When the whole country was rooting for the Nationals


(By Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

Nice guy and perpetual D.C. baseball antagonist Will Leitch wrote a Sports on Earth piece this week attempting to determine which potential World Series champion would be the most compelling nationally. Of the 17 teams he included as legitimate contenders, he ranked Washington 12th. His reasoning:

After their playoff collapse in 2012, with young talent like Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg, technically speaking, the Nationals should be higher on this list. But this is still a relatively new fan base, and you need a little more history — a little more pain — than these guys have to crack the top 10.

This was a funny coincidence, because in the very same week, D.C. baseball writer Frederic J. Frommer — an AP reporter in real life — wrote a lengthy Politico Magazine piece on “The Last Time America Rooted for Washington.” Frommer argues that came in the 1924 World Series, which yielded Washington’s only World Series title, which seems to connote both history and pain, but whatever.

Frommer’s piece was adapted from his 2013 history of D.C. baseball, You Gotta Have Heart, but it continues an argument he’s made since March: that there are certain parallels between the 2014 Nats and the 1924 Senators. Here was Frommer, writing in Washingtonian in March:

Nats fans, history is on your side. In a sport in which numbers mean everything and “nine” has a special resonance, it’s been nine decades since Washington’s professional baseball team won the World Series. And it’s been 81 (nine times nine!) since DC took a league pennant, in 1933….

Under rookie manager Stanley “Bucky” Harris, the ’24 Nats were so successful that by September, the Washington Evening Star declared that DC baseball “no longer is a national game. It is a disease, a flaming epidemic.”…The 2014 campaign begins with another rookie skipper in Matt Williams, like Harris known for his hard-charging demeanor.

And so on. Sure enough, the team’s records have matched up fairly well. The 1924 Senators started 24-26, while the 2014 Nats started 25-25. After 93 games, the 1924 Senators were 51-40-2, while the 2014 Nats are 51-42.

Anyhow, with Leitch arguing that Washington’s story isn’t compelling, and Frommer appearing to argue it could be, let’s look at some of Frommer’s highlight’s from the 1924 campaign:

* It wasn’t just Washingtonians who were excited about the Senators as they battled the Yankees and Tigers for the pennant. Fans across the country rooted for the young underdogs from the nation’s capital. Many hoped that Walter Johnson, a nice guy who had pitched many years for mostly bad Washington teams, would finally get a chance to play in a World Series in the twilight of his career.

“There is more genuine interest in him than there is in a presidential election,” Will Rogers wrote in a syndicated column titled, “Everybody Is Pulling for Walter.”

* As the victories piled up, the prospect of the team’s first pennant had Washington in a state of crazed excitement. Baseball in D.C. had become a “Disease in Epidemic Form,” screamed a headline in the September 20 Washington Evening Star….

“There is no doubt as to the popularity of a Washington victory,” The New York Times wrote in an editorial. “All over the major league circuits the fans have been cheering for the Senators. In Boston the crowd stood up and cheered every time they scored.”

* President Calvin Coolidge sent a telegram to Bucky Harris. “Heartiest congratulations to you and your team for your great work in bringing Washington its first pennant,” the president said. “We of Washington are proud of you and behind you. On to the world’s championship.”

Even Ty Cobb jumped on the bandwagon….He said he was rooting for Washington to win the series. “They are imbued with the competitive spirit, and they’ll fight hard.”

On the train ride back to Washington from Boston, first baseman Joe Judge said the team tapped the national affection for inspiration. “We knew that the country wanted us to win, and that’s what helped to keep us fighting,” he said.

Read on for even more demonstrations of national interest and support. Also, here’s a quote from a Senators batboy after the the team clinched the pennant. It got cut from the Politico piece, but will certainly need to be replicated if anything cool happens in October.

“What’s all the fuss about?” the batboy told a newspaper reporter. “Goodnight, the time to shout was a month ago. Why, it was a cinch. We had that pennant all ironed out and properly creased with a special place built for it in my bat bag four weeks ago. The Giants? Say, you’re not kidding me, are you? If you’ve got any extra money and want to make a lot more, easy, see, soak it all on the Nats. They’re there, I tell you.”

You can almost see the dirt smudged across that little rascal’s wisecracking black-and-white Jazz Age face, see?

Dan Steinberg writes about all things DC sports at the DC Sports Bog.
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