Sunday, November 26, 2006
The Night My Washington Senators Died
Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, I had really never felt pain during my younger years. Yeah, I got cuts and scrapes here and there--that's a part of being an active child. But, no one close to me, whether family or friends, passed away throughout my childhood. I played all the sports, some well, some not so well, loved school, really was having a great time, even had a great siblling rivalry with my brother (one year older than me). Then, at the age of 12, out of nowhere, swooping in with his reputation well in tact, The Devil, in the name of Robert Short fulfilled his destiny, The Grim Reaper himself, came my way, riping my heart out. It was September 30, 1971, The Night My Washington Senators Died. The Day My Childhood Ended.
In December, 1968, Short had outbid famous comedian, Bob Hope, to purchase the floudering Washington Senators Franchise. Short, had previously owned the Minneapolis Lakers, moving them to Los Angeles in 1960 and eventually selling, one of the NBA's Greatest Franchises, to of all people, Jack Kent Cooke, later the Owner of The Washington Redskins during their GLORY DAYS of the 1980's and early 1990's.
Short, then, The Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, came out of the gate strong as Owner of The Senators--bringing Boston Red Sox Great and Hall of Famer, Ted Williams, out of retirement to Manage Washington's American League Team. It worked at first, as the once moribund franchise rebounded, many Washington batters under Williams tuteledge had career years. The young pitching Staff under, pitching coach, Sid Hudson was at times, stellar. The Senators finished the 1969 season 86-76--competitive all season long--and it looked like Washington might have a contender for years to come. Frank Howard was the power hitting star, but the Senators had some solid young pitchers in Dick Bosman (1969 ERA Leader); flame throwing righthanded starter Joe Coleman; Closer--Lefthander, Darold Knowles; Two More Power Hitters--First Baseman, Mike Epstein and 3rd Baseman Ken McMullen--slick fielding shortstop, Eddie Brinkman, All Star Catcher Paul Casanova, and promising rookie Centerfielder, Del Unser. This team had talent--talent that only needed to grow together. But, Bob Short never allowed it to happen. Impatient to the bitter end--Short would trade the veteran, McMullen (the heart and sole of the team, for some), to the California Angels in early 1970 for two more youngsters--third baseman--Aurelio Rodriguez and outfielder Rick Reichardt. It was the beginning of the end for 71 years of Baseball in Washington for the next 34 years.
Short had money problems--he had leveraged the team into financial debt to become majority owner. And, despite the 1969 Wonder Season, the Nats drawing nearly 1 Million Fans to see them play, The Senators, at RFK Stadium, had some of the most expensive ticket prices in the game. At that time, you could sit in the bleachers at Old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore for 50 Cents, Upper Deck Outfield Seats at RFK cost $3.50. Yes, that's right, $3.50--- more expensive than a 2006 Upper Deck seat for Our Washington Nationals at RFK under The Lerner Group. The Senators had the highest average ticket price in the game, $6--even the NEW YORK YANKEES had lower prices. Remember this was 1971--the average player salary was $12,750. You could pay $2000 for a car, then, and buy a house for $20,000.
With his financial problems mounting, Short, without the approval of Ted Williams or any of his baseball executives, traded his top young pitcher, Coleman, along with the entire left side of the Senators Starting infield, Eddie Brinkman and Aurelio Rodriguez (two stellar defensive players) to the Detroit Tigers for the much ballyhooed, party king, suspended for gambling, Pitcher Denny McLain, after the 1970 season (there were a few other nobodies thrown in from both sides). Short, like current Washington Redskins Owner, Daniel Snyder, was his own teams General Manager-believing his fantasy knowledge was better than the experienced pros. McLain had won 30 games during the 1968 World Series Championship Year for the Tigers, but, since then, had always been in and out of trouble. Then Commissioner of Baseball--Bowie Kuhn, had suspended McLain for entire 1970 season. Short believed that the one time CY Young Award Winner, and still today, the very last pitcher to win 30 games in a season--would flourish again in Washington--and drop fannies into the seats on East Capitol Street.
Boy, was Short ever wrong. A malcontent and convicted criminal today--Denny McLain was well over, and near the bottom of the downward slope in his baseball career. Going 10-22 in his only season on the mound for Washington.
Additionally, Short would sign Curt Flood--also, then on the outside of baseball. Flood, a Gold Glove Winning Centerfielder for the St. Lous Cardinals in the 60's, was traded to the Philadelphia Phillies after the 1969 season. Flood refused to play for the Phillies, claiming he should have the right to play for whomever he chooses. Major League Baseball contending Flood had no rights under its Reserve Clause. The Reserve Clause granted Major League Teams the right to control all players, without that players consent. Flood considered that tantamount to slavery. He fought it, tooth and nail--destroying his decent Major League Career, sitting out the entire 1970 season. Eventually, Flood would be successful, years later--leading to the the millions of dollars that players are granted each year in Free Agency. Unfortunately, Curt Flood would never reap the joys of his victory--only the thousands of baseball players that followed him would. It makes you wonder whether Alfonso Soriano really understands today, what Curt Flood gave up 36 years ago, so Alfonso could live his lavish lifestyle today. I doubt it, and I doubt many of the other players today do likewise.
Flood would sign a one year contract with The Washington Senators for $110,000 in 1971. His skills had eroded badly. Ted Williams knew Curt didn't have it anymore. But, Bob Short would not let Flood go--figuring Curt would also draw fans. This grand plan lasted one month into the season--when Flood, now a lost soul and uninterested in baseball, did not show up for a night game at RFK Stadium--instead boarding a plane to Barcelona, Spain at JFK Airport in New York--Never to be heard from again in baseball. Sadly, Flood would become an alcoholic and die at the age of 66 of Liver Disease--never fully appreciated for what he stood up for, and accomplished.
All this turmoil surrounded the struggling franchise known as The Washington Senators in 1971. With Short selling off and trading the best parts of team, to save cash, the Senators plunged to the bottom of the standings early in the '71 season, never to right themselves. The Nats played a bunch of rookies--two of which, Outfielder, Jeff Burroughs and Shortstop, Toby Harrah, would go on to have very good Major League Careers. Also, longtime Texas Rangers General Manager, Tom Grieve, would play his rookie season for The Senators in 1971. In 1971 though--all three were not much help.
This team stunk, badly--even Frank Howard began to show his age--knocking only 26 Home Runs. Hondo would retire after 2 more seasons, with 383 Career Home Runs. But, despite all the negativity surrounding my team, it did not keep me away from the ballpark. Enthused about baseball as much then as today, I was still able to make 10 Home games in 1971. The Senators were my team, MY TEAM!!. Then, on June 1 of that year--The Washington Star Newspaper reported that Bob Short was looking to move the Senators to Dallas--and I WAS CRUSHED!!
Eventually on September 21, 1971--Major League Owners, in a 10-2 vote, would approve the Washington Senators to relocate to Arlington, Texas and become THE TEXAS RANGERS, setting up the very last game in Washington Senators History, September 30, 1971 against The New York Yankees.
My parents both knew, that this last game meant alot to me. MY TEAM, MY WASHINGTON SENATORS WERE LEAVING!! The game was set for a Thursday Night, a School Night. But, without any argument--My brother Michael, our friends Dave, Tim, Nick and I, were allowed to attend the finale. Nick's Dad drove us-to lot 8, as usual. We bought 6 seats, in the lower Bowl, Section 111--first base side--six rows back from the Senators Dugout. Nick's Dad paid the freight--"ITS THE LEAST I COULD DO FOR YOU" I recall--I thanked him, profusely. To this day, I don't think anyway understood my love for The Senators then, more than Nick's Dad. My parent's just thought it strange, but OK--"He's just a kid", they would remark.
I wore my Senators Script White Tee with Red Nats Plastic Batting Helmet from an earlier team giveaway (STILL HAVE THAT HELMET). As amazing as it seems today, you could not buy a MLB TEAM CAP back them. There was NO MARKETING, no selling of uniforms, and very little memorabilia. Merchandising was not too important to MLB. Upon arrival at RFK--you could tell some folks were in a pissed off mood--Fans were standing outside The Gate A Entrance--then also the site of the Senators Team Offices. Many looking for Bob Short. If police would let it happen, a lynching might occur tonight. It was getting nasty--early.
As we entered the Stadium, there were tables filled with leftover giveaways from games past. Batting Helmets, The Ted Williams Autobiography "My Turn At Bat", amazingly a few Thompson Dairy Senators Bat Day Bats (Didn't anyone realized that some might actually use those tonight to make some serious trouble??), baseballs, team photo pack, programs, yearbooks, and my favorite giveaway of all time---PANTYHOSE!!, among others. In 1971, pantyhose were a fairly extraordinary new product--and The Washington Senators actually had PantyHose Night. Giving out the stockings in a plastic egg with the Senators Logo on them, to ladies. I vividly remember my brother, Michael, calling me "A FAG" when I picked up two of those plastic eggs--along with the Book (autographed by Ted Williams), Bat, photo pack, yearbook and Baseball--everything I could get my hands on.. He and our friends laughed at me to no end. Nick's Dad told me not to worry about, take whatever you can get, you will remember this for years to come. We found a bag and put all the stuff in it. Well, Guess whose laughing now. I still have BOTH OF THOSE PANTYHOSE EGGS. I would doubt many, if any, exist today, except those in my possession.
14,460 showed up for this wake--and they were rowdy before the game even started. Banners and Signs waved and hung throughout the upper deck, or, were walked around the lower bowl ring of seats by distressed Senator Fans--all venomous, spewed directly at Washington's Owner, Bob Short-- a coward, not brave enough to face the music on this horrible night. Many youngsters, looking for blood--the blood of Mr. Short. Right in front of us, as The Senators and Yankees were ending their pregame soft tosses, two teenagers--a few years older than me--were hoisted on top of the Senators First Base Dugout by other fans, --with a Gigantic White BedSheet Banner with Green Lettering reading " How Dare You Sell Us SHORT!!" The Crowd went NUTS!!!!! Senators Pitchers, Casey Cox, Horacio Pina and Jim Shellenback stood on the field, directly in front of them, clapping for the banner. Outfielder Elliot Maddox gave the Black Power Fist Salute with his batting glove on--to the youngsters--to great admiration from the fans. Youngsters, and some adults crying in the stands. I was wailing away.
That sign was the harbinger of things to come. Tonight's Grand Finale would get very nasty--and everyone could sense it.
Throughout the early part of the game, various banners and signs would appear around RFK. Many with four letter words, some with F**K Y*U Short, S**T, on and on it went. The very vocal crowd responding vigilently to each and every one. Booing Metropolitan Police as they confiscated or destroyed every signage, per demands of Bob Short. Trash, torn up programs, litter, you name it, was constantly thrown from the Upper Deck onto the field during the game. Protest and Demonstration after another, it did not stop.
We stayed in our seats, cheering every single Senator like they were Best Friends and Hall of Famers. My brother would yell out (showing our innocence) to Nats Starter, Dick Bosman, as he trotted off the field after the top of the first inning: "Why don't you guys refuse to go to Texas" Bosman stopped suddenly--yelling back "That's a terrific idea (raising both hands above his head)--but as so many know--we don't have a choice in this game." Everyone cheered his response--nonetheless. If our Senators were going to go down, at least we were going to make it personal.
As my MAIN MAN!!--Frank Howard stepped out of the dugout to the On Deck circle in the bottom of the first--I yelled out "I Gonna Miss You--Frank Howard!! You're My Favorite Player!!" Hondo--kneeling in the circle--stopped swinging his bat, in mid-motion, looking to see where that child's voice came from. Standing now, I got his attention--"Its ME!! ME!! Hondo would point his bat directly at me--yelling out "I'll miss you even more!!" And, I began to cry, again. Toby Harrah--batting second tonight, would single, sending Hondo to the plate, immediately after his comment. Wanting badly for a Home Run, I yelled out "HIT ONE FOR ME!!! PLEASE!! Big Frank would walk on 5 pitches, to my dissapointment. Then, Hondo was retired on catcher Dick Billings inning ending Double Play grounder.
Bosman didn't have it from the start. Giving up two runs in the first on a homer by New York's Rusty Torres, a run scoring single by John Ellis and, in the 2nd inning a rocket shot liner, two run homer, to right by Bobby Murcer. 4-0 Yankees. Our Senators would score an unearned run in the second, when New York Shortstop, Frank Baker, would boot a routine grounder to his right--Washington Third Baseman, Dave Nelson (Brewers current first base coach) scoring the first Senators run of the evening. Nelson was quite the speed demon early in his career. And, would go on to have a decent, if average, Major League Career. The score was now 4-1 Yanks--the chanting, bitching and flat out yelling for Bob Short's head, continued.
But, it was In the 3rd inning, the most FAMOUS BANNER of the night was unfurled in Left Centerfield, from the upper deck. A vertical twin bedsheet banner with the wording "SHORT STINKS!!" Cheered on loudly by the faithful. Immortalized in a now famous photo from that night--Dick Bosman on the mound for the Senators, Toby Harrah at shortstop. "Short Stinks!!" had a lifespan of about 10 minutes, before Metropolitan Police took it away--to a chorus of boos--but it lives on today--remembered fondly by all those Senators Fans in attendance. That one banner--really said it all!!
Then, Hondo would pop to short during his at-bat in the bottom of the 3rd-- my sadness growing.
Later, in the fifth, New York's Centerfielder, Roy White, would homer to right off Bosman, the opposite field--for, what seemed, an insurmountable 5-1 Yankees lead. Yanks starter, Mike Kekich, was cruising through the Senators Lineup. No one from Washington really seemed to be in the game, and who could blame them. Kekich, realizing a funeral had began--The Senators the mourned.
In the bottom of the sixth--all that anger and venom, on display throughout the night, would shift to great joy and admiration--Frank Howard would step to the plate--and THE MOMENT IN TIME OF MY CHILDHOOD, would begin. Number 33 for Our Washington Senators swinging that size 44 piece of lumber--the biggest bat in the game, at that time. Badly, I wanted for Howard to jack one. Hondo stating afterwards he wished to hit one out--hopefully a MONSTER SHOT, for all the good fans of Washington. A city he loved to play for, and live. Washington was down 5-1, there was no hope in the stadium. The Yankees' Kekich, was standing on the mound--not oblivious, in any way--to the turmoil of the night. Knowing how much it would mean to the Fans and Hondo and, New York, well in the lead of a meaningless game--Kekich (as later written in the book "Kiss It Goodbye") would throw a first pitch fast ball, right down the middle of the plate to Frank. Right before the pitch, New York Catcher, Thurman Munson, would quickly nod to Hondo and say "Here it comes". Howard was prepared--AND HE CRUSHED IT!!! Banging the ball off the upper part of the leftfield green wall at RFK--just missing the mezzanine. The Crowd Delirious At RFK STADIUM!! The fans bonkers!! I jumped so hard up and down, my batting helmet flew off and landed two rows behind me--Becoming the most cherished baseball moment of my childhood. My hero, favorite player of all-time--Frank Howard, had homered, and, as far as I was concerned--he did it all for me!! Nick's dad looking at me--tears streaming down my cheeks--uncontrollably. "What's wrong?" he asked, "you should be happy?", grabbing my shoulder. "Nothing", I replied," I am happy! I Just Love Frank Howard, I am going to miss him!" Nick's dad gave me a huge embrace. The tears continuing to flow.
Hondo would tip his Red Batting Cap to the very happy crowd, as he slowly rounded the bases. Me, recovering my dropped batting helmet and tipping mine back to Hondo. Howard twirling the helmet as he rounded 3rd base--Fans still on their feet screaming. Mike Kekich standing on the mound nodding his approval. Munson forming a fist with his hand down low, saluting Our Best Player as Big Frank crossed the plate--giving thanks to a Senator GREAT. Number 33 was SMILING BROADLY and would then, upon reaching the dugout, take in all the adulation--GLOWING IN HIS MOMENT FOR THE FANS then, gladly tossed his game cap into the stands, the cap landing no more than 10 feet to our left--the melee for rights to his Curly W hat--too large to jump for myself, without seriously breaking an arm or leg. The Entire Moment to be cherished, by me--FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE!!
The Senators would then rally, scoring 3 more times in the inning to tie the game at 5 on an Elliot Maddox Double. The rambunktous crowd roaring its approval. Then, through all miracles, Washington would take the final lead in the bottom of the 8th on a sacrifice fly by Maddox. 7-5 Senators. There was now a chance to go out with a win. I was very excited, so where many others, but sadly, that win would not come. The ugliness of the night came on-FULL FORCE.
With just the top of the ninth yet to be played, the crowd returned to its earlier hardened state of mind. "We Want Short" was the warrior cry. And, it grew throughout the stadium. . Fans were streaming down from other portions of RFK toward the field. Nick's Dad warning all of us to stay close. Do not move with the hoard toward the field. More and more fans were lining the railings surrounding the playing field. The "WE WANT SHORT" Chant getting louder and louder. Venom now at its all time high for the night. Both the Yankees and Senators were trying to finish out the game, but you could see, there was fear is some players eyes. Fielders looking around, outfielders wondering whether they could make it safely to the dugout if pandemonium ensued. The Stadium Announcer warning all to stay off the field, pleading for the fans to allow the game to end peacefully.
It was not to be.
Some fans had run onto the field, the PA announcer forcefully stating "THIS MAY LEAD TO A FORFEIT!". Few paid attention to the warning. Journeyman Lefthander, Joe Grzenda was on the mound, attempting to close out this funeral for Washington. Play had continued through some minor incursions by fans. Ironically, in retrospect, the future longtime Montreal Expos (Now Our Nationals) Manager, Felipe Alou, would ground out, for the Yankees, pitcher to first, for out number 1 in the 9th. Bobby Murcer then grounded out, also pitcher to first for the second out of the inning, one out to go--Washington still up 7-5. Grzenda retrieved the ball from, again of all folks, Tom McCraw--The Inaugural Nationals hitting coach. McCraw a defensive replacement at first for Frank Howard during the faitful ninth. McCraw would also slap the very last hit in Washington Senators History, pinch hitting for Washington Reliever, Paul Lindblad, in the eighth. His single was the go ahead run making the score then, 6-5 Senators.
That final out would never come--Like a cat in the night, this one young fan jumped over the railing, just to the right of the Senators First BaseDugout, no police stopped him---on a dead run to first base--the fan pulled up the bag--to great cheers from the crowd--and the Pandemonium BEGAN!! Thousands of fans STORMED THE FIELD. Grabbing anything they could get their grubby hands on. All the bases went first, then, other fans climbed the fence in right--taking the scoreboard numbers, others grabbed dirt and grass. The Senators Players running for their lives--holding their caps and gloves close to their chests. A Rugby Match had begun--making it safely to the first base dugout--the goal line. Left Fielder, Jeff Burroughs, never made it to the home dugout--instead, he jumped into the Yankees Third Base Dugout. The Batboys--frantically attempting to put the helmets, bats and baseball gear into bags and safely move them to the clubhouses--all under protection from Armed MPD.
Four Metropolitan Police Officers stood around home plate, protecting it, while the grounds crew, with shovels, pulled up the treasured jewel of the field. It was all surreal. The Stadium PA announced the game was now a forfeit. Final Score, 9-0 New York Yankees. The Crowd continued to TEAR UP THE FIELD!!! It was out of control. For over 15 minutes the insanity of the moment continued--then, everyone on the field realized, there was nothing more to do--Baseball in Washington was now gone--FOREVER, as far as I was concerned. Sadly, we all left RFK Stadium for the very last time. Walking to Lot 8 there were many upset folks. Youngsters crying, parents consoling--some anger still being spewed. I remember our friends, Dave, Tim and Nick, along with Michael, more into the riotous ways of the evening, laughing about the game all the way home in the back seats of the station wagon--while I cryed my eyes out, sitting shotgun, next to Nick's Dad--this fine man consoling me all the way home--understanding my pain. I was the youngest, and by far, biggest baseball fan among all our friends.
I had experienced Death for the first time in my life. My Washington Senators Died. I had lost my closest friend, the only team I had ever known and cheered. The remorse was awful. For weeks, I couldn't concentrate on any school work. Eventually, over time, I would recover, but not until we all went to see The Texas Rangers play The Baltimore Orioles at Memorial Stadium in their first visit to the area in May, 1972. Hondo's recognition of me that night, set me free, and is a story all its own.
Senators Pitcher, Joe Grzenda, standing on the mound with the game ball, as the riot began on the field, kept that ball, in his possession for 34 years. On the night of the Inaugural Washington Nationals Opener on April 14, 2005, Grzenda was introduced, where he presented that exact same ball to President George W Bush. President Bush used the ball for his Presidential First Pitch. The President then giving the famous ball back to Grzenda, for safe keeping.