Monday, November 03, 2008

Talking Washington Senators Baseball With Phil Wood Part Two

Picking up where Phil & I left off yesterday, we are discussing The Expansion Washington Senators moving into their new ballpark in 1962.

When The Expansion Senators moved from Griffith Stadium to DC Stadium (now RFK), was there the big hoopla and thrill of it all of something fresh and new? (SBF)

“The very first time I went to DC Stadium, I thought to myself: ‘This place looks like a spaceship.’ (chuckling) It was just so immense, just enormous compared to Griffith Stadium and, of course, it was. Griffith Stadium was basically a 27,000 to 28,000-seat ballpark, this new place could hold 45,000. But what’s interesting, is that they would build a stadium completely enclosed to where you could never hit one out (A Home Run). You could hit it over the fence, or in the seats, but in terms of leaving the ballpark, probably not going to happen.”

“I remember my Father looking around and saying: ‘Now son no one will ever hit one out of here.’ So flash forward to Easter Weekend in 1999, the exhibition games between The Cardinals and The Expos. That Friday, which was Good Friday, I was doing a (radio) show on WTEM from the dugout. I am on the air during Batting Practice and Mark McGwire is in the cage. Within three swings he hit the facing of the roof twice. Both balls were fair and I thought I was going to wet my pants! There is no buzz, at all, from any of the people standing behind the cage. When my break from the air comes up, I take off the headset and I run out there, looking for a face I know. ‘Did you see that! I guarantee you that last piece of leather to hit there was a workman’s glove in 1960!’ No one else really noticed. After the show, I called Dick Bosman (former Expansion Senators Pitcher) telling him I can’t believe what I just saw—using the Jack Buck line. And Bosman said: ‘you know what, Hondo (Frank Howard) never came within 80 Feet of that. That’s just incredible!’ But incredibly, no one (at RFK that day) got it because so many people by that time who were covering baseball had never seen a game at RFK and had never seen a Major League Game in Washington. Sad, really.”

“Yet, it’s funny, when The Nats came back to Washington in ’05, they re-painted the seats that Hondo hit. And guys on the ball club were saying: ‘No one will ever hit a ball out of there. What!? Are you kidding me!? That’s a joke!!’ Stuff like that. Vinny Castilla saying: ‘No one could possibly hit one there. You might be able to shoot one up there, but you couldn’t hit one up there.’

But as it turned out, quite a few were hit up there. I remember in 2005, Lance Berkman hit one off Zach Day, a screaming liner just over Day’s head that kept on rising and landed deep into the seats in centerfield. It was a blast. (SBF)

“One of my favorite Home Runs by Frank Howard was hit in 1968 against The Tigers. It was an Upper Deck Shot to left field. Willie Horton was playing left field for Detroit. As Horton goes back to the fence, he jumps. Well, the baseball is a good 100 feet above and over his head. Years later, I ask Horton about that and he laughed: ‘I just did that as a joke.’ Then he said everybody on his club, as he got back to the dugout, said: ‘Is your eyesight that bad?’ ‘That was joke’, he responded.

I went to Senators/Tigers game in ’68 where Hondo also hit one up into the Upper Deck, maybe it was the same game. (SBF)

“Over the years, I have gotten to know so many guys who played with Frank or against Frank. Ted Uhlaender, who was with The Twins back in those days, he’s got a whole lot of Frank Howard stories. A game where he (Uhlaender) is playing center and Hondo hits one of those low trajectory bullets out there. Everyone in the ballpark knows that it’s out. Ted says: “So, I just turned to see where it was going to hit on the wall, and as I turned around the ball hit me in the chest on the way back (off the ricochet). (Hondo had tremendous power—SBF)

“Yes, he did.”

I don’t think many people today realize how strong Frank Howard really was, or the heavy bat he used back then. Maybe Alfonso Soriano would be the only person today that could use the size and weight that Hondo did back then. (SBF)

“What is interesting is that Hondo’s Bat was big. But the heaviest bat in baseball back then was Dick Allen. Dick Allen’s bat was probably 42 ounces. It was a big, big club. And of course if you watched Dick Allen hit, he would hold the bat almost parallel to the ground. He had such strong wrists and quick hands, he could make contact. Hank Allen, his brother (and former Senator), still lives in town and I see him frequently. He talks about how he and his other brother, Ron, who also played Major League Baseball would look at his bat (Dick’s) and say: ‘How In The World?’ Hank was using a 32 ounce bat--here was a bat 10 ounces bigger and so much longer—it was the heaviest bat in baseball I believe at that time. Incredible.”

Despite the fact that The Senators really didn’t draw well in the 60’s, was there a fan base here? (SBF)

“I would say there has always been a correlation between winning and attendance. If you win, people will show up. If you don’t win, they don’t. That is just a fact of life. When you gave the fans in DC, season after season after season, of sub .500 baseball, even with a hard-core base of fans who just love the sport, but in terms of getting the casual fan out, it just was not going to happen. Baseball marketing really had not been invented yet. Marketing consisted of sign that said: “Game Today”. Barring a season like they had in 1969 (The only above .500 Expansion Senators Team), it would was just never going to happen.”

“The other side of that coin is they never lost money. They maintained a very low payroll. They had a very, very small front office. The ownership of the club in the 60’s, whether it was the original owner (General Elwood (Richard) Pete Quesada, or The Johnston/Lemmon Brokerage Firm, their business model was just to build a team, and not lose money. Actually, building a winner was of little consequence. You look at their players, they signed Ed Brinkman in ’61 and they gave him a sizable bonus for that time, about $40,000. They signed an infielder named Ron Stillwell and gave him a bonus. Then, they signed John Kennedy (not The President, but that was his nickname), he got a small bonus. But when you look at the years between ’64 and almost to ’68 & ’69, they did very little in the terms of giving a bonus (for signings). After the draft started (in 1966), they basically on draft day would get a copy of Street & Smiths or some other baseball publication to help them make their picks. (Seriously? SBF). They had a very small scouting staff. That club would have never won. There was no plan there, like there is a plan, now, with The Nationals. The only plan (with The Senators) was not to lose money, and they didn’t.”

Hondo told me last year when we sat down for a chat that Washington didn’t have enough good players. There was not enough talent, simple as that. If Bob Hope (The Famous Comedian) had purchased the team in 1968, instead of Bob Short, would things have turned out differently. How close did it come to Hope purchasing The Senators? (SBF)

“Well, it came real close. Hope bid $9 Million and Bob Short bid $9.4 Million. Bob Hope at that time thought he had a shot at buying The Los Angeles Rams (of The NFL—a Glory Team at that time). He ended up prioritizing saying he would rather have The Rams. As it turned out, Dan Reeves (Rams Owner) had no intention of selling The Rams (at that time), but had led some people to believe that he would. Short ended up with the club (The Senators). He made a splash when he brought in Ted Williams as the Manager, but he (Short) was George Steinbrenner, before there was Steinbrenner. He believed he knew how to put a team together, so he was, pretty much, his own GM. And we all saw how well that worked!!”

He destroyed the franchise. (SBF)

“Yes, he certainly did.”

You were in your late teens when The Senators finished above .500 (86-76) in 1969. There must have been some pretty good buzz going on at that time. (SBF)

“Oh, yeah. It was huge. Part of the buzz was simply Williams. He was really the first Manager that people bought tickets to watch manage. Just to see him walk out to home plate to deliver the lineup card to home plate. What was really cool and maybe I was the oddball in the sense that I always got to the ballpark early. I wanted to watch batting practice. But if you got there real early, Ted would occasionally step into the cage. And the thing was when Ted was working with a player, Ted was one of those guys that always spoke loudly. He had no inside voice. So you could hear almost everything he was saying.”

“I remember seeing him work with Mike Epstein (Senators First Baseman) one day. First of all, here is Ted in his 50’s and he’s hitting shot after shot over the fence in right field (at RFK Stadium). He’s trying to show Epstein how when you follow through (on your swing), your hips explode into the swing. For whatever reason, Mike was not getting it, or pretending not to get it. And Ted was salty as they use to say. Williams was giving it to Epstein.”

“Which reminds me of a famous incident in Cleveland that was on television. Ted had his hitters each inning, getting as close as they could to the batters box, to watch the pitcher warm up and time their swings. Del Unser is standing close to the box and the umpire tells him to move back. Ted comes out and basically gives the umpire a piece of his mind. The crowd noise mic, in Cleveland, was especially close to home plate. And I remember hearing Ted use the expression, and you heard it clearly on television, he used the expression: “Syphilitic Jesus Christ!!” And I thought to myself, there is an original one.”

Yes, Ted Williams was an original and unquestionably this The Hall Of Famer Made The Expansion Washington Senators worth watching again on the field. But, there was one player that "Teddy Ballgame" felt was the heart and soul of The Franchise. And when Owner Bob Short, playing General Manager) traded away this particular player, Phil Wood felt this transaction was truly the beginning of the end for The Senators in The Nation's Capital.

That story and the final words about The Great Game In The Nation's Capital in the 1950's, 60' & early 70's tomorrow as Talking Washington Senators Baseball With Phil Wood concludes.


Anonymous said...

Awesome stuff. Reading this makes me really miss Phil's radio show.

...but at least I can now get 24 hours of Redskins pregame on five different frequencies.

Anonymous said...

Maybe we can bring Ted Williams back to play 1b this season. The Nats are looking for a clean up hitter. He's on ice somewhere out in Arizona and Bowden should make a scouting trip out there to see if the "Splendid Splinter" is fit and ready. Failing that, I've heard rumblings that Mark Maguire has some interest in coming out of retirement. Both of these guys would come a lot cheaper than Adam Dunn.

Anonymous said...

What is the deal with Young? He was outrighted today to Syracuse according to other blogs. Can you get in touch with him like you did Cordero?

YoungSenator said...

This interview is a true service to Washington baseball history. I thought I knew a lot, but man, I learned so much reading this.

Reading about the near-misses with Bob Hope nearly getting the team, and almost getting the Padres...these stories still make my heart sink.

The insight from Wood about Bob Short actually falsifying (lowering) Senators' attendance numbers is enough to make me throw up.

I got Ken McMullen to sign a team photo for me after a game in 1968. He walked a bunch of kids over to his car, said to his wife, "Hey honey do you have those photos?" and signed one for each one of us. I never knew he was the leader of the team, until I read the Wood interview.

I will be sending the link to everyone in my family. Thanks Phil and SBF!