Last Thursday, September 20, 2012, the Washington Nationals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, 4-1, at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
The winning pitcher was Ross Detwiler. The losing pitcher was Chris Capuano. Mark Ellis hit a home run for the Dodgers’ lone run; there were no homers for the Nats, but RBI doubles were hit by Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa. The attendance was 30,359 – hardly a sellout, but a good crowd by the standards of Washington baseball – and more than could have even fit in the ballpark the last time a Washington baseball team did what the Nats did that night: Clinch a spot in Major League Baseball’s postseason.
Griffith Stadium seated just 27,410 people for baseball. It was home to the “old Washington Senators,” the team that became the Minnesota Twins in 1961, from 1911 to 1960; the “new Washington Senators,” the team that became the Texas Rangers in 1972, in 1961 before they moved to District of Columbia Stadium (renamed Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in 1969); the NFL’s Washington Redskins from 1937 to 1960, when they moved into DC/RFK Stadium; and every Washington NFL team prior to the ‘Skins.
It was at Griffith Stadium that the Senators clinched Washington baseball’s last postseason berth, last first-place finish, and last Pennant, on September 21, 1933, a 2-1 win over the St. Louis Browns.
The Washington runs were scored on doubles by Luke Sewell and Joe Cronin. The winning pitcher was Walter “Lefty” Stewart – kind of fitting that, even with “Big Train” Johnson retired, the Senators would win the Pennant with a Walter on the mound. The losing pitcher was Irving “Bump” Hadley.
Names you might recognize from the Senators are future Hall-of-Famers Goose Goslin, Sam Rice, Heinie Manush, and their shortstop and manager, Cronin. There were no Hall-of-Famers on the Browns, who were, as they and the Senators both usually were, terrible. The most familiar name to Yankee Fans might be that of Hadley, the pitcher who, in 1937, would be pitching for the Yankees, and go well beyond his nickname, beaning another Hall of Fame player-manager, Mickey Cochrane of the Detroit Tigers, ending his playing career.
It is somewhat appropriate that the clincher was against the Browns: Since the Philadelphia Athletics (now in Oakland) had as many great seasons as horrible ones, it was the Senators and Browns that were best known for American League futility. George Washington was said to be “First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” For most of the old Senators’ existence, the line was, “Washington: First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.” While St. Louis, with its leather and brewing industries, was “First in shoes, first in booze, and last in the American League.” With the new Senators’ arrival, and the Vietnam War overshadowing the Capital in the late 1960s, Washington became “Last in war, last in peace, and last in the American League.” Then, in 1971, they were gone, and it took until 2005 for big-league ball to return.
September 21, 1933. Almost exactly 79 years since Washington clinched a postseason berth. The Nats will almost certainly win the National League Eastern Division. They have a shot at their first Pennant in 79 years. How long has that 79 years been?
Griffith Stadium is gone, demolished in 1965. The Howard University Hospital now stands on the site. Howard was established as “the Black Harvard,” the nation’s finest institution of higher learning for African-Americans. D.C. was already an increasingly black city, but it was segregated up until the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Such an Act was impossible to imagine in the 1930s, with Congressional committees controlled by Southern Democrats, who used their seniority to line their pockets, help their friends, and maintain “white supremacy.” When the Republicans had control of Congress, they did the same thing, but their opposition to racial progress was based less on prejudice – but not entirely, as the Ku Klux Klan’s peak years were in the GOP-controlled 1920s and the KKK was quite strong in GOP-controlled Midwestern States like Ohio, Indiana and Illinois – and more on the fact that they were so conservative, they didn’t think the federal government should do anything except protect national security (in other words, protect big business from Communism) and deliver the mail (and they probably thought the private sector could do even that better).
This is part of what brought on the Great Depression, which began with a stock market crash in 1929 and bottomed out earlier in 1933, just as the defeated Republican Herbert Hoover’s term as President ran out, and the Democratic victor Franklin Delano Roosevelt came in.
“The only thing we have to fear is… fear itself!” FDR proclaimed. Whether it was true or not, people began to believe it, because he seemed to believe it. And 1933 was a year of great activity in Washington, not just at the ballpark but in the halls of power, as FDR kicked his New Deal into gear. But by September 1933, there was still no Social Security, no federal minimum wage, no National Labor Relations Board, no Federal Housing Administration. And Prohibition wouldn’t end until the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, repealing the 18th Amendment, was ratified in December. In October 1929, Hoover had been cheered while attending the World Series by partisans enjoying the great economy that would end within days; in October 1930, he went back, and got hit with boos and a chant of “We want beer!” On Opening Day 1934, a baseball fan would once again be able to enjoy a beer at a ballgame.
He would not see black players, or dark-skinned Hispanic ones, or Asians. And he could not see a major league game south of Washington, Cincinnati or St. Louis, or west of St. Louis. Nor could he see one under a dome, or on artificial turf – the ideas would have been scientifically possible, but practically ludicrous, especially in the Depression. Nor, until May 1935, could he see a game at night, unless he wanted to try the minor leagues – or the Negro Leagues.
Negro League baseball might never have been better: Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Buck Leonard and Cool Papa Bell were all at or near their peak. Out West, the Pacific Coast League featured Joe DiMaggio of the San Francisco Seals (though just 18, he set a pro record that still stands with a 61-game hitting streak, foreshadowing the 56-game streak he would have in the majors), Harry “Cookie” Lavagetto of the Oakland Oaks, and Dolph Camilli of the Sacramento Senators (later the Solons).
Milwaukee, Baltimore, Kansas City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Houston, Atlanta, Oakland, Seattle, San Diego, Montreal, Dallas, Toronto, Denver, Miami, Phoenix and Tampa all featured minor league teams; they are all now in the majors. The 16 major league teams were spread across just 10 cities: New York had 3; Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis each had 2; Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Washington had 1. And only 2 ballparks then in use by a big-league team still stand, let alone get used: Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago – although, at that point, the idea that those 2 would be the last 2 still standing in 2012, and would be beloved ballparks, seemed very unlikely.
The National Football League was about to begin its 14th season, and had just 10 teams surviving the Depression: The Boston Redskins (moved to Washington in 1937), the Brooklyn Dodgers (folded in 1944), the Chicago Bears, the Chicago Cardinals (moved to St. Louis in 1960 and Arizona in 1988), the Cincinnati Reds (folded in 1934), the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles (their debut season), the Pittsburgh Pirates (also their debut season, became the Steelers in 1940), and the Portsmouth Spartans (became the Detroit Lions the next season). The Giants and Bears would win their respective divisions, and the Bears would beat the Giants 23-21 at Wrigley Field in the first official NFL Championship Game.
The National Hockey League had 8 teams. The Montreal Maroons would fold in 1938, and the New York Americans in 1942. The New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup, defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in a reverse of the previous year’s final. There were also the Montreal Canadiens, the Boston Bruins, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings. There was professional basketball, but the NBA was still years away. The only pro team from 1933 still continuously operating today is the Golden State Warriors – formerly the San Francisco Warriors, the Philadelphia Warriors, and the Philadelphia Sphas, sponsored by the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. The Harlem Globetrotters existed, and, while the Sphas didn’t do tricks like the Globies did, competitively speaking they were a Jewish equivalent to the all-black team that called Chicago home even if they had the New York-themed name. The heavyweight champion of the world was the Italian giant Primo Carnera.
George Wright, a member of baseball’s first openly professional team, the 1869-70 Cincinnati Red Stockings, was still alive. The leading active players in 1933, aside from those Senators mentioned, included 1920s holdovers Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, Bill Terry, Gabby Hartnett, Hack Wilson, Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Pie Traynor. They also included relatively new arrivals such as Red Ruffing, Lefty Gomez, Carl Hubbell, Luke Appling, Chuck Klein, Joe Medwick, Dizzy Dean, Wes Ferrell, Mel Harder and Hank Greenberg. Not one of these men is still alive.
Nor were the defining baseball players of my childhood yet born: Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Pete Rose, Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Mike Schmidt and George Brett. Indeed, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Ernie Banks and Harmon Killebrew were not born yet, and Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were toddlers. Yogi Berra was 8 years old and in grade school – although, years later, when asked how he liked school, he said, “Closed.”
As I said, FDR was President. Herbert Hoover was still alive – and, while he was already director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar Hoover (no relation) was not yet nationally known, which would change big-time over the next year. Calvin Coolidge had died earlier in the year. His widow, and those of Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson, were all still alive.
Harry Truman was a County Judge – although, in New York and New Jersey, we would call his position “Freeholder.” Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Major in the U.S. Army – he ended up being “stuck” at that rank for 16 years – and was chief aide to General Douglas MacArthur, who was then the U.S. Army’s Chief of Staff. This position, which “Ike” would one day hold himself, is essentially what we would now call the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. MacArthur, eventually outranked by Eisenhower, would call him “the best clerk I ever had.”
John F. Kennedy was a student at the Choate School in Wallingford, Connecticut. Lyndon Johnson was chief aide to Congressman Richard Kleberg. Richard Nixon was at Whittier College, Gerald Ford was at the University of Michigan, and Ronald Reagan was starting his radio announcing career. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were in grade school, and Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama were not born yet.
The Governor of New York was Herbert Lehman, the first Jewish Governor of the State, who had been Lieutenant Governor under FDR. The Mayor of New York City was John P. O’Brien, who had won a special election following the resignation of Jimmy Walker. He was about to be defeated for that office by the man Walker had defeated in 1929, Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia. The Governor of New Jersey was A. Harry Moore. In Washington, the city of the team in question, there was no elected Mayor or Governor – and there is still no Governor, as the District of Columbia is not a State.
Radio was the dominant form of home entertainment in the fall of 1933. Television was in its infancy, and most people hadn’t even heard of it yet. Computers were still a pipe dream. Antibotics were still being developed; most people, if they got any kind of infection, were soon to die.
Trains were still the main method of getting around from one city to another. While pilots such as Charles Lindbergh (against his will), Amelia Earhart and Wiley Post were among the most famous people in the world, most people were not yet ready to get in an airplane, even if they could afford the fare. When FDR flew from New York to the Democratic Convention in Chicago the year before, it was considered a daredevil stunt.
In 1933, the first drive-in movie theater opened, in Camden, New Jersey. The big films of the year were King Kong, 42nd Street, Dinner at Eight, the Katherine Hepburn version of Little Women, and the Janet Gaynor version of State Fair. The Private Life of Henry VIII became the first British film to win an Academy Award, and Charles Laughton’s portrayal of the Tudor monarch, even more so than the familiar Hans Holbein portrait of the big fat much-married king, became the most familiar image of one of Europe’s most legendary monarchs.
Greta Garbo also played a scandalous monarch, the 17th Century Swedeish Queen Christina. Mae West milked the days before the Hays Code had any teeth for all they were worth, in She Done Him Wrong. A 19-year-old Austrian actress named Hedy Kiesler would shock audiences around the world with a nude scene in Ecstacy; a year later, the Hays Code began to be strictly enforced, and, while she never did another nude scene, she did stay famous, under the name Hedy Lamarr. (No, that’s not “Hedley.”)
Major books of 1933 included The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett, Lost Horizon by James Hilton, God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell, Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (actually written by her lesbian lover Gertrude Stein), and the science-fiction epics The Shape of Things to Come by H.G. Wells and When Worlds Collide by Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie. Ulysses by James Joyce was found in court to not be obscene, paving the way for its legal publication in America.
Canada's Prime Minister was Richard B. Bennett. The monarch of the British Empire was King George V – the woman we now know as Queen Elizabeth II was a 7-year-old girl. North London club Arsenal won the Football League title, led by the great manager Herbert Chapman, defenders Eddie Hapgood and George Male, midfielders David Jack and Cliff Bastin, and forwards Bob John and Jack Lambert – not to be confused with the Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker of the same name. Liverpool-based Everton beat Manchester City in the FA Cup Final. Everton’s Captain and leading player was forward William Ralph “Dixie” Dean – definitely not to be confused with Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean. Playing for Manchester City in that game was Matt Busby, who would later lead crosstown Manchester United to national and European glory.
On September 21, 1933, the last time a Washington baseball team won a Pennant, FDR ordered the immediate purchase of "surplus foodstuffs and staples for distribution to the nation's needy" at a total cost of $75 million, to provide food and clothing for 3.5 million American families. The aforementioned Wiley Post crashed and was seriously injured in Quincy, Illinois. Mabel Smith Douglass, who had founded the New Jersey College for Women (later brought into the Rutgers University system and renamed Douglass College for her), disappeared after venturing out in a rowboat on New York's Lake Placid. Her capsized boat was found later, but Mrs. Douglass's body was not found until nearly 30 years later.
A day after the day in question, Nazi Germany created the Reich Chamber of Cutlure: All "creators of culture" were required to register as members of one of the subdivisions of the organization, such as the Reich Film Chamber, the Reich Theatre Chamber, or those for literature, music, radio, the fine arts and even for the press, in order to continue to have the privilege of continuing their cultural work. Non-Aryans were excluded from membership. Within days, Albert Einstein, having fled the Nazi regime, would arrive in Princeton, New Jersey, where he would work at Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Studies. A few days before, Leo Szilard got the idea for a controlled nuclear chain reaction.
In the fall of 1933, sportswriter Ring Lardner, and baseball legend “Turkey Mike” Donlin, and boxing contender William “Young” Stribling died (the last of these in a motorcycle crash). Actor David McCallum, and hockey coach Scotty Bowman, and basketball coach Hubie Brown were born.
September 21, 1933. A Major League Baseball team based in Washington, D.C. clinched a berth in the postseason. Now, it has happened again, for the first time in 79 years.
Can they take it to the next level? It may depend on whether they let Stephen Strasburg pitch in the postseason.