D.C. parks one

City counts on new era being step up from old

Senators' memory hovers as Expos get a fresh start

Baseball Returns To Washington

September 30, 2004|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - It was 33 years ago today that Washington Senators fans stormed the field at RFK Stadium in the ninth inning of a game with the New York Yankees.

It was as if the Senators had won the pennant. But, of course, they hadn't. Rather, the fans were simply trying to collect souvenirs in the final game before the Senators relocated to Texas and became the Rangers.

It was the last night Washington could claim a team of its own.

In the final indignity for the downtrodden franchise, the fans damaged the field enough to render it unplayable, and the Senators had to forfeit the game, even though they were leading 7-5 with two outs in the top of the ninth.

The forfeit relegated Washington to a 63-96 finish in 1971, fifth place in the six-team American League East and 38 1/2 games behind the Orioles.

Baseball fans of that era can appreciate the symmetry of baseball deciding yesterday that the Montreal Expos can become Washington's adopted child.

After last night's loss, the Expos are 65-94 and 29 games out of first place. It's just the sort of club Washington could learn to love.

Yes, the Senators were losers most of the time. The team had been nicknamed the "Nats" (short for Nationals) by newspaper headline writers. But they might as well have been the "Gnats" because their status in the American League rarely rose above the level of pesky insects.

The franchise won just one World Series - in 1924. It captured its third and last league pennant in 1933, losing to the New York Giants in five games in the World Series.

But the Senators were loved, at least most of the time, just the same.

"Washington was a great town to play in," said Jim Hannan, who pitched for the Senators from 1962 to 1970.

Said Frank "Hondo" Howard, 68, the team's best-known slugger of the '60s and early '70s: "The fans were great. We just didn't have enough of them."

Times were different, said Hannan, 65. Salaries were comparatively so low that many players worked in the offseason and become involved in the community.

Some, like Hannan and Howard and outfielder Fred Valentine, settled in the area and still live here.

Like Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson many years before, Howard was the public face of the team as a player. An imposing 6 feet 7, he caused a buzz wherever he went because of his prodigious home run shots. RFK Stadium employees painted seats white in the upper deck to mark where his moon shots landed.

"It wasn't just the fans. The players would be in awe, too," Hannan said. "He hit golf shots. He hit one in Kansas City one night in the old ballpark that had a high scoreboard and a flagpole in the middle of it. The ball was still taking off, and it cleared the pole and disappeared into the night."

Howard said he didn't remember that one.

He called the painted seats a "publicity stunt."

He recalled Hall of Famer Ted Williams, Washington's manager from 1969 to 1971, saying: "There are 20 white seats and 17,000 seats in the whole upper deck. You see those 16,980 green seats? Those are all the times the [guy] struck out."

The Senators played their first season here in 1901. The original franchise moved to Minnesota after the 1960 season, and Washington got an expansion team that took the Senators' name.

For a losing team, the Senators made headlines on more than one occasion.

Curt Flood, who attempted a comeback with the Senators, was a pioneer in challenging the reserve clause, which prevented players from choosing the team they played for. He lost his case, but the reserve clause was later abolished, anyway.

Washington was also a stop for pitcher Denny McLain, who in 1968 won 31 games for the Detroit Tigers. No one since has won 30 games in a season. The Senators traded half their infield to get him before the 1971 season.

McLain went 10-22 with a 4.28 ERA for them in '71 and was out of baseball less than two years later. It is considered one of the worst trades in baseball history.

1901: The Washington Senators, a franchise in the fledgling American League, play their first season. The club finishes sixth with a 61-72 record, seven games behind the fifth-place Baltimore Orioles.

1911: Clark Griffith is named Senators manager, beginning a 44-year association with the franchise as manager and later its owner.

1912: Pitcher Walter Johnson wins 33 games with a 1.39 ERA, leading the Senators to a second-place finish in the AL.

1924: Washington wins its first AL pennant and its only World Series title, beating the New York Giants in seven games.

1925: The Senators repeat as AL champions but lose the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games.

1933: Washington wins its third and last pennant, then loses the World Series to the New York Giants in five games.

1943: Washington finishes second to the Yankees in the AL - one of only three times the club finished higher than fourth in the original Senators' final 25 years in Washington.

1955: Calvin Griffith becomes the club's owner upon the death of his adoptive father, Clark Griffith.

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