By Glen Sparks
The San Diego Padres nearly left the SoCal surf and sunshine in 1974. They were bound for Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital.
San Diego businessman C. Arnholt Smith sold the team for $12 million to a D.C. ownership group, headed by Joseph Danzansky. National League owners approved the transfer on Dec. 6, 1973.
President Richard Nixon, among others, looked forward to buying some peanuts and Cracker Jack. “You can be sure all of us in the Washington metropolitan area would enthusiastically welcome a National League team,” Nixon wrote in a letter to league president Chub Feeney, according to a recent article in the Washington Post.
Nate Colbert, the first big Padres star, along with Cito Gaston, Randy Jones and a young Dave Winfield were among those players headed to D.C., a city without a baseball team. The Senators left for Arlington, Texas, after the 1971 campaign.
(That version of the Senators played in the American League from 1960-71. The great Ted Williams managed them from 1969 through the first year in Texas. Slugger Frank Howard led the A.L. twice in homers. The earlier version of the Senators played from 1901-60 and then moved to Minneapolis-St. Paul and became the Twins. Walter Johnson was that franchise’s greatest star. He pitched for Washington from 1907-27, won 417 games and posted a career 2.17 ERA.)
The Topps baseball card people certainly thought the Padres were moving. Some cards from the 1974 set featured players wearing the unmistakable brown-and-gold San Diego uniform, but with “Washington” and “Nat’l Lea.” in place of “San Diego” and “Padres.”
As the Post article recounts, Padres pitcher Dave Freisleben even modeled a proposed Washington baseball road uni. The jersey and pants were powder blue, with a red, white and blue waistband and sleeve and “Washington” spelled across the uniform front in red lettering.
It nearly happened. But, did San Diego deserve to lose its team? Major league baseball had arrived there just a few years before this proposed 3,000-mile move. Baseball awarded the city an expansion team to play in the National League West. (Baseball also added the Montreal Expos in the National East, the Kansas City Royals in the American League West and the Seattle Pilots in the American League East.)
The Padres, named in honor of the former Pacific Coast League franchise, landed on the big league scene with quite a thud. The team went 52-110 in its rookie MLB season, followed that with a 63-99 campaign and a 61-101 year in 1971. Colbert provided most the baseball thrills in San Diego during those early, awkward seasons. He slammed a total of 89 homers from ’69-’71, including 38 in 1970.
Fortune didn’t change much in 1972. San Diego bumbled through a 58-95 campaign cut short due to a two-week strike. Colbert enjoyed his biggest year. He ripped 38 homers again and a career-high 111 runs with 15 stolen bases. He never had a bigger day than on Aug. 1 at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. The St. Louis native (Sumner High School) jacked five homers and drove in 13 runs as the Padres swept the Braves in a doubleheader.
The 1973 version of the Padres ended up 60-102. Colbert hit just 21 home runs; the team’s top four pitchers (starters Bill Grief, Clay Kirby and Steve Arlin and closer Mike Caldwell) went a combined 34-63. Like they did every year, the Padres finished in last place.
They didn’t do buffo box office, either. Team attendance peaked at 644,273 in 1972. (To be fair, fans didn’t flock to baseball games back then like they do today. The New York Mets led the way with 2.1 million fans in ‘72, followed by the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Dodgers at close to 1.9 million. The Dodgers were the first team to break the 3 million mark, in 1978.)
Ultimately, the Padres-to-D.C. deal fell through. The city of San Diego threatened to sue Smith for breaking the team’s lease at San Diego Stadium (later, Jack Murphy Stadium and now Qualcomm Stadium, home of the San Diego Chargers.)
Smith, who had some financial problems according to the Post article, sold the team to McDonald’s hamburger tycoon Ray Kroc for $12 million in January 1974.
And, the Padres kept losing. Early on in Kroc’s tenure as owner, he famously grabbed the p.a. microphone and grumbled to the crowd: “I have never seen such stupid ballplaying in all my life.” Fans watched the team go 60-102 in 1974 and, for the sixth straight year, end the season in last place.
The Padres finally made it to the World Series in 1984, losing in five games to the Detroit Tigers. They lost to the New York Yankees in four games in 1998.
As for Washington, D.C., baseball fans, it was a long wait. The Houston Astros were rumored to be moving there in 1995. Baseball skipped over D.C. as an expansion city a couple of times.
Finally, the Montreal Expos, the team that joined San Diego as an N.L. expansion squad in 1969, left Canada for D.C. in 2005. Fans in the nation’s capital can cheer on the Nationals.
(Part II of II)
By Glen Sparks
Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, two of baseball’s best, topped the Dodgers rotation in the mid-1960s. So, what did the team need? More pitching, of course. Frank Howard, he of the strong bat and weak glove, served as bait.
The Dodgers traded Howard to the Washington Senators before the 1965 season. It was a big package deal. Mainly, the Dodgers wanted pitcher Claude Osteen, a veteran workhorse and the spitting image of popular comic actor and baritone Jim Nabors. (Fans called Osteen “Gomer.”)
Osteen flourished in L.A. (posting a career-high ERA+ of 117 in 1965 and following up that with a 116 in ’66. The lefty won 147 games in nine seasons as a Dodger.) Howard sputtered early on in D.C. He hit just 21 homers in 1965 and 18 in ’66, in 149 and 146 games, respectively. Senators skipper Gil Hodges, a former Dodger, suggested that Frank change his swing. Go with more of an uppercut, Hodges said. You’ll hit more flyballs. Step closer to the plate, Hodges suggested. You’ll be able to pull the ball a little easier.
Big Frank went to work in 1967, much to the disappointment of A.L. pitchers. He only hit .255 and struck out 155 times, but he blasted 36 home runs (third in the league). The next season, Howard hit more home runs than anyone (44). He also led the league in slugging percentage (.552 in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher). This time, he fanned 141 times, good for third in the league. Fans dubbed Howard the “Capitol Punisher.”
The Senators hired Hall of Famer Ted Williams to manage the club in 1969. This is what bugged Williams about Howard: He didn’t draw enough walks. Big Frank usually only walked 50-something times every season. Take a few pitches, Williams said. Work the count. Get a good pitch to hit.
Howard, an amiable sort, listened. He hit a career-high 48 home runs in 1969 and walked 102 times, 42 more walks than ever before. He also batted .296. His on-base percentage, usually in the .330s, rose to .402. Big Frank sent 44 baseballs out of the ballpark in 1970, leading the league again.
Washington’s clean-up hitter also knocked in more runs than anyone (126), walked 132 times, batted .283 and had an on-base percentage of .416. Williams called Howard “the biggest, strongest guy to ever play the game.”
The Capital Punisher dropped to 26 home runs in 1971 and hit 22 total homers in his final two seasons before retiring. He finished with 382 home runs and 1,119 RBI. He made four All-Star teams (1968-71) and stayed on the Hall of Fame ballot for one year (1.4 percent of the vote in 1979).
This says something about Howard the hitter and Howard the fielder: He retired with 51.2 oWAR but -24.1 dWAR As Hodges said: “Frank’s getting paid to hit.”
Baseball analyst Bill James ranked Howard the 19th best left-fielder of all time in his 2003 Historical Baseball Abstract. In retirement, Howard did some coaching and managing (San Diego Padres, New York Mets). He eventually settled in northern Virginia; he remains a popular gentle giant.
Nationals Park opened in April 2008, the new home of D.C.’s latest baseball team. Three statues stand outside the park. The one of Walter Johnson represents the old Washington Senators. The one of Josh Gibson represents the Homestead Grey’s, a long-time Negro League team in D.C. The statue representing the expansion-era Senators is of “Big Frank Howard.”
Harmon Killebrew didn’t just hit baseballs. He punished them for getting too close. Killebrew blasted 573 home runs into orbit during a 22-year career.
He mashed the first of those homers on June 24, 1955, at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. Detroit Tigers starter Billy Hoeft served up the pitch. Killebrew, a 19-year-old rookie, deposited it into the bleachers, the highlight of the day for the Senators, who lost 18-7. (Sign of the times: Detroit starter Hoeft gave up 12 hits and seven runs and still went the distance.) Only 4,188 fans “filled” the stands at Griffith for this Friday tussle.
“Killer” eventually led the American League in home runs six times, topping out at 49 in 1964 and 1969. The slugger stood a few inches shy of 6-feet tall but relied on forearms that would have made a lumberjack envious.
Pitchers started getting twitchy when Killebrew stood in the on-deck circle. His bat was simply a launch vehicle. Baltimore Orioles Manager Paul Richards said, “Killebrew can the ball out of any park, including Yellowstone.” He once hit a pitch over the left-field roof at Tiger Stadium in Detroit.
Harmon Clayton Killebrew was born June 29, 1936, in little Payette, Idaho, near the Oregon state line. His dad, Harmon Clayton Sr., went out for football at little Milliken College in Decatur, Ill, and encouraged his sons to play hard. Here is one great story:
Harmon and his brother were messing around in the yard with Dad. Katherine Killebrew took one look at the beat-up lawn and said, “You’re ruining the grass.” The game went on. Pops Killebrew simply said to his wife, “We’re not raising grass. We’re raising boys.”
Payette High School never had an athlete like Harmon Killebrew Jr. The youngster earned 12 varsity letters and was signed by the Washington Senators, thanks to a tip from U.S. Sen. Herman Welker, R-Idaho. (It could not have been a hard sell. Killebrew was batting .847 for a local semi-pro team.)
Four days later, Killebrew made his debut with the Senators. He pinch-ran for Clyde Vollmer. Killebrew was six days shy of turning 18. Over the next few years, the muscular prospect with a compact, but powerful, right-handed swing, sat mostly on the Washington bench as a bonus baby. Only later did he get to punish young, impressionable minor-league pitchers.
Finally, in 1959, Killer played in his first full Major League season. He promptly led the A.L. with 42 home runs. He also made the All-Star team, something he would do another 11 times in his career.
The Washington Senators left for Minneapolis-St. Paul in 1961. Killebrew took his home-run swing with him. From 1961-64, he belted 188 balls out of the park.
He also led the league in RBI three times. And, despite a pedestrian .256 career batting average, Killebrew retired with a .376 on-base percentage, thanks to a good eye and careful pitching. He topped A.L. batters in intentional walks three times.
The baseball writers elected Killebrew to the Hall of Fame in 1984. His No. 3 is retired by the Minnesota Twins, of course, and a street at the famous Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., bears his name. One rumor is that the MLB logo is modeled after Killebrew
Killer now stands at No. 11 on the all-time home run list. He is tied with Rogers Hornsby at 38th on the RBI list (1,584) and is 15th on the all-time walks list (1,559). He also is Idaho’s all-time home run champ by far, 502 ahead of Vance Law.
Known for his kind heart, Killebrew organized the Danny Thomson Memorial Golf Tournament in honor of a Twins teammate who died of leukemia. The tournament still goes on every year in Sun Valley, Idaho, and benefits cancer research efforts.
Killebrew spent time as a broadcaster for a few years after retiring, worked as a coach and nearly died from infections after suffering a collapsed lung and damaged esophagus in 1990. He died in hospice care of esophageal cancer on May 17, 2011, at the age of 74.
“I didn’t have evil intentions, but I guess I did have power.” – Harmon Killebrew
By Glen Sparks
Lt. j.g. Roland “Nemo” Gaines hurled a praise-worthy scoreless inning on June 26, 1921.
Gaines had recently graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The Navy granted him temporary leave in order to play ball. Signed by the Washington Senators, Gaines made his debut against the New York Yankees.
The left-hander baffled the Yankees and impressed sportswriter John Dugan of the Washington Post. Dugan reported that, “the entire squad is enthused over the showing of young Roland Gaines.” Dugan declared Gaines’ fastball to be “baffling” and that his curveball “breaks like a pane of glass.”
Home plate umpire Ollie Chill (what a name!) also sang Gaines’ praises. Chill, according to Dugan, said that Gaines threw as fast a ball and as good a curveball “as any young pitcher breaking into the big league (sp.) he has worked behind in several years.”
The Navy, though, quickly called Gaines back to duty. Gaines’ career in the majors lasted just four games and 4.2 innings. He gave up five hits, two walks and struck out one batter. Nemo retired with an ERA of 0.00.
A native of nearby Alexandria, Va., Gaines returned to ship life. He served as a naval attaché in Peru during World War II and left the military in 1946. Later, he, along with his brother, Leland, opened a hardware story in Alexandria. He also raised Hereford cattle in Virginia, even serving for a while as director of the state’s Hereford Association.
Gaines died of cancer on Jan. 26, 1979, leaving behind a wife, two children and six grandchildren. He was 81 years old and the Naval Academy’s sole representative in Major League history until this season. Now, three former Midshipmen have played ball in the big leagues.
Mitch Harris, a 2008 Academy graduate, made his debut with the St. Louis Cardinals on April 25 against the Milwaukee Brewers. The right-hander struck out the first batter he faced (Adam Lind) and threw 1.1 scoreless innings.
Harris, 29, majored in engineering at Annapolis and made third-team All-American as a senior. He began pitching in the Cardinals’ minor league system after completing a four-year service commitment. During his Navy career, Harris visited 30 countries and was deployed at one point in the Persian Gulf aboard a 577-foot amphibious troop deck, the U.S.S. Ponce.
So far this season, Harris has appeared in relief 16 times. He has a 1-1 won-loss record in 17.1 innings of work with nine strikeouts.
Oliver Drake, who spent two years at the Academy before leaving to play pro ball, debuted May 23 for the Baltimore Orioles. Like Gaines and Harris, Drake is a pitcher and held the opposing team scoreless in his first game. Drake, 28, threw three innings against the Miami Marlins, struck out two batters and gave up two hits.
The right-hander pitched in five games and 7.2 innings with a 3.52 ERA before being sent down to the AAA Norfolk Tides on June 3.
By Glen Sparks
The New York Mets muddled their way through a laughably bad debut season of 1962. The Big Apple’s new National League squad, put into play after the Giants and Dodgers moved west in 1958, floundered first and quickly foundered.
By season’s end, the Mets had sunk to 40-120, 60 ½ games behind the pennant-winning San Francisco Giants. No team had finished with a sorrier record than the ’62 Mets since the Cleveland Spiders of 1899 ended the year 20-134, caught in their own web of ineptness.
Roger Craig led the ’62 Mets with 10 wins. But, he lost 24 times. Al Jackson also lost 20 games. Craig Anderson finished 3-17. If you add Jay Hook’s 8-19 mark and Bob Miller’s 1-12 record into the mix (and, at this point, why not?), the five Met hurlers with at least 14 starts finished a combined 30-92. (Some of those losses did come in relief. Still …)
Offensively, Frank Thomas, no, not the guy who just went into the Hall of Fame, was one of the lone bright spots. He hit 34 home runs and drove in 94 runs, playing half his games at the Mets’ first home ballpark, the Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan. Marv Thornberry (more about him in a minute) added 16 home runs, while former Philadelphia Phillies star Richie Ashburn hit .306 in 389 at-bats. This still didn’t stop opponents from outscoring the Mets by 331 runs.
Casey Stengel managed this crew. He took the job just a few months after getting dumped by the Yankees. Casey had won seven World Series in the Bronx, with players like Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra.
With the Mets, he had Thomas, Ashburn, Craig and loose change. “Can’t anyone here play this game?” Stengel supposedly asked—pleaded?–on at least one occasion.
This may be the classic story that sums up the 1962 Mets: One time, Thornberry hit a triple. Or, so he thought. An umpire called Marv out for missing third base. Casey ambled out to argue. The second-base umpire ran over and told Casey to quit complaining. Marv missed that bag, too. (Thornberry also made 17 errors in ’62 … as a first baseman.)
Things were a little better in Houston. The Colt ‘45s, forerunner of the Astros, joined the Mets as an N.L. expansion team in 1962. The team played at Colts Stadium, a venue famous for holding both heat and humidity, welcoming vulture-sized mosquitos and offering Texas-sized hospitality to rattlesnakes that enjoyed lying in the outfield grass.
The Colt ‘45s claimed just one 20-game loser, Turk Ferrell 10-20. Of course, Turk put up an admirable 3.02 ERA (124 ERA+). So, he wasn’t half bad. Roman Mejiias, an expansion selection from the Pittsburgh Pirates, led the offense. The Cuban-born right-fielder hit 24 home runs, drive in 76 and batted .286. He put up a career-high 3.6 oWAR, remarkable because he retired with a 2.5 career oWAR over nine seasons. (That happens when you put up a season-long oWAR of 0.0 or lower six times.)
Houston actually started the year 31-36. Then, things fell apart. The Colt ’45s went 33-60 from there and finished 64-96 in ’62, good for eighth place in the N.L., 36.5 games out of first. (The Cubs at 59-103 neatly ended up in ninth place, between the Mets and Astros, 42.5 games behind San Francisco.)
So, expansion era baseball did not start well in the National League. Things were quite different when the American League grew by two teams in 1961, at least for one squad. In kicking off baseball’s expansion era, the A.L. introduced the new-look Washington Senators and the Los Angeles Angels (soon to be the California Angels, then the Anaheim Angels, then the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim).
The Angels finished a respectable 70-91 in their opening campaign. Even more impressively, they won 86 games the following year. Smartly, the team drafted young pitchers Ken McBride and Eli Grba (25 and 26 years old, respectively). Both men threw more than 200 innings in ’61 and both had an ERA+ of better than 100.
Dean Chance, another expansion-draft pick by the Angels, hit the baseball scene full-time in 1962. At age 21, he went 14-10 with a 2.96 ERA (130 ERA+). Two years later, the 6-foot-3-inch right-hander enjoyed one of the most overlooked seasons of the modern era. He finished 20-9 with a 1.65 ERA (200 ERA+) and a 9.3 WAR.
So, how did the Angels find so many good young pitchers in ’61, while the Mets were picking up 35-year-old Clem Labine and 32-year-old Roger Craig in ’62? Jack Moore writes on The Hardball Times web site that it wasn’t simply about scouting and good luck. Rather, he writes, the rules changed from one year to the next.
National owners decided they didn’t want the new clubs plucking off young pitching talent, as happened during the A.L. expansion draft. The Angels and Senators chose players from a much larger talent pool than did the Mets and Colt ‘45s.
“The new franchises were picking from the ranks of aging veterans, utility players and swingmen who would have certainly been released to make room for protected minor leaguers come December,” Moore writes.
The article is worth a look. Moore makes some good points. Things got so bad that the National League held a special draft in 1963 to help both New York and Houston. Even so, the Mets lost 100 games in five of their first seven seasons, and Houston didn’t enjoy a winning season until 1972.
Moore also shows some bias, political and otherwise. He also doesn’t mention that the Angels never really built on to their early success. The team didn’t make the playoffs until 1979 and didn’t win a World Series until 2002.
The Senators, meanwhile, playing under the same expansion rules as the Angels, flopped in their second go-round in the nation’s capital. They lost at least 100 games in their first four seasons, posted one winning season out of 11 in D.C., and played in decrepit RFK Stadium. That was more than enough. They left for the Dallas suburbs in 1972, becoming the Texas Rangers.
Maybe with those early Angels teams, it really was just a little bit of luck.
By Glen Sparks
Mel Almada hated the inside pitch. He knew, just knew, that every fastball fired at his hands, hurled near his shoulders, and, yes, sometimes whipped close to his head, was a pitch thrown with hateful intent.
“They’re throwing at me because I’m Mexican!” Almada insisted, according to a SABR biographical article written by Bill Nowlin.
Baldomero Almada Jr., also known as “Melo,” or just “Mel,” was born in Sonora, Mexico, on Feb. 7, 1913. He was the first Mexican-born player to make it to the majors. Over seven seasons, from 1933-39, with the Boston Red Sox, Washington Senators, St. Louis Browns and Brooklyn Dodgers, Almada hit .284 with an on-base percentage of .342. He knocked 15 home runs in 646 games (2,736 at-bats) and drove in 197 runs. The centerfielder stole 56 bases, including 20 in 1935 for Boston.
Melo left his homeland while still a baby. In 1914, Baldomero Sr., a successful businessman, took his family away from the political problems and violence of post-Revolutionary Mexico. The Almadas settled in Los Angeles. Mel and his older brother, Jose Luis (later Americanized to “Louie”), began playing baseball as little boys.
Luis established himself as a star with the Seattle Indians of the Pacific Coast League. After graduating from Los Angeles High School in 1932, Melo went up the coast to join his brother. He batted .311 in his rookie season in the PCL. By 1933, The Sporting News, the famous Bible of baseball, had labeled Mel Almada as maybe “the best young outfield prospect” in the league. That summer, the Red Sox signed him to a contract.
Mel’s big-league career amounted to a mixed bag. He could certainly run and play defense. He hit for a decent average, but he never showed much power. In 1935, for instance, he batted .295 but with a slugging percentage of just .379 (OPS+ 84).
Almada hit .295 in 1937 with the Red Sox and Senators, but again, with a weak slugging percentage (.394). The following year, he started off at just .244 for Washington, but batted .342 in 436 at-bats following a trade to St. Louis. In 1939, Mel hit only .228 in 246 at-bats with the Browns and the Dodgers. His major league career was over.
Alamada left the big leagues but kept playing ball, both in Los Angeles and in Mexico. He died Aug. 13, 1988, at the age of 75.
Older brother Luis Almada never made it to the majors. The New York Giants placed him on their major league roster in 1927, but Luis got hurt while on a barnstorming trip with the team and never made it back. He died in 2005 at the age of 98. Luis had a theory as to why his talented younger brother quit playing in the majors at the age of 26. It was that inside pitching, Luis said. Mel hated it, and opposing pitching knew it. But, the pitchers weren’t throwing at Mel because he was Mexican.
“No, Melo,” Luis once said to his sibling, according to the SABR article. “They’re throwing at you because you’re a batter.”
This is the first of a two-part follow-up to my three-part series on the Boston-Milwaukee-Atlanta Braves. (Yep, the math gets crazy sometimes.) You can read parts I, II and III here. This post reports on the franchise shuffling in major league baseball that followed Boston’s departure to Milwaukee. My next post will cover the Seattle Pilots-Milwaukee Brewers drama/fiasco.
By Glen Sparks
Next stop …
The Boston Braves’ move to Milwaukee in 1953 ushered in a round of franchise relocations that lasted more than a decade. Suddenly, owners were looking at U.S. maps, trying to swap problem markets for shiny, new ones. The following is a rundown on the relocations that followed the Boston-to-Milwaukee move, the first one in major league baseball since the Baltimore Orioles moved to New York in 1903 and became the Hilltoppers, (later, the Yankees).
The St. Louis Browns. Oft-forgotten in a city with the powerful Cardinals and usually buried in the standings, St. Louis’s American League franchise called in the moving vans in 1954. In this case, a bit against the prevailing grain, those vans headed east rather than south or west. The rechristened Baltimore Orioles played to great success following some early struggles.
The Philadelphia A’s. The team had fallen on hard times after winning five championships under legendary manager Connie Mack. Following a 107-45 campaign in 1931 and a 94-60 one in 1932, the A’s suffered through six 100-loss seasons (plus six with at least 95) over the next 20-plus seasons. They moved to Kansas City in 1955. The Midwest’s version of the A’s never had a .500 season and lost at least 100 games four times in 13 years.
Brooklyn Dodgers/New York Giants. You could write an entire book on this, and many people have. The bottom line is this: Major League baseball was going to be in Los Angeles at some point. Dodger owner Walter O’Malley negotiated with New York City officials—faithfully or not—and couldn’t come to an agreement. L.A. officials opened their arms and offered O’Malley some premium property on a hill north of downtown. The Dodgers needed another team out west and invited the Giants, who were playing in the dilapidated Polo Grounds. The teams began play in L.A. and San Francisco in 1958. Each franchise draws more than three million fans every year. That’s the very, very short version. Roger Kahn can give you the long version. Be careful, though. He had a dog in this race.
Washington Senators. “First in war, first in peace and last in the American League.” That’s what many people said about Washington, D.C., and Senators baseball. The team that once boasted the great pitcher Walter Johnson, that won back-to-back World Series in 1924-25 and that took the pennant in 1933 (losing to the Giants in the Series) crashed hard. Plenty of losing seasons were wrapped around a few winning ones in the years following the ’33 campaign. Owner Calvin Griffith moved his club to Minneapolis-St. Paul before the 1961 season and changed the team name to the Twins.
Milwaukee Braves. The fun didn’t last forever. Before long, the team fell both in the standings and in the stands. The team left for Atlanta in 1966. Read more about it more in Part II.
Kansas City A’s. Like the Braves, the A’s played in their new home city for 13 seasons. The A’s, though, didn’t enjoy nearly as much success as the Braves did. Attendance in Kansas City topped out at nearly 1.4 million, in the team’s inaugural season of 1955, and began on a gradual slope downward after that. Eccentric owner Charles O. Finley took his team to Oakland in 1968. The result: 16 division titles, six A.L. pennants, five World Series titles and an organization synonymous with Moneyball.
Seattle Pilots. It didn’t work out. (More about this in my next post.)
Washington Senators II. The nation’s capital got a new team as soon as the old one left. From 1961-71, the latest version of the Senators lost an average of 90 games every season. Two cool things: Frank Howard, all 6-feet-7 of him, hit some monstrous home runs. The so-called “Capital Punisher” won two home run titles. Also, former Red Sox great Ted Williams managed the club for a few years. His tenure including an 86-76 (.531) campaign in 1969. The team still finished fourth, but it was the best year for a Washington Senators Part II squad. Before the 1972 campaign, the team left for Arlington, Texas, in suburban Dallas and became the Rangers.
Since then, just one baseball team has left its home city. The Expos departed Montreal for Washington, D.C., in 2005 to become the Nationals, the third team since 1900 to make a go of it in the District.
By Glen Sparks
What Madison Bumgarner did for the Giants in the recent World Series happens every 90 years or so. An article in The Hardball Times compares Bumgarner’s five-inning save in Game 7 against the Royals to the Senators’ Walter Johnson’s four-inning save in 1924 against, yes, the Giants. The New York Giants.
Actually, as the article points out, Bumgarner outdid the Big Train in his Game 7 heroics. Besides throwing one more inning, Bum gave up one less hit. But, Johnson’s effort may have been more surprising. Bumgarner, after all, had been lights outs through the entire postseason. He beat Kansas City in his two starts in the Series, giving up just one run.
Johnson was tagged for 10 runs in his two starts. A New York Times reporter wrote this about the veteran Johnson, age 36, following his loss in Game 5: “It was a tragic affair and Johnson the most tragic figure that ever stalked through a world’s (sic) series.” (In truth, the reporter was being a bit harsh and melodramatic. Johnson enjoyed a big year for Washington in 1924, leading the American League in several categories.)
Hardball Times writer Fred Frommer does a good job at recapping Johnson’s game-saving effort, much of which happened in extra innings. Washington rallied in the 12th inning for its only championship. Oh, and you know how Bumgarner came into Game 7 on two days’ rest? Johnson entered his Game 7 with just a one-day break.
By Glen Sparks
Ty Cobb, one of the fiercest players of all-time, confessed that the great Walter Johnson’s fastball “hissed with danger” and “made me flinch.” Johnson threw with such force that opponents called him the “Big Train.”
Born on this date in 1887 in rural Humbolt, Kansas, the side-arming right-hander won 417 games in his 21-year career, all of it with the Washington Senators. Below is a look at Johnson’s life, career and legacy in 10 bullet points.
- Walter Johnson left with his family in 1902 for the booming oil economy in southern California. He graduated from Fullerton Union High School in Orange County. The prep phenom once struck out 27 batters in a 15-inning game against Santa Ana High School.
- Johnson played semi-pro ball in California and in Weiser, Idaho. He went 14-2 with a 0.55 ERA in his second season in Idaho. A scout for the Washington Senators discovered and signed the so-called “Weiser Wonder” in 1907.
- It didn’t take long for Johnson to see some action with the big club. He finished just 5-9 as a 19-year-old rookie with the Senators in 1907 but had a sparkling 1.88 ERA (129 ERA+).
- In his first 10 seasons, Johnson had just one with an ERA above 2.00 (2.22 in 1909). In 1910, he went 25-17 with a 1.36 ERA (183 ERA+) and led the American League in starts (42), complete games (38), innings pitched (370) and strikeouts (313).
- Teammates, opponents and sportswriters always complimented Johnson for his gentlemanly approach to the game. The columnist Shirley Povich once wrote: “Walter Johnson, more than any other ballplayer, probably more than any other athlete, professional or amateur, became the symbol of gentlemanly conduct in the heat of battle.”
- The Big Train enjoyed his best season in 1913. He finished 36-7 with a 1.14 ERA (259 ERA+). He threw 11 shutouts and posted a 14.6 WAR. Not surprisingly, Washington’s ace won the MVP.
- Johnson won at least 20 games every season from 1910-19. He had seven seasons with WARs above 10.0. The Big Train ranks first all-time among pitchers with 152.3 WAR points.
- Arguably the greatest pitcher ever finished with a 417-279 won-loss record (.599 percentage) and a 2.17 ERA. He struck out 3,509 batters and threw a record 110 shutouts. He posted a career ERA+ of 147. Baseball-Reference.com features a stat called Black Ink Points. If a player leads the league in a category, he gets a Blank Ink point. Johnson has 150 points, more than any other pitcher. Bill James uses a formula he uses called the Hall of Fame monitor. Basically, it judges a player’s worthiness for selection to Cooperstown. Johnson has 364 points, tops among pitchers.
- Following the 1927 season, Johnson retired. He managed Newark of the International League for one season and then skippered the Senators from 1929-32. Johnson also managed the Cleveland Indians from 1933-35. Although criticized for his laid-back style, the great pitcher had a .550 winning percentage as a manager. He spent his last years on a farm in Montgomery, Md., and died of a brain tumor Dec. 10, 1946, at age 59.
- Walter Johnson High School opened in 1956 in Bethesda, Md. Newsweek named it one of “America’s Best High Schools” in 2013. Aspiring journalists write for the school newspaper, The Pitch; student-athletes compete for the Wildcats. (Really? Not the Big Trains? Missed opportunity.) ESPN’s Tim Kurkjian is a Walter Johnson H.S. alum.
By Glen Sparks
You’ll get that rare chance to glimpse “Muddy” Ruel in action if you click on some of these highlights from the 1924 World Series between the Washington Senators and the New York Giants.
You also can see pitching great Walter Johnson rev it up and fire his sidearm fastball to home plate. Plus, watch the crowd go wild and storm the field, in jacket and tie. Some of the footage put up by mlb.com is set to Rascal Flats’ cover version of Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart.” Freaky.
The Senators beat the Giants 4 games to 3 to take the Series. Herold Dominic “Muddy” Ruel, a St. Louis native, hit just .095 in the seven games. He rebounded and batted .316 in the ’25 Series in a losing effort. Ruel played 19 seasons for six teams, including his hometown Browns. The catcher hit .275 lifetime.