Tuesday, September 4, 2012

How Long It's Been: Washington, D.C. Had a Baseball Team with a Winning Record

On September 26,  1969, the Washington Senators defeated the Cleveland Indians, 4-1, at what had been known as District of Columbia Stadium, but, earlier in the year, in memory of the assassinated Presidential candidate, Senator from New York, U.S. Attorney General and brother of an assassinated President, was renamed Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.

The winning pitcher was Joe Coleman, a pretty good fastball pitcher in his day.  The losing pitcher was former Yankee Stan Williams.

Names you might recognize from the Senators are Frank Howard, Del Unser, Mike Epstein (who was nicknamed "Super Jew," and I'm not sure if that's a compliment or bigotry) and Ed Brinkman – the guy the scouts were looking for when they discovered his high school teammate, Pete Rose.

And Lee Maye, who hit a home run in this game, and had played on the Milwaukee Braves teams of the late 1950s, and even sang on a couple of hit records at the same time – but should not be confused with the better-hitting Lee May. (Nor should Lee Maye be confused with Willie Mays, although they were both from Alabama and both wore Number 24.) Their manager was legendary hitter Ted Williams.

Names you might recognize from the Indians are Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, future Yankee coach Jose Cardenal, Duke Sims (who would go on to hit the last home run in the pre-renovation original Yankee Stadium), and Richie Scheinblum, who, a year later, would say of his team, "They ought to change our name to the Cleveland Utility Company. All we have are utility players."

And Tony Horton, a good ballplayer, but a deeply troubled young man who, the next season, would attempt suicide, quit baseball, recover, and live a normal life working in the telecommunications industry – but he has never returned to baseball, not even for an Old-Timers' Day.

Their manager was Alvin Dark, who helped the Giants win Pennants as a player in New York and manager in San Francisco, and would go on to head across the Bay and win a World Series with Oakland.

The attendance was 6,727. Nope, that’s not a misprint: Six thousand, seven hundred and twenty-seven. RFK Stadium seated about 45,000 for baseball. This is one of the reasons that the Senators would move to the Dallas area after the 1971 season, and become the Texas Rangers: They never had good attendance.

What is the significance of this game? It was the Senators' 82nd win of the season, guaranteeing that, for the 1st time in 24 years, a Washington baseball team would finish with a record better than .500.

It just happened again, yesterday, September 3, 2012, with a 2-1 Washington Nationals victory over the Chicago Cubs at Nationals Park. It was the 1st time in 43 years, and just the 2nd time in 67 years.  Two-thirds of a century.

It hadn't happened since September 26, 1969. How long has that been?


These 43 years include almost the entire existence of the Montreal Expos, who began in April of that year, and moved to Washington after the 2004 season. The Nationals played the 2005, '06 and '07 seasons at RFK before opening Nationals Park, which has now hosted its 1st Playoff-qualifying season.

The San Diego Padres also began play that season, although, as with the Milwaukee Brewers and the Los Angeles Angels, there had previously been a minor-league team with the name. Also beginning play were the Kansas City Royals and the Seattle Pilots, but the Pilots flopped and, with their finances a mess, were sold to used-car dealer Bud Selig, who moved them to his hometown, and they adopted the Milwaukee Brewers name.

RFK Stadium still stands, but it is no longer the home of Washington baseball or football. It still serves as the home of the local soccer team, D.C. United. Of the 24 ballparks used by Major League Baseball teams that year, only 9 still stand, and only 5 are still in use by the teams then using them: Fenway Park in Boston, Wrigley Field in Chicago, Dodger Stadium and Angel Stadium in the Los Angeles area, and the Oakland Coliseum.

Still standing but no longer being used by an MLB team: The aforementioned RFK Stadium, San Diego Stadium (now Qualcomm Stadium and still the home of the NFL's Chargers), Candlestick Park (still the home of the NFL's San Francisco 49ers) and the Astrodome in Houston (dormant, its future uncertain).

The only NFL teams still in the same stadiums they were in for the 1969 season are the Chargers, the 49ers, the Raiders (who left Oakland and returned), and the Green Bay Packers (Lambeau Field).  From the NBA and the NHL combined, only one arena remains from the 1969-70 season that was about to begin: Madison Square Garden in New York, then billed as "the New Madison Square Garden Center," but now older than the "Old Garden" that it replaced.

Washington hadn't had an NBA team since the Capitols went bust in 1951, after firing their coach, Red Auerbach. He then became the head coach of the Boston Celtics; at this point in 1969, the Celts had won 11 of the last 13 NBA Titles, making Red's firing by the Capitols perhaps the dumbest transaction in NBA history.

The District of Columbia and its metropolitan area would get back into the NBA in 1973, when the Baltimore Bullets moved down Interstate 95, and changed their name to the Washington Wizards in 1997. The D.C. area would not have a major league hockey team until the Capitals arrived in 1974.

The biggest problem for Washington baseball was just up I-95: The Baltimore Orioles, who had become a Pennant contender in 1960, and a World Champion in 1966, and were on their way to winning 109 games in this 1969 season – but would be shocked in the World Series by the New York Mets, who clinched the 1st National League Eastern Division title, in this 1st year of divisional play, 2 days before the Senators clinched their winning season. The Yankees? They were barely a .500 team in this, their 1st season without Mickey Mantle since 1950.

Major League Baseball celebrated the 100th Anniversary of professional baseball, with, among other things, an all-time team that proclaimed Babe Ruth "Baseball's Greatest Player Ever" and Joe DiMaggio "Baseball's Greatest Living Player." Also on their list of greatest living players, but like Joe D no longer living in 2012, were George Sisler, Charlie Gehringer, Joe Cronin, Pie Traynor, Ted Williams, Billy Dickey, Lefty Grove and Bob Feller.  The only ones still alive are Stan Musial and Willie Mays – Mays still being active in 1969.

The National Football League celebrated its 50th season (the next year would be its 50th Anniversary) with an all-time team, with members like Johnny Unitas, Marion Motley, Don Hutson, Leo Nomellini and Emlen Tunnell – then all still alive (Unitas still active), now all dead.

The NFL, in the process of being merged with the AFL, and had a combined total of 26 teams. As I said, there was a team in Baltimore, but it wasn't the Ravens. There was one in St. Louis, but it wasn't the Rams. There was one in Houston, but it wasn't the Texans. The Boston Patriots had yet to move out to the suburbs and become "the New England Patriots." The Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers, Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and Patriots had yet to win any World Championships. Between them, they have now won 24. 

Some of the NFL's founding fathers were not only still alive, but still involved: George Halas with the Chicago Bears, Art Rooney with the Steelers, and Dan Reeves with the Los Angeles Rams – no relation to the Cowboys running back of the same name, later to be head coach of the Broncos, Giants and Atlanta Falcons.

The defending World Champions in the 4 major sports were the Detroit Tigers in baseball, the New York Jets (believe it) in football, the Boston Celtics in basketball and the Montreal Canadiens in hockey. The Jets had actually won a title before the Knicks, who were now -- if you didn't count the American Basketball Association's New York Nets, out on Long Island -- the only New York team without a World Championship. But that would soon change. The Islanders and the Devils hadn't started play yet.

The... Ohio State University, led by Woody Hayes, were defending National Champions, but were about to be shocked by arch-rival Michigan, in their 1st season being coached by one of Woody’s former players and assistants, Bo Schembechler.

USC's arch-rivals, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), coached by John Wooden and led by Lew Alcindor (later to be Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Michael Warren (later to be Sgt. Bobby Hill on Hill Street Blues and Jessica Alba's father-in-law), had won their 3rd straight National Championship in basketball, going 88-2 in the process.

Lew had just been drafted by the Milwaukee Bucks, who got him because they finished tied with the Phoenix Suns with the worst record in the NBA in 1968-69 (each club's 1st season), and the tie was broken when… the Bucks won a coin toss. Unfair? Perhaps: The Bucks did get a title out of it, in 1971, but haven't won one since; the Suns have never won one, although, like the Bucks, they've usually been good since.

There was no official heavyweight champion of the world, as Muhammad Ali had been stripped of the title for refusing to be drafted, an unconstitutional measure that would take until October 30, 1974 to be rectified. Joe Frazier and Jimmy Ellis would soon fight in a "unification" bout to decide who was the official champion.

What were the defining baseball players of my childhood doing in September 1969? Reggie Jackson was wrapping up his 2nd full season, in which he hit 47 home runs. Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk had recently made their big-league debuts. Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan were helping the Mets to their Miracle – but, 20 days later, after it was completed, if you had bet then that neither one would ever win another World Championship, people would have laughed at you. (Of course, they also would have laughed if you had then bet that Ryan would win more games in the majors than Seaver.)

Pete Rose won his 2nd straight NL batting title, and his Cincinnati Reds teammate Johnny Bench had a pretty good season, but they hadn't yet won their 1st Pennant -- that would come the next season. Rod Carew was about to finish off his 1st AL batting title, and there would be 6 more. Carl Yastrzemski hit 40 home runs and drove in 111 runs, but his Red Sox had already changed significantly from their "Impossible Dream" Pennant team of 2 years earlier. Steve Carlton had recently set a new NL record with 19 strikeouts -- but still lost the game to the Mets. Willie Stargell had recently become the 1st player to hit a home run completely out of Dodger Stadium. Four years later, he would do it again.

Mike Schmidt was still playing at Ohio University (not to be confused with The… Ohio State University) and had yet to face a professional pitch. George Brett was still at El Segundo High School in Los Angeles County.

Of the 24 MLB teams then playing, all but one, the Chicago Cubs, was playing their home games in stadiums with permanent lights. Only one, the Houston Astros, was playing on an artificial turf field, and only the Astros were playing under a dome (retractable or otherwise). There was no designated hitter, and no regular season interleague play.

The current Washington team's manager, Davey Johnson, was then the 2nd baseman for the Orioles, was then usually called "Dave Johnson," and, though he didn't know it yet, would soon become involved in the Mets' 1st World Championship -- he made the last out of the World Series. He would also be involved in their 2nd: He was their manager.

Tom Coughlin of the Giants was starting his 1st coaching job, as a graduate assistant at his alma mater, Syracuse University. Terry Collins of the Mets was at Eastern Michigan University. Mike Woodson of the Knicks and John Tortorella of the Rangers were 11 years old. Rex Ryan of the Jets was 6, and his father, Buddy Ryan, was an assistant to Weeb Ewbank on the Super Bowl-winning Jets. Joe Girardi of the Yankees was about to turn 5. Avery Johnson of the Nets and Jack Capuano of the Islanders were 3. Peter DeBoer of the Devils was 1.

The Olympic Games have since been held in America 4 times, Canada 3 times, Japan twice, and once each in Germany, Austria, Russia, Bosnia, Korea, France, Spain, Norway, Australia, Greece, Italy, China and Britain. The World Cup has since been held in Mexico and Germany twice each, and once each in America, Argentina, Spain, Italy, France, Japan, Korea and South Africa.

Richard Nixon was President of the United States. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were still alive. So was the widow of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had died earlier in the year. Gerald Ford was the Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives. Jimmy Carter was a former State Senator in Georgia, about to run his second, much more successful, campaign for Governor. Ronald Reagan was in his first term as Governor of California.

George Herbert Walker Bush was a Congressman from Texas, and his son George had entered the Texas Air National Guard. Apparently, it was okay for him and his father to support the Vietnam War even if he didn't have to actually fight in it. Bill Clinton was at Oxford University on a Rhodes Scholarship, and Hillary Rodham was about to be named valedictorian at Wellesley College. Al Gore was in the U.S. Army in Vietnam, while Dan Quayle was in the Indiana National Guard. Guess which one supported the war, and which one didn't.

Joe Biden was about to be admitted to the Delaware bar, and was too old to be drafted. Mitt Romney had just gotten married, and had gotten a draft deferment as a Mormon missionary. His father, George Romney, was President Nixon's Secretary of Housing & Urban Development. Dick Cheney and Newt Gingrich both had teaching deferments. Rudy Giuliani got a deferment as a law clerk. John McCain did not have a deferment, and the Navy pilot was a prisoner of war in Vietnam. John Boehner enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but was later discharged for medical reasons, and was now going to college. Jon Corzine was a new college graduate, and about to enlist in the Marine Corps. Barack Obama was not subject to the draft, being just 8 years old.

Washington, District of Columbia, had neither a Mayor nor a Governor. It had a President of the Board of Commissioners, and in 1969 that President was the aptly-named Walter E. Washington, the 1st black person to hold the post. In 1974, when the District was finally allowed to elect a Mayor and a City Council, Washington was elected. Subsequent Mayors – the notorious Marion Barry, Sharon Pratt Kelly, Anthony A. Williams, Adrian Fenty and the now-troubled Vincent Gray – have had to perform the services that both a Mayor of the City and a Governor of the State would do for that city of 618,000 people – more than the State of Wyoming, and a little less than Vermont.

The Governor of New York was Nelson Rockefeller, having made 3 unsuccessful runs for President. The Mayor of New York City was John Lindsay, who had just been denied renomination by the City’s Republican Party because of his poor handling of snow removal during the blizzard earlier in the year. But he would win a 2nd term as a 3rd-party nominee.

The Governor of New Jersey was Richard J. Hughes, about to wrap up his second term. Former Governor Robert B. Meyner would try to get the office back, but would fail, losing to South Jersey Congressman William T. Cahill.

The last Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1969 to still be on it was former football star Byron "Whizzer" White, in 1993. They are all dead now.

Hugh Carey was in Congress. Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Mario Cuomo were practicing law. Brendan Byrne was Essex County Prosecutor. Tom Kean was in the New Jersey Assembly, Harry Reid in Nevada's. Michael Bloomberg was a young stockbroker. 

Nancy Pelosi was about to move to San Francisco, where her brother-in-law was on the Board of Supervisors. Jim Florio was the assistant city attorney for Camden. Mitch McConnell was an assistant to the man whose job he would later hold, Senator Marlow Cook of Kentucky. George Pataki and Donald DiFrancesco were in law school. 

Christine Todd was about to join the Nixon Administration, working in the Office of Economic Opportunity. (There's a laugh: The future Christie Whitman working in the War On Poverty? That's like Jim McGreevey becoming a priest! Wait a minute... ) Richard Codey was in the family business: He was a funeral director. David Paterson was in high school. Barack Obama, Michelle Robinson (Obama), Eliot Spitzer, Andrew Cuomo, Jim McGreevey and Chris Christie were in grade school. Sarah Palin was in kindergarten -- unless she quit. Paul Ryan was not born yet.

There were then 25 Amendments to the Constitution. There was, as yet, no Environmental Protection Agency, Title IX or legalized abortion. The Stonewall Riot had happened just a few weeks before.

The United Nations' International Labour Organization was about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The Pope was Paul VI. Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, was teaching at the University of Regensburg in his native Germany.

Canada's Prime Minister was Pierre Trudeau. He was young (50), dashing and charismatic. It was as if John F. Kennedy was singing lead for the Beatles -- in French. Canada had just gotten the Expos, their 1st Major League Baseball team. And a group called The Guess Who had just become Canada’s biggest rock band ever (to that point). For the first time ever, Canada was hip. Especially if you were an American worrying about being drafted. 

Elizabeth II was Queen of England -- that still hasn't changed -- but she was just 43 years old. Britain's Prime Minister was Harold Wilson. 
There have since been 8 Presidents of the United States, 8 Prime Ministers of Britain and 4 Popes.

The English Football League season that had just begun would be won by Everton, the "other club" in Liverpool, and the FA Cup, for the 1st time, would be won by West London's Chelsea.  In the season that ended earlier in the year, the League was won by Leeds United, and the FA Cup was won by Manchester City, the defending League Champions, beating Leicester City 1-0 on a goal by Neil Young – no, not that Neil Young.

AC Milan, led by perhaps Italy's greatest player ever, Gianni Rivera, won their 2nd European Cup by beating Ajax Amsterdam, led by 21-year-old wunderkind Johan Cruijff. Ajax and their "Total Football" would be back, big-time. 

There were still living veterans of America's Indian Wars, the Mahdist War, the Boer War and the Spanish-American War. There were still living survivors of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, the competitors of the 1st modern Olympics of 1896, and the players of the 1st World Series of 1903.

Major novels of 1969 included The Godfather by Mario Puzo, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton, The French Lieutenant's Woman by John Fowles, Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth, Rich Man, Poor Man by Irwin Shaw, and The Seven Minutes by Irving Wallace (about a novel, of the same title, that was "the most banned book in history," containing a woman's thoughts during 7 minutes of sex).

Also published that year was Naked Came the Stranger by Peneleope Ashe. This was a name used for a composite of 24 authors, conspiring to see if a novel could be really, really bad, but still sell big if it had a lot of sex scenes in it. This was a truly late-Sixties kind of experiment – and, for better or for worse, it worked.

Stephen King was at the University of Maine, George R.R. Martin was at Northwestern University, and J.K. Rowling was 4 years old. No one had yet heard of John Rambo, Spenser: For Hire, George Smiley, The Punisher, Rocky Balboa, T.S. Garp, Arthur Dent, Jason Bourne, Hannibal Lecter, Celie Harris, Kinsey Millhone, Jack Ryan, Forrest Gump, John McClane, Alex Cross, Bridget Jones, Robert Langdon, Bella Swan, Lisbeth Salander or Katniss Everdeen.

Major non-fiction books included the career-launching memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, and the career-launching historical work Mary, Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser. 

Films out in late September 1969 included the "counterculture" "classic" Easy Rider (you'd think I would have liked it, but I hated it), the Westerns Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch, Woody Allen's directorial debut Take the Money and Run, Paul Mazursky's directorial debut Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Charlton Heston's poor take on football Number One, the Nicol Williamson version of Hamlet (with Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia and Anthony Hopkins as Claudius), and Elvis Presley's The Trouble with Girls (and How to Get Into It).

James Bond was about to be played by George Lazenby for the 1st and only time, in On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Adam West's TV version of Batman had recently been canceled. Superman was in his long interregnum after the death of George Reeves. The Doctor Who franchise was in the process of regenerating from Patrick Troughton to Jon Pertwee. Michael Douglas (in his 2nd movie) and Peter Strauss (in his 1st) were about to premiere in Hail, Hero! Douglas' future wife, Catherine Zeta-Jones, was born the day before, on September 25, 1969.

Television shows that debuted in the 1969-70 season included Room 222, Marcus Welby, M.D., Medical Center, The Brady Bunch, and kids' shows Sesame Street, H.R. Pufnstuf and Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? From Britain came the debuts of Monty Python's Flying Circus and The Benny Hill Show. Robert Kardashian was in law school, Bruce Jenner was playing college football in Iowa, Kristen Mary Houghton was about to turn 14, and none of them knew each other yet.

On September 26, 1969, The Beatles released what was, chronologically, their last album, Abbey Road. Psychedelia and bubblegum music peaked at around this time, and the Number 1 song in America was "Sugar, Sugar," by a group led by studio-session singer Ron Dante and labeled "The Archies," after the comic-book characters.

Elvis Presley had recently released From Elvis in Memphis, which included Mac Davis' "In the Ghetto," Burt Bacharach's "Any Day Now," and "Only the Strong Survive," which Jerry Butler had turned into a big hit (he'd written it with the rising Philadelphia-based geniuses Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff). By November 1, his song "Suspicious Minds" would be Number 1. Elvis was reminding everyone who was king around here anyway, and he was enjoying it. Woodstock had happened the month before -- but Altamont was coming.

"Suspicious Minds" was written by Mark James. He would also write Elvis' songs "Always On My Mind" and "Moody Blue"; hits for his boyhood friend from Houston, B.J. Thomas, including "Hooked On a Feeling" and "The Eyes of New York Woman"; and "Sunday Sunrise" by Brenda Lee. "Always On My Mind" would also be a hit for Willie Nelson and Pet Shop Boys.

Frank Sinatra had recently released "My Way." Bob Dylan had recently released Nashville Skyline. The Jackson 5 were about to hit it big. Michael was 11. Madonna was the same age, but wouldn't have a hit for another 13 years. Billy Joel's 1st band, The Hassles, had just released its 2nd album, but was about to break up. Bruce Springsteen had just formed a band named Child, which would become Steel Mill, and would evolve into The E Street Band. Elton John was about to release his 1st album. David Bowie had released "Space Oddity," but had yet to suggest the legend he was to become.

Inflation has been such that what $1.00 bought then, $6.24 would buy now. A U.S. postage stamp was 6 cents. A New York Subway token was 20 cents, but the city in question, Washington, wouldn't have a subway system until 1976. The average prices of a gallon of gas was 35 cents, a cup of coffee 42 cents, a McDonald's meal 79 cents (49 cents of that being the recently-introduced Big Mac), a movie ticket $1.20, a new car around $2,300, and a new house $28,100. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed that day at 824.18.

The tallest building in the world was the Empire State Building. There were artificial kidneys, but no artificial hearts. In the early fall of 1969, the first automatic teller machine (ATM) in America was installed in Rockville Centre, Long Island, New York. (Barclays Bank had introduced them in London 2 years earlier.) Credit cards were still a relatively new thing. Former heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano was killed in a plane crash. The Chicago Eight trial began. Colonel Moammar Khadafy overthrew King Idris of Libya. And 750,000 people demonstrated against the Vietnam War in Washington on Moratorium Day.

Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and golf legend Walter Hagen, and skating superstar Sonia Henie died. Brett Favre, and Rachel Hunter, and Gwen Stefani were born.

September 26, 1969. A Major League Baseball team based in Washington, D.C. clinched a winning season. Now, it has happened again, for the 1st time in 43 years.

Can they take it to the next level? It may depend on whether they let Stephen Strasburg pitch in the postseason.

(UPDATE: They didn't let Strasburg pitch. I wonder what they would now give to have let Strasburg pitch 1 inning of the 2012 National League Division Series. Specifically, the 9th inning of the deciding Game 5.)


Kent Larsen said...

"George Romney, was President Nixon’s Secretary of Transportation"

Small correction, George Romney was Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

Uncle Mike said...

I stand corrected. Nixon did appoint a Republican Governor to be his Secretary of Transportation, but it was John Volpe of Massachusetts -- not the father of a Governor of Massachusetts. I will make the correction in the post.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but Hillary Rodham (Clinton) was not the valedictorian at Wellesley. She was not at the top of her class, and, besides, the college has never named a valedictorian. You can, as they say, look it up.