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Nationals looking to overcome history of bad baseball in Washington, D.C.

Updated on September 17, 2012

I am in the nation’s capital this week. My wife is taking some classes for her job here in Washington, D.C., and I tagged along to take in the sights and for the chance, weather permitting, to watch the Nationals and Dodgers play.

The Nationals this season are an anomaly in Washington’s baseball history. By that I mean, of course, that they are winning. I will write a bit more about them in a few days, but thinking about their success got me thinking about Washington baseball in the past.

Original Nationals suffered through many awful seasons

Prior to this season, there had been 78 seasons of baseball played in the capital city by three different teams. The first of the three, the Washington Senators, spent the longest time here, 60 years, from 1901-60. For most of that time, from 1905-55, they officially were the Washington Nationals but few people acknowledged that and referred to them as the Senators. After the 1960 season they fled to Minnesota and became the Twins.

During those 60 years, the Senators were 4223-4864, a .465 winning percentage. They won one World Series – 1924 over the New York Giants – and won two other AL pennants, in 1925 when they lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series, and in 1933 when they lost to the Giants.

In those 60 years they rarely were a good team and often were awful. They enjoyed only 19 winning seasons (only four after 1936) and finished in top three 12 times (none after 1945). They finished last only 10 times but finished in the bottom three 33 times.

New Senators played even worse

Not wanting the nation’s capital to be without a team after the Senators moved to Minnesota, the American League awarded an expansion franchise to Washington. The new team appropriated the name Senators and played here for 11 years. After 1971 they fled to Texas and became the Rangers.

In their 11 seasons as the new Senators, they compiled a 740-1032 record (.418). They were last three times and in the bottom three eight times in those 11 seasons. Their only winning record came in 1969 when Ted Williams was their manager.

78 years of mostly bad baseball in nation's capital

That left Washington, D.C., without a baseball team for 33 years until Major League baseball moved the Montreal Expos to the city for the 2005 season. They took on the moniker Nationals. In their seven seasons prior to this year, the Nationals were 492-640 (.435). They finished last in the division five times and the closest they came to a winning record was finishing .500 in their initial season.

In case you haven’t been adding the totals as you’ve gone along, in the 78 years of Washington baseball prior to 2012, the teams have compiled a 5455-6536 record, a .455 winning percentage. The average season record for a baseball team in Washington was 70-84, although in many seasons 70 wins was a pipe dream.

So obviously, Washington baseball has usually not been a pleasure to watch. In the 1950s Washington, D.C.’s unofficial slogan became “First in war, first in peace, last in the American League.”

One of the classic plays of all time, Damn Yankees, plays on this. Based on the book The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant, the play is about a hapless Senators fan named Joe Boyd who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for becoming superstar Joe Hardy, who leads Washington to the World Series.

Great players have played for Washington

It’s not like Washington was bereft of great players all those years. Arguably the best righthanded pitcher of all time, Walter Johnson, pitched his entire career for the Senators. His won-loss record was 417-279, a .599 winning percentage. He was the winning pitcher in 9.8 percent of all the games the original Washington Senators won. On a better team, he might have won close to 500 games.

During most of Johnson’s years the Senators had an outfielder named Sam Rice, also a member of the Hall of Fame. His story is worth reading about. If not for a tragedy he might have never played baseball. A farmer in Illinois, Rice was away playing semi-pro ball when a tornado struck his family farm, killing his wife, two children, his parents and siblings. After that he joined the Navy, where his pitching caught the eye of a minor league team, which eventually led him to the Senators. He gave up pitching to become an outfielder and, after his first full season, left to fight in World War I.

Rice was 29 before his career really began. He was a prolific hitter and probably the best “old” hitter of all time. At age 38 he had 202 hits, the next year 199 and the following season, at age 40, rapped out 207. He retired with 2,987 hits. It seems impossible to think someone would quit 13 shy of 3,000, but at the time 3,000 was not considered the magical number it is today.

Other notable players in Washington history were Goose Goslin, another Hall of Famer; Firpo Marberry, one of the games first closers; Joe Cronin, a Hall of Fame shortstop, manager and later president of the American League; first baseman Mickey Vernon, who led the league in doubles three times and won a batting title; third baseman Ed Yost, who drew more than 100 walks eight times in his career; pitcher General Crowder, who won 50 games in 1932 and ’33; Camilo Pascual, the winning pitcher in 17 of the Senators’ 63 wins in 1959; and Roy Sievers, who led the league in homers and RBIs in 1957.

In their final years in Washington, the Senators also had a promising young slugger named Harmon Killebrew, who gained much more fame once the team moved to Minnesota.

The new Senators had a few good players as well, most notably Frank Howard (The Capital Punisher), who twice led the league in homers and once in RBIs.

Something wrong with Washington?

Perhaps there is something about Washington, D.C., that doesn’t lend itself to good baseball. Two years after leaving Washington for Minnesota, the same team that had finished last three of its final four seasons in the nation’s capital, finished second in the league. Perhaps they would have in Washington as well since they already had young talent like Killebrew and Jim Kaat coming up through their system.

After 11 awful seasons in Washington, the new Rangers team finished second three years after moving to the West division. By then only two starters remained from the Senators days, and a couple of emerging stars and the addition of Fergie Jenkins helped a lot.

Best team since 1933

Maybe the Nationals will change how baseball is viewed in Washington, D.C. If they win one more game, they’ll become just the ninth Washington team to win 90 games and the first since 1933. No Washington team has ever won 100 games in a season. If they reach the playoffs, they’ll make the first post-season appearance by a Washington team since 1933. So what they’re doing this year is a pretty big deal, not just for their team but for an entire city.

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