WASHINGTON (AP) — They stormed to the top of the league the year after a losing season, had a star pitcher who was the subject of intense national discussion and won praise from the president of the United States for their performance.
Like this year's Washington Nationals, the 1924 World Series champion Washington Senators generated excitement in a city starved for a baseball winner. The Nats launch their quest for the city's second championship Sunday when they begin the division series at St. Louis
The Nationals finished 80-81 last year, 21½ games behind the first-place Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. The Senators were coming off a 75-78 season, 23½ games behind the first-place New York Yankees in the American League (there were no divisions then). But both Washington teams came into spring training the following season with some swagger.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson said in February he expected to make the playoffs, and "they can fire me" if the team missed out.
Nearly 90 years earlier, Senators owner Clark Griffith predicted: "Those boys are going to get somewhere this year."
At 69, Johnson is the oldest manager in baseball. Griffith chose youth over experience, selecting his scrappy 27-year-old second baseman, Bucky Harris, as player-manager. Critics panned the move as "Griffith's Folly." By the end of the season, Harris was known as "Boy Wonder."
This year, the Nationals' decision to shut down star pitcher Stephen Strasburg's season early brought debate among fans, sportswriters and players, even leading to a supportive Washington Post editorial. The team made the move to limit the number of innings Strasburg pitched in his first full season following Tommy John surgery.
In 1924, there was also a national buzz about Washington ace Walter Johnson, one of baseball's greatest pitchers. Fans were pulling for the good-natured right-hander to finally get a chance to play in a World Series in his 18th season.
"There is more real genuine interest in him than there is in a presidential election," Will Rogers wrote in a syndicated column in September titled "Everybody is pulling for Walter."
"Today the entire baseball world is not pulling for Johnson the pitcher; they are pulling for Johnson the man," Rogers wrote. Fans across major league baseball — which at that point didn't extend west or south of St. Louis — jumped on the Johnson/Senators bandwagon.
Strasburg and Johnson, at opposite ends of their careers, both had excellent seasons in helping their teams reach the postseason. Strasburg, 24, went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA, and struck out 197 in 159 1-3 innings. At the time the Nationals ended his season in early September, he was among the league leaders in strikeouts, ERA, winning percentage and wins.
In 1924, the 36-year-old Johnson led the American League in several categories, including wins (23), ERA (2.72) and strikeouts (158). Johnson and Strasburg were both good hitters, too, and had nearly identical batting lines: .283 for Johnson, .277 for Strasburg, with one homer apiece.
The Senators marched to the pennant in the middle of the Roaring '20s, a time of rising prosperity when Americans became enamored of jazz, drank alcohol at illegal speakeasies during Prohibition and drove cars in greater numbers. As the Senators battled the Yankees in the final weeks of the '24 pennant race, Washingtonians went nuts over their team.
"Base ball in the National Capital no longer is a national game," declared the now-defunct Washington Evening Star. "It is a disease, a flaming epidemic, and if something doesn't happen soon to ease the strain on the faithful fans half the population of the District of Columbia will be dead of heart failure."
Something did happen soon — the Senators (aka Nationals) clinched the city's first pennant by defeating the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park on Sept. 29, the second-to-last game of the season. The Boston crowd, caught up in the excitement of the popular team, gave the Senators a homestyle celebration. Hundreds of fans mobbed the Washington players, and thousands more cheered from the stands, tossing straw hats into the air and waving handkerchiefs.
"The champions are not Washington's alone," wrote sportswriter John B. Keller. "They belong to the country, as typified in its National Capital, and the entire Nation insists upon sharing with Washington the joy and pride that follows the Griffmen." That nickname was a tribute to team owner Griffith. Sportswriters also called the team "Bucks," for player-manager Bucky Harris.
When the Senators returned to Washington, 100,000 people honored them on a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue featuring mounted policeman, a U.S. Cavalry Band and red-coated members of the Washington Riding and Hunt Club. At the Ellipse near the White House, President Calvin Coolidge told the victorious players that they had "made the national capital more truly the center of worthy and honorable national aspirations."
He also joked that the city's productivity had suffered because of the Senators' success: "When the entire population reached the point of requiring the game to be described play by play, I began to doubt whether the highest efficiency was being promoted."
And that was before fans could check scores on their smartphones.
This year, President Barack Obama congratulated the Nationals when they clinched a playoff, saying at a campaign event in Virginia, "You guys are looking very good."
The 2012 Nationals will bring considerably more muscle to the postseason than their '24 forebears. This Nats' lineup features four players with at least 22 home runs. The entire Senators team hit 22 home runs, last in the American League, and less than half of Babe Ruth's 46 that year. Only one Senator, Goose Goslin, hit more than three.
Instead, the '24 team generated runs by getting on base, with three regulars hitting at least .324 — outfielders Goslin (.344 with 17 triples and 129 RBIs) and Sam Rice (.334), and first baseman Joe Judge (.324). Goslin, Rice and Walter Johnson were all future Hall of Famers.
But they faced a daunting opponent in the World Series. The New York Giants had won their fourth straight pennant, and their lineup was packed with six future Hall of Famers, including rookie Bill Terry, who later became the last .400 hitter in National League history.
Most fans were pulling for Johnson and the Senators.
"Outside of the most rabid of Giant partisans, fans throughout this country will root for him in unison," predicted The Associated Press.
"All the sentiment of sentimental Washington is built around Johnson," declared The New York Times, adding that the country was rooting for the Senators because they are "young and dashing and enthusiastic. New York is hated because it has won too many pennants and possesses too much money and is too powerful."
But Johnson didn't have his best stuff in the series. He went the distance in a 12-inning, Game 1 loss in Washington's Griffith Stadium, surrendering four runs on 14 hits and six walks. Then he lost game 5 at New York's Polo Grounds, giving up six runs (four earned) on 13 hits, and the Senators fell behind three games to two. Johnson said after the game he would probably retire, and with no scheduled starts remaining, it looked like he'd end his career with two World Series losses.
"Giant bats penned one of the saddest stories ever known to baseball yesterday," the Times reported. "After the name of Walter Johnson they wrote 'finis,' for it was Johnson, before the second greatest crowd of the series, who tried again and failed again. When Johnson's own world's series finally came along he couldn't win a single game . Even for (New York fans) it was a tragic affair and Johnson the most tragic figure that ever stalked through a world's series."
The series returned to Washington for the final two games, and the Senators won Game 6 to tie the series. In the seventh and deciding game, the Senators fell behind 3-1, but tied it in the eighth on a ground ball by player-manager Harris that scooted over third baseman Freddy Lindstrom's head, sending the crowd into delirium. As Washington's fielders trotted out for the top of the ninth, fans continued to cheer when they saw none other than Johnson come in as a relief pitcher.
Things didn't go smoothly for the Big Train. He gave up a one-out triple, putting him in danger of losing his third World Series game. But Johnson got a crucial strikeout and then ended the threat on groundout. When the game went to extra innings, Johnson kept pitching in and out of trouble, working around a leadoff walk in the 10th, two men on base in the 11th and a leadoff single in the 12th.
In the bottom of the 12th, the Senators put runners on first and second with one out. Earl McNeely, an expensive late-season acquisition ($50,000), hit a grounder to third. Incredibly, the ball took a bad hop over Lindstrom's head, just as it did in the eighth inning, and Muddy Ruel raced home from second with the winning run. Fans stormed the field and danced on dugouts, and police had to rescue players from the adoring masses.
Had fate intervened to send those balls careening the Senators' way?
"Perhaps the millions of fans pulling for Washington to win its first World Series championship influenced the usually fickle goddess of luck to give a little lift to the gallant Nationals," wrote famed sportswriter Fred Lieb.
The Giants losing pitcher, Jack Bentley, looked higher than that: "The good Lord just couldn't bear to see a fine fellow like Walter Johnson lose again."
EDITOR'S NOTE — Frederic J. Frommer is the author of the book, "The Washington Nationals 1859 to Today: The Story of Baseball in the Nation's Capital," (2006, Taylor Trade). Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ffrommer
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