Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Night The Lights Went Out

It was Tuesday, June 1, 1971, 3:30PM, just getting home from school. I was 11 years old, soon to be 12 in August--just two more weeks left in 5th Grade before summer recess. As I walked to the front door, sitting on the stoop, was that afternoon's Washington Star newspaper. At one time, The Washington Star was THE NEWSPAPER in the DC area. An afternoon daily--The News Leader beyond reproach. The Washington Post can claim all the history they want, but, only due to poor Management of THE STAR, and subsequent ownership by Time, Inc--led to its eventual downfall, ceasing to publish in 1981.

But, in 1971, The Star was still a very viable newspaper, and on this day, its afternoon delivery schedule gave them an exclusive BANNER HEADLINE!! After months of rumors, Bob Short, Owner of The Washington Senators, made public that he would attempt to move The Senators out of the Nation's Capital and to Dallas-Ft.Worth, if the DC Armory Board would not give in on a renegotiated lease for the stadium. SENATORS LEAVING--AGAIN!! was the headline.

The Original Senators had moved to Minnesota, becoming the Twins, after the 1960 season. Moving to Minneapolis-St.Paul just as all their fine young talent was developing into an outstanding team. The Twins would Win The American League Pennant and go to the World Series in 1965, win the AL West Division Titles during the first two years of Division Playoffs, that began in 1969--competitive and feared throughout the decade. Leading the American League in Attendance at one time, in a reconverted Minor League Stadium, where now the infamous Mall Of America sits in Bloomington, Minnesota. Those Twins teams included former Senators: Hall of Famer-Harmon Killebrew, Rookie of The Year--Bobby Allison, All Star Lefthander--Jim Kaat, All Star Catcher--Earl Battey and in the farm system at the time of the move--Tony Oliva--one of the greatest hitting machines in baseball history--Multiple knee injuries curtailing a sure Hall of Fame Career. Another Hall of Famer, Rod Carew, would also play for these Twins, coming up late in the 1967 season. Washington never got to enjoy their success.

Instead, The American League granted Washington an expansion franchise for the 1961 season. The team was, again, called the Senators. And, They Stunk!! For years. Truly a terrible franchise, never competitive, drawing below average crowds. Despite playing in the Pristine New, DC Stadium (Later renamed RFK), poor management failing to build a competitive team. Only the 1969 Team, under helm of first year Manager, Ted Williams, was able to ever reach .500 or above (86-76), nearly drawing 1 Million Fans.
Then, Bob Short would cut the legs right off the teams momentum, trading 3 rising stars: Pitcher- Joe Coleman, Shortstop Eddie Brinkman, 3rd Baseman Aurelio Rodriguez, along with pitcher Jim Hannan for troublesome Denny McLain and journeyman infielder, Ron Wert. The trade that doomed the franchise.

I couldn't believe what I was reading in the newspaper. My TEAM!!, as bad as they were, was leaving, FOR TEXAS!!! My dad happened to pull into the driveway, coming home from work. I showed him the headline. Dad saying he just heard it on the radio. Unbeknownst to me, this potential move had been rumored for some time--SHOCKED as much as an 11 year old could be. My brother, Michael and our friend, Dave, were also walking home from middle school. They also couldn't believe it. All three of us ran over to tell another childhood friend, Nick--4 houses away. The 4 of us talked and talked about the Senators. How much we loved going to the games. What are we going to do without a team. WE ARE NOT GOING TO BALTIMORE??!! We couldn't drive, number one, but we wouldn't know how to get there, if we did.

Nick's Dad was listening to the conversation, realizing how crushed we all were over the move. He asked us whether we would like to go to the Senators Game, that night, to show support. As I posted previously, Michael and I had never been allowed, by our parents, to attend a Senators Night Game since Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968 and the subsequent riots. Badly, we wanted to go, Nick's Dad said he would talk to our parents.

Surprisingly, on a school night, My parents relented, saying we could go--knowing it meant so much. It wasn't like you could watch every game on TV like today. Rarely were MLB Games on TV, then. Always, the NBC Saturday Game of The Week (with Curt Gowdy & Tony Kubek), and a handful of Senators Away Games, no more than 25 during any season (Brought to you by Schaefer, "Schaefer Is The, One Beer To Have, When You're, Having More Than One"--Seriously, that was their jingle!!).

The five of us, Nick's Dad driving, piled into his car and headed off to RFK Stadium to see Our Senators play the California Angels. We purchased seats in Section 311, front row, looking right down the 3rd baseline from behind the first base side of home plate. And, no one else came!! We couldn't believe it!! An announced crowd of 3,675 scattered throughout the huge ballpark.

Throughout the game, we cheered and cheered for our Senators. It was a good game, the Nats coming back twice in an eventual 6-5 win. Ironically, former Senator and Fan Favorite, Ken McMullen would hit a game tying two run homer, for the Angels, off former teammate, Dick Bosman, in the 5th, on Ken's birthday. As McMullen rounded the bases, out of nowhere, the crowd started singing "Happy Birthday TO YOU". The Stadium Organist, picking up on the tune quickly. McMullen would reach home plate, stop and wave his cap to everyone in the park--using his left hand to wipe away a tear screaming down his face. Frank Howard, standing at first base, politely clapping. It was an odd--SOMBER MOMENT, reality setting in, that BASEBALL WAS LEAVING FOR GOOD!!

Then, the Harbinger of things to come, occurred in the bottom of the 6th. California had, then young hot lefthanded reliever, Dave LaRoche, on the mound. The Senators sent Tom McCraw, yes, the same McCraw that was the Nationals hitting instructor during their Inaugural season of 2005, to the plate. McCraw took his place in the batters box, LaRoche looked in for the sign from catcher, John Stephenson. LaRoche went into the windup, and at the exact moment he threw the pitch--TOTAL DARKNESS!! All the lights at RFK went out. No emergency lights, no Moonlight, NOTHING!!! You could plainly hear LaRoche yell "LOOK OUT!!! As the light quickly faded you could see a startled Tom McCraw driving backwards away from the plate. Both Home Plate Umpire Dave Phillips and the Angels Stephenson, ducking down, as if incoming artillery was shelling down--the ball--"THUMP!!" against the backstop.

Screams and OOOH's from the spare crowd. Then silence. No one knew what to do. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, you could begin to make out silhouettes of people. Nick's Dad, taking control, holding hands and telling us to follow him. As it turned out, he moved us down next to the Senators 1st base dugout. It was the smart move, as all the police officers were stationed around the field.

Eventually, the Stadium PA announcer, who I believe then was Charlie Brotman, actually yelled out from the Press Box, and clearly heard throughout the lower deck, that a major transformer had blown outside the stadium. Repair teams were on the way. Not only were we losing our team, but we couldn't even watch one of their remaining games. The PA announcer said the game would continue, if power could be restored soon.
Since there were no lights at RFK, the players also could not retreat to their clubhouses. As we hung on the railing overlooking the Senators Dugout, players would come and go, up and down the steps, looking around at the darkness, chatting, passing the time. Long time Washington Catcher, Paul Casanova was standing near the railing. I asked him whether they were as shocked and saddened about the teams announced move. Casanova so choked up over it, he really couldn't answer. But,"Hondo", Frank Howard stepped over, slapping his big right hand on Casanova's back, introducing himself to all of us. Michael and I telling him we were in his Fan Club, had met him on the few occasions when Members got to march around the field each year on Frank Howard Day. Howard, kind enough, to tell us he remembered us. Vividly, I recall Hondo telling us "I'm crushed over it all. Love DC and the surrounding area. Its a very very sad day for me!!" Howard would retrieve some baseballs for us as a token thanks. Ken McMullen would walk over, from the 3rd base dugout, to talk to Frank. Casanova now involved in the conversation. Howard would introduce us to McMullen. We wished him a Happy Birthday. McMullen telling us how much he hated being traded from Washington to California early in the 1970 Season. Pitcher--Casey Cox then jumping up the steps to greet Ken and join the conversation. 4 long time friends, reminiscing about THE GOOD TIMES PLAYING IN WASHINGTON--joined by 4 adolescent fans, enjoying being apart of the conversation. Nick's Dad, till the day he passed away, would talk about these precious moments forever.

Nearly 1 hour after the blackout, power was restored. McMullen, Casanova and Cox shake all our hands. Nick's Dad pulled out a pen. They, along with Hondo, signed our baseballs. Then, as McMullen trots back over to the 3rd base dugout to warm up, Hondo signing the last of 4 baseballs, Ted Williams, steps up from the dugout, hands pushed inside his Senators Jacket. Talking and laughing to Howard "The way you four were chatting, I thought you were picking up dates for the night" "NO" replied Big Frank--"Saying Goodbye to our Fan Base" Williams, realizing how upset we might actually be, walked over, introduced himself, and proceed to also sign our baseballs!! It was a BIG THRILL!!! Ted Williams, A BASEBALL ICON, talking with us!!

As I thanked him, Number 9 gave my ball back, rubbed my hair on the top of my crew cut head, saying "No--THANK YOU!! There is just no reason for this team to leave this tremendous town. Its management, not the fans." With that, Ted Williams walked back down into the dugout. Hondo thanked us again, waving and trotted off to warm up. All 5 of us remaining in the seats right next to the Senators dugout and warmup circle.

Frank Howard would double in the 8th inning and be replaced by pinch runner, Dick Billings. As Hondo jogged back to the dugout, he stopped to give his batting helmet to the batboy. My Favorite Player of ALL TIME!!!, would turn to us, nod his head back, wave saying "THANKS FOR SUPPORTING ME!! It means more than you will ever know" Number 33, tapping the top of the dugout roof, ducking down into the clubhouse for the final time that night.

The game, with the power failure, would not finish until 11PM. Fortunately, Nick's Dad was able to call all our parents to tell them we were all OK.

As we headed to Lot 8 for the car after the game, I was happy and sad, all at the same time. We were losing our team, yet, we had that rare opportunity for meaningful conversation with players we idolized and loved. Surprisingly, those same players liked us-wanted to talk to us. It was the strangest night in my baseball life.


PS--As a sidenote, 5 days later, on June 6, 1971, The Washington Senators would draw their second largest crowd of the year, 40,246 faithful fans, in a 8-1 rout by the Oakland Athletics. The last Senators crowd to ever reach above 20,000 at any game throughout the remainder of their existence. 12 neighborhood friends and family members attended that game. It was Bat Day, a beautiful Sunday. Many would come see their last Senators Game of their lives that day. Although, fortunately, for me, my last Senators game would be September 30, 1971. The infamous finale. More on that final Senators/Yankees game at a later date.


Farid Rushdi said...

You're right, our stories neatly dove-tail one another! Good writing.

I learned of the move in the morning. I walked out to pick up the Washington Post off the porch, and it was face down -- I couldn't read the headline. I knew there had been a vote, but hadn't heard the outcome (how did we survive in the era before 24 hour news cycles?), so I slowly turned the paper over, hoping against hope that the news was good. Of course, it wasn't. I can remember the headline as if it were yesterday: "SENATORS MOVING TO TEXAS."

Unlike some other fans in D.C., I never followed the Rangers. They weren't my team any more.

Anonymous said...

"Screech's Best Friend" - This article was amazing. You know we are baseball people, but we weren't here for the Senators. It's wonderful to see all this. We especially liked the retrospective on the players that are gone. Your feelings about them are ours too. Took Curly W to Vegas with us, have many pictures, some which he'd rather we not share. You know, you take these ralley monkeys to Vegas and well, the showgirls all think he's cute, by the time we were leaving, he knew more people than we did. Luckily what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. We hope to get together with you and the "African Queen" before next season. Let's go to dinner -sans monkey of course! I promise we do clean up reasonably well and do possess a few table manners . God I hope you know who we are or this must sound really wierd. 218 row 1 seats 1 & 2. Colleen & Jeff