45 years later, glare of pennant sun should again drop in on D.C.

John Steadman

September 26, 1990|By John SteadmanIn 1945, when the Senators brought pennant fever to Washington, it wasn't hard to pack fabled Griffith Stadium.

Much of the frustration that became so ingrained in the history of one of baseball's most abused franchises -- the late, lamented Washington Senators -- made itself evident in a bizarre series of events that even now, 45 years later, tests the focus of credibility.

It was 1945, the year the Great War finally closed down, and major-league players were beginning their return from military service. It also was the last time the Senators had a reasonable chance to win an American League pennant. What happened defies imagination.

Because the owner of the team, Clark Griffith, didn't afford his team even a remote opportunity to finish in first place, he made a deal with the Washington Redskins to rent Griffith Stadium on Sept. 23 for a game against the Green Bay Packers.

Adding to the incongruity is the fact it was an exhibition. The Redskins, you see, weren't scheduled to open their regular home schedule until Oct. 21. But Griffith took the rental fee paid by the Redskins in lieu of his own Senators using the park the same day.

He literally sold out to pro football for a preseason encounter that wasn't going to count in the National Football League standings. What highlighted the situation even more was the Senators concluded the American League schedule a week earlier, by Griffith's design, and had to stand by while other clubs continued to play.

The Senators divided a doubleheader on their final day against the Philadelphia A's, losing and winning by the same score, 4-3. For another element of disbelief, examine what transpired in the 12th inning of the crucial opening game loss in Philadelphia.

Senators centerfielder George "Bingo" Binks lost a fly ball in the sun that went for an Ernie Kish double, leading to the decisive run. Binks had left his sunglasses in the dugout, which was a serious error of omission. "I remember it as if it were yesterday," says Irv Hall, who played second base for the A's. "It was a cloudy afternoon and then the sun would suddenly appear and, after a few minutes, disappear. When Binks didn't handle the easy fly ball that went for a double, I thought to myself, 'What do we have here?' "

Pitcher Walter Masterson, just back from the Navy, performed superbly in relief for more than four innings -- until Binks lost the ball and, ultimately, the game. Only the inning before, A's centerfielder Sam Chapman called timeout so he could get his sunglasses from the bench. But Binks didn't take the cue when the sun suddenly reappeared.

Instead of gaining on the Detroit Tigers, who led the race by only a game, the Senators went home to await the outcome of the pennant race while the Redskins used their field. How much was Griffith paid to cut short the baseball season for a worthless exhibition? "I don't know," said Shirley Povich, the respected sports editor, now retired, of The Washington Post. "I can tell you this. It wasn't much, but what he got was important."

With the Senators idle, the Tigers continued on and won the pennant on the final day in the rain as Hank Greenberg hit a grand slam against the St. Louis Browns. Instead of a World Series, the Senators dispersed and never again, in all their remaining years, offered a serious challenge.

Worse than that, Washington was deprived of its team -- first when the Griffith family defected to Minnesota and then, in 1972, when a carpetbagger, Bob Short, fled to Texas with the franchise. In 71 years in the American League and before that, 12 seasons in the National, the Senators won only three pennants. Their only World Series victory was 1924 when the gods of fortune intervened. Twice in the final game, against the New York Giants, innocuous ground balls inadvertently bounced over the head of third baseman Fred Lindstrom for vital hits.

The Senators' Griffith, venerable and under-funded, had to make do with what he had, a "mom and pop" operation, which meant only one full-time scout, Joe Cambria, and a minor-league system with only three farm clubs -- Sanford, Charlotte and Chattanooga. Only once, in 1946, were the Senators able to draw a million spectators. But Washington has changed, as other cities have, and deserves to be returned to the major leagues.

Sportscaster Phil Wood, a devoted baseball historian, says, "The Washington of then and now can't be compared. If you dismiss Washington by saying it had two chances in the majors and failed it tells me you haven't done any homework. If you listed all the qualities of the places vying for National League expansion and used numbers for the cities, instead of their names, Washington would be a landslide winner because it has so much to recommend it."

So what Washington is competing against is a bad reputation incurred by its political leaders and the fact it was robbed of baseball by two previous owners. Too bad. Nothing mirrors the Washington baseball experience any more painfully than what evolved 45 years ago:

A centerfielder forgetting his sunglasses and the owner of the club selling out the final week to a pro football team for a mere exhibition game. Poor Washington. It deserved better.

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