of rest – he had been the losing pitcher in Game 5. Johnson held the Giants scoreless into extra innings. In the bottom of the twelfth inning, Muddy Ruel hit a high foul ball directly over home plate. The Giants' catcher, Hank Gowdy, dropped his protective face mask to field the ball but, failing to toss the mask aside, stumbled over it and dropped the ball, thus giving Ruel another chance to bat. On the next pitch, Ruel hit a double and, then proceeded to score the winning run when Earl McNeely hit a ground ball that took another bad hop over Lindstrom's head. It would mark the only World Series triumph for the franchise during their sixty-year tenure in Washington.
Building a winning tradition
The Senators repeated as AL champs in 1925 but lost the Series to Pittsburgh. After Johnson's retirement in 1927, the Senators endured a few losing seasons until returning to contention in 1930, this time with Johnson as manager. But after the Senators finished third in 1931 and 1932, behind powerful Philadelphia and New York, Griffith fired Johnson, a victim of high expectations.
For his new manager in 1933, Griffith returned to the formula that worked for him in 1924, and 26-year-old shortstop Joe Cronin became player-manager. It worked. Washington posted a 99-53 record and swept to the pennant seven games ahead of the Yankees. But the Senators lost the World Series to the Giants in five games.
Back to the second division
The Senators sank all the way to seventh in 1934. Attendance plunged as well, and after the season Griffith traded Cronin to the Red Sox for journeyman shortstop Lyn Lary and $225,000 in cash (even though Cronin was married to Griffith's niece, Mildred). Despite the return of Harris as manager in 1935-42 and 1950–54, Washington remained mostly a losing ball club for the next 25 years, contending for the pennant only in the talent-thin war years of 1943 and 1945. Washington came to be known as "first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League".
In 1954, Senators scout Ossie Bluege signed a 17-year-old ballplayer from Payette, Idaho, named Harmon Killebrew. Because of his $30,000 signing bonus, league rules required Killebrew to spend the rest of 1954 with the Senators as a "bonus baby." Killebrew bounced between the Senators and the minor leagues for next few years. He became the Senators’ regular third baseman in 1959, leading the league with 42 home runs and earning a starting spot on the American League All-Star team.
Clark Griffith died in 1955, and his nephew and adopted son Calvin took over the team presidency. He sold Griffith Stadium to the city of Washington and leased it back, leading to speculation that the team was planning to move, as the Braves, Browns and Athletics had all done in the early 1950s. After an early flirtation with San Francisco, by 1957 Griffith was courting Minneapolis-St. Paul, a prolonged process that resulted in his rejecting the Twin Cities' first offer before agreeing to relocate. The American League opposed the move at first, but in 1960 a deal was reached: The Senators would move and would be replaced with an expansion Senators team for 1961. The old Washington Senators became the Minnesota Twins. "Senators owner Calvin Griffith reportedly told a local Lions Club in 1978 that he'd chosen Minnesota 'when we found out that you only had 15,000 blacks here.'"
The Washington Senators in popular culture
The longtime competitive struggles of the team were fictionalized in the book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, which became the legendary Broadway musical and movie Damn Yankees. The plot centers around Joe Boyd, a middle-aged real estate salesman and long-suffering fan of the Washington Senators baseball club. In this musical comedy-drama of the Faust legend, Boyd sells his soul to the Devil and becomes slugger Joe Hardy, the "long ball hitter the Senators need that he'd sell his soul for" (as spoken by him in a throwaway line near the beginning of the drama). His hitting prowess enables the Senators to win the American League pennant over the then-dominant Yankees. One of the songs from the musical, "You Gotta Have Heart", is frequently played at baseball games.
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- David Lightman "Obama's new home was slow to accept integration" McClatchy Newspapers, Jan 7, 2009