While the players rightly treated it as just another game in a long season with many more important contests (like tonight) yet to come, Monday afternoon’s 82nd victory for the 2012 Washington Nationals marked a special milestone for long suffering fans of Washington baseball. The last time such a joyous occasion occurred in the nation’s capital was September 26, 1969. For those counting, that’s nearly 42 years, 11 months and 8 days or 15,683 days in total. A long, long time folks.
Of course, the wait included a 33 year hiatus, so it has only been 10 actual seasons. But, oh, the pain in between the joy. The owner of the “Expansion Senators” following the lead of the original Nats’ maven, packed up and went Southwest to the dusty plains of Texas in 1971. (People have forgotten that extra measure of sweet revenge over a Texas team when the 1972 Redskins mauled the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game, 26-3. Folks still lamenting the Senators wanted that win badly).
In 1974 and 1999, Washington looked to have a franchise move all but finished, yet both fell apart at the last minute when, in 1974, Ray Kroc swooped in and purchased the Padres and, in 1999, moved by a dramatic run to first place, Houston voters approved a replacement stadium for the Astrodome by a 50.5% to 49.5% vote. Other owners used the threat of Washington, the nation’s largest market bereft of a ball club to goad other cities into shelling out for new sports palaces, all at taxpayer expense. (Eventually, Washington’s mayor Anthony Williams did the same thing, making his deal with the baseball devils, and countless compromises with the city council, to build Nationals Park).
But in 1969, the wonderful exploits of the Frank Howard led Senators, under the leadership of rookie manager Ted Williams, pushed all the negativity about the national pastime in the nation’s capital to the background. After dancing around .500 for most of the season, the Senators put on a late push that left their record at 81-75 on the eve of September 26.
That evening, in front of a cozy crowd of 6,727 at RFK Stadium, the Senators young innings eating ace Joe Coleman faced the Cleveland Indians‘ hard-throwing righty, Stan Williams. Williams and Coleman battled to a scoreless tie entering the bottom of the 5th inning. After two outs and a walk, Coleman, a weak hitter, battled Williams like he was Ichiro Suzuki. Somehow, Coleman fouled off 13 consecutive full count pitches before working a walk.
In those days, pitchers throwing a shut out stayed in until someone scored or their arms fell off, whichever came first. The stunned Williams next walked Washington’s leadoff hitter, Del Unser, loading the bases for Arthur Lee Maye. An interesting character who cut popular doo-op records that were hits on the west coast with “Arthur Lee Maye and the Crowns” his buddies from Los Angeles’ Jefferson High School (Here’s a link: http://vocalgroupharmony.com/lee_maye.htm listen to “Love Me Always”, great stuff! You will need to download the free RealPlayer app to hear it), the Indians had dumped Maye from their last place team in June. With Maye on board, the Senators went 54-40, 32-36 before he arrived.
An excellent left-handed hitter (http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/M/Pmayel101.htm), Maye knew Williams cold. He blasted a low fastball on a line toward right field. The ball soared over Ken Harrelson’s head and over the right field wall for a grand slam. Coleman finished the job, allowing just one earned run, with six strikeouts for a complete game victory, his 11th of the season.
Despite the small crowd at RFK that night, people all over Washington rejoiced in the Senators’ 4-1 victory. Teddy Ballgame’s men went on the win 86 games that season, the last winning baseball team in Washington, until now. Here is the lead from George Minot, Jr’s story that appeared the following morning in what was then called the Washington Post Time Herald:
“The Potomac flowed with champagne, Robert E. Short lowered his admission prices, Ted Williams hugged the writers and the Washington Senators have their first winning season in the memory of many a man.” (Thanks to Dan Steinberg of the Post’s Washington Sports Bog and Amanda Comark of the Washington Times for this.)
Here is what Maye told me while in interviewed him for my book on the 1969 Washington Senators, “A Whole New Ballgame” (Pocol Press, 2009, Kindle Version, 2012, available at Amazon):
“I’ll tell you one thing, these guys didn’t play like losers. The played super baseball. I’ll never forget that year. They weren’t superstars, except for maybe Frank Howard, but they played together well. To end up 10 games over .500 was the greatest thing to happen in a long time in Washington.”
Sadly, Maye and some other people who gave much of their lives to baseball in Washington — gentlemen like Ed Brinkman, Ed Stroud, and pitching coach Sid Hudson — did not live to see Washington’s next winner. Saddest of all, the club’s radio broadcaster, Ron Menchine, a fine gentleman who became a good friend, also passed away before he could enjoy this moment. If you knew Ron, he would have bought free drinks for everyone at Nationals Park today so filled with joy he would have been.
On a personal note, my father passed away in 1995, a decade too soon to see baseball’s return to Washington. He took me to my first baseball game in that magical season of 1969 and I very much wanted to share this moment with him.
Current Nationals fans and Davey Johnson’s wonderful team, blessedly not laden with this past emotional baggage, have much greater aspirations for the 2012 season. And well they should. The season is still young and they are playing excellent baseball.
Nevertheless, I rejoice in this moment, one I thought might never arrive. I literally shook as I listened on the radio to Tyler Clippard‘s heart-stopping save. When he struck out the final batter, I yelled so loudly my 9-year old son and his friend came running into the room to see if I was OK. My voice was one of greatly delayed, gratifying joy as literally a generation of waiting ended.
Doubtless many folks will find my joy in a mere winning season puzzling. Trust me, for myself and all the other 9-year old boys who watched with tear-streaked faces as their baseball team left them, perhaps never to return, this moment is one we will add to the treasure chest of our best baseball memories.