Tuesday, September 25, 2012

How Long It's Been: A Washington Baseball Team Reached the Postseason

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, its last 1st-place finish, and its 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. It was 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 Leon "Goose" Goslin, Sam Rice, Henry "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 1st 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 in his Inaugural Address on March 4, 1933. 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 on December 5. 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 at a ballpark still in use in 2012, except for Fenway Park in Boston or Wrigley Field in Chicago, neither of which was considered all that special in 1933.

Nor could he see a major league game 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, Dolph Camilli of the Sacramento Senators (later the Solons), and Louis "Bobo" Newsom of the Los Angeles Angels.

In addition to San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Baltimore, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Houston, Atlanta, 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.

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 1st official NFL Championship Game.

The survival of the Eagles and the Steelers was assured because Pennsylvania finally legalized Sunday sports in 1933, but that was due less to the rise of pro football than it was to Connie Mack of the Athletics lobbying for it, since he desperately needed Sunday crowds. The labor movement was still working on making Saturday as well as Sunday a day of rest.

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, they were, competitively speaking, a Jewish equivalent to the all-black team that called Chicago home even if they had the New York-themed name. The Yankees were about to be dethroned as World Champions in baseball. The heavyweight champion of the world was the Italian giant Primo Carnera.

George Wright, a member of baseball's 1st 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 man who played in Major League Baseball 1933 is still alive in 2012.

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 in St. Louis – although, years later, when asked how he liked school, he said, "Closed."

The World Cup had only been held once, in Uruguay in 1930. It has since been held twice each in Italy, France, Mexico and Germany; and once each in America, Brazil, Switzerland, Sweden, Chile, England, Argentina, Spain, Japan, Korea and South Africa.

The Olympic Games have since been held in America 5 times; 3 times each in Germany, Italy, Japan and Canada; twice each in Britain, Norway, Australia, Austria, France; and once each in Switzerland, Finland, Mexico, Russia, Bosnia, Korea, Spain, Greece and China.

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 1st 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 a full term 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.

Speaking of States, there were 48 of them, with Alaska and Hawaii still being Territories. There were then 20 Amendments to the Constitution of the United States, though the 21st, repealing the 18th and ending Prohibition, was on its way to ratification.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation had recently become law, but there hadn't been a Civil Rights Act since 1875. There was no guarantee of a 40-hour or a 5-day work week, nor the right to collectively bargain, nor a right against child labor or enforced school prayer, nor Social Security, nor Medicare, nor Medicaid, nor an Environmental Protection Agency. Segregation was legal pretty much everywhere, and as for gay rights or reproductive freedom, dream on.

Canada's Prime Minister was Richard B. Bennett. His country rebelled against him as much as America did against Hoover: Just as a horse hitched up to a car to pull it because the owner could no longer afford gasoline was called a Hoover Wagon in America, it was called a Bennett Buggy in Canada.

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.

The Pope was Pius XI. The current Pope, Benedict XVI, then Joseph Ratzinger, was 6 years old and living outside Munich, in Nazi Germany. The Nobel Peace Prize was about to be awarded to Sir Norman Angell, a British journalist, a Member of Parliament, an author and a peace activist. There were still living veterans of the American Civil War, the French Intervention in Mexico, the Italian War of Independence, and the Crimean War. There have since been 13 Presidents of the United States, 4 British Monarchs and 7 Popes.

In 1933, the 1st 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 FairThe Private Life of Henry VIII became the 1st 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 Swedish 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.")

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. Artificial organs were not yet possible. Transplantation of organs was not possible. The distribution of antibiotics was not possible: If you got any kind of infection, you could easily die. There was no polio vaccine. There had been rockets, but, as yet, no space vehicles.

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.

J.R.R. Tolkein hadn't yet published any of his Middle Earth stories, nor had C.S. Lewis published anything about Narnia. Ian Fleming was reporting for Reuters. The Lone Ranger made his debut on radio. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, both 19, had a story about a bald, telepathic villain published in Science Fiction magazine, titled The Reign of the Superman. He looked and acted nothing like the heroic Superman they would later create -- more like his arch-enemy, Lex Luthor. Science fiction meant Buck Rogers in comic strips and on the radio, but Flash Gordon's debut in comics was still 4 months away.

No one had yet heard of Nick and Nora Charles, Nero Wolfe, Scarlett O'Hara, the Dead End Kids, Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Captain Marvel, the Flash, the Green Hornet, the Green Lantern, the Flash, Philip Marlowe, Tom Joad, Bigger Thomas, Lazarus Long, Mike Hammer, Big Brother, Lew Archer, Joe Friday, Holden Caulfield, Hari Seldon or Dean Moriarty. 

Big hit songs of 1933 included "Boulevard of Broken Dreams" by Ted Weems (definitely not to be confused with the Green Day song of the same title), "Easter Parade" by Marilyn Miller & Clifton Webb, "Inka Dinka Doo" by Jimmy Durante, "It's Only a Paper Moon" by Paul Whiteman, "I've Got the World on a String" by Cab Calloway, "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" by Roy Smeck, "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" by Gertrude Niesen, "Sophisticated Lady" by Duke Ellington, "Temptation" by Bing Crosby, "We're In the Money" by Ginger Rogers, and the weather-related songs "Heat Wave" and "Stormy Weather" by Ethel Waters.

Billie Holiday was discovered. Perry Como got his 1st singing job. Frank Sinatra had recently graduated from A.J. Demarest High School in Hoboken, New Jersey -- since replaced by Hoboken High School. Bill Haley was 8 years old, Chuck Berry 7, and Little Richard was 9 months old. Neither Elvis Presley, nor Bob Dylan, nor any of The Beatles had been born yet.

Inflation has been such that what $1.00 bought then, $17.53 would buy today. A U.S. postage stamp cost 3 cents, and a subway ride in New York was 5 cents. There wouldn't be a subway in the city in question, Washington, D.C., until 1976. The average price of a gallon of gas was 16 cents, a cup of coffee 12 cents, a burger and a soda 5 cents each, a movie ticket 10 cents, a new car $445, and a new house $5,750. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed that day at 97.56. No, that's not a misprint: Ninety-seven point five-six. It bottomed out at 41.22 on July 8, 1932, from a pre-Crash high of 381.17 on September 3, 1929.

The tallest building in the world was the Empire State Building, but it was only 2 years old. 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.

There were a few color movies, but most were still in black & white. Less than half of all American homes had telephones. There were "ship-to-shore" phones, connected by ham radio operators, but no car phones. Computers? Be serious. Alan Turing was still an undergraduate at King's College, Cambridge University. The parents of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee were small children, although both parents of "TimBL," Mary Lee Woods and Conway Berners-Lee, would also work on early computers. There were no credit cards or automatic teller machines.

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 and broadcaster 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.

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