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    A Vanished Team's
    Dream Season

    By William Gildea
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Monday, March 29, 1999; Page A1

    The Washington Post Century

        Griffith Stadium
    Washington Senator Muddy Ruel sprints home in the 12th inning of Game 7 to win the 1924 World Series at Griffith Stadium. (Photo Courtesy of Henry W. Thomas)

    The sun had begun its descent on a perfect autumn afternoon 75 years ago as a tense overflow crowd of more than 31,000 stood in Washington's Griffith Stadium and cheered. It was the seventh and deciding game of the Washington Senators' first World Series. They were up against the powerful New York Giants. With the score tied at 3 in the bottom half of the 12th inning, Earl McNeely stepped into the batter's box with one out and runners on first and second.

    Even "Silent Cal" cheered. President Coolidge, wearing a gray fedora, and his wife, Grace, who enjoyed filling in her scorecard with every play, urged McNeely on as he waved his bat across the plate awaiting the first pitch. If McNeely could drive in the winning run, he would deliver Washington its greatest sports triumph. He would also hand the pitching victory to the beloved Walter Johnson, who in the twilight of his fabled career had pitched four innings of emergency relief as the crowd chanted "Walter, Walter, Walter ... "

    McNeely fouled off the first pitch from the Giants' Jack Bentley, a native of nearby Sandy Spring. The crowd in the little green ballpark on Georgia Avenue exhaled as one. Bentley paused, then fired again. McNeely's bat met the ball sharply, but it bounced directly toward Giants third baseman Fred Lindstrom – it looked like an inning-ending double play or at least a sure out.

    Then, without warning, the ball shot high into the air ...

    Washington has been devoid of a baseball team since 1971, when owner Robert Short departed RFK Stadium and moved the expansion version of the Senators to Texas. Calvin Griffith moved the original Senators to Minnesota after the 1960 season. Today a person can walk around what was Griffith Stadium's perimeter – bounded, roughly, by Georgia Avenue and U, 5th and W streets – and find no evidence of the diamond gem that was home to the Senators from 1911 to 1961. Howard University Hospital occupies much of the ground.

    But the area's dream of having another major league team has never died. Only last month D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams declared that baseball is "part of the comeback of center cities" as he joined an effort to attract a team to the District and to build a ballpark. But the attempt faces several obstacles, such as assembling an investor group that would gain the confidence of Major League Baseball.

    The old Senators were also-rans so often they gave birth to the adage that Washington was "first in war, first in peace and last in the American League."

    Even in the spring of 1924, virtually no one imagined that the Senators – then referred to as the Nationals, or Nats – would win their first pennant by displacing the Babe Ruth-led New York Yankees. Not until Feb. 9, as spring training neared, did Senators owner Clark Griffith even decide on a manager to lead basically the same team that finished fourth in the eight-team league in 1923, 23½ games behind the Yankees. Finally, Griffith offered the job of player-manager to his 27-year-old second baseman, Stanley "Bucky" Harris. Momentarily stunned, Harris accepted and vowed that the team would win the pennant.

    Young Harris's confident managing style, the 36-year-old Johnson's return to effectiveness with a 23-7 record to win the league's most valuable player award and the emergence of Fred Marberry, baseball's first relief ace, contributed to Washington's reversal of form. "Washington got hot quicker than almost any club I ever saw," Babe Ruth and his co-author Bob Considine wrote in the 1948 book "The Babe Ruth Story."

    As the season progressed, large crowds began to assemble at Union Station to welcome their heroes home from road trips: 3,000 one time, 8,000 another. In his 1995 biography, "Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train," Henry W. Thomas wrote of the day in early September that Coolidge invited the players to the White House to congratulate them on the season: "Still mourning the sudden death of his 16-year-old son from blood poisoning two months earlier, Coolidge told the team it would give him great pleasure to attend the World Series and root for them."

    Coolidge, who had succeeded Warren Harding after his death Aug. 2, 1923, was slightly premature; the Senators had yet to win the pennant. But they had much of the country rooting for them because of Johnson, a humble man from Kansas with a blazing fastball who had joined the Senators in 1907 and from 1910 through 1919 averaged more than 26 victories a season.

    "There is more genuine interest in him than there is in a presidential election," Will Rogers wrote in a syndicated column entitled "Everybody is pulling for Walter," published in late September. On Sept. 29, the Senators clinched the pennant with a victory in Boston.

    Two days later, an estimated 100,000 welcomed the triumphant team at a parade from the Capitol to the White House. Coolidge presented manager Harris with a silver loving cup and told the players that "by bringing the baseball pennant to Washington you have made the National Capital more truly the center of worthy and honorable national aspirations."

    The crush for World Series tickets resulted in all-night lines at the ballpark. Seats cost as little as $1.10 at a time when fine men's suits sold for $45 and a lovely home in upper Northwest was priced at $10,500. But countless fans were disappointed when tickets sold out before they reached the windows; Shirley Povich wrote in The Washington Post that "a 12-year-old boy was the first victim of the shutdown, and it was with hung head that he finally moved away." Some paid scalpers an unheard-of $50 for a ticket.

    Many listened to the games on the radio because WRC had become Washington's first station on Aug. 1. The play-by-play account blared from three "radio horns" erected at the Rock Creek Park public golf course. Still other fans gathered on sidewalks to watch the posting of runs every half inning on scoreboards affixed to buildings; the scoreboard operators got their information via Western Union. The Post building on E Street featured a magnetic board with a baseball diamond and markers for base runners that were moved to simulate the action at the park.

    The Series opened Oct. 4 at Griffith Stadium with a pregame ceremony at home plate. Walter Johnson was presented a seven-passenger Lincoln "touring car," at $8,000 the most expensive made in the United States. The car had been paid for by fans, including Coolidge, who wrote a $10 check.

    But Johnson lost Game 1, 4-3, despite pitching all 12 innings. Washingtonians were saddened, but the Senators rebounded to win Game 2 by the same score. The Series then shifted to New York's Polo Grounds. The Giants won Game 3, 6-4, but the Senators took Game 4 with a 7-4 victory. Game 5 went to the Giants, 6-2. Again, Johnson was charged with a loss. He seemed fated never to win a Series game.

    The teams returned to Washington, with the Giants leading in games 3-2 and the Senators needing to win Games 6 and 7. Game 6 turned out to be a 2-1 pitchers' duel that Washington won, tying the series. A decisive Game 7 was set.

    Harris employed some unusual managerial strategy. The so-called "Boy Wonder" had noticed that John McGraw, the most famous manager of the era, did not play his young left-handed-hitting first baseman Bill Terry against left-handed pitching. Harris sought a way to get Terry out of the Giants' lineup because he had hurt the Senators with six hits in the first six games. So Harris started a right-handed pitcher and McGraw started Terry at first base for the Giants. But after only one Giant was out in the first inning, Harris inserted a left-handed pitcher. As he had figured, McGraw took Terry out of the game and replaced him with a right-handed hitter. And since Terry had been in the game, he couldn't be put back in later. (Had Harris started the left-hander, McGraw would have held out Terry, who then could have been a late-inning threat if Harris had to go to a right-handed relief pitcher.)

    Still, the Giants took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning. Then Harris, who had homered earlier, hit a bouncing ball toward third that hopped over Lindstrom's head to score two runs. By that stroke of fortune, the Senators forced extra innings. How many times would a sure-fire out bounce over the third baseman's head in such a crucial situation?

    The answer was twice!

    As Lindstrom awaited McNeely's 12th-inning bouncer with open glove, the ball again skipped high over his head, beyond his reach. The ball landed on the left-center field grass as Senators catcher Muddy Ruel ran hard from second base and charged around third. He scored without a throw from the outfield. It was 5:04 p.m., the game just more than three hours old. The Senators were world champions.

    The crowd surged over the low railings onto the field. Some of the players made it to their dugout only by fighting their way through the humanity on the field – a photo from the upper deck shows a sea of men's hats. Two policemen rescued McNeely after fans had engulfed him and torn his uniform shirt. As they passed through the tunnel, "the Coolidges ran into the objects of the mob's passion, Walter Johnson and several other Nationals," according to Thomas's biography of Johnson. "The president and first lady shook hands with the pitcher and said how proud they were, while the president's secretary, Bascom Slemp, deliriously pounded Johnson on the back."

    Torn-up newspapers were thrown from the windows of office buildings in what The Washington Post described as "a snowstorm of victory." Trolleys could not get through the packed streets. "Every motorist from those who ride in big, shiny cars with the purring motors down to the humblest flivver, began a chorus of honking which grew in volume until late at night," The Post reported. The newspaper also said that some men "possibly forgetting themselves, embraced the nearest woman."

    McNeely was quoted as saying: "I didn't get but one hit but, boy, what it did mean. I know it was a lucky one, but ain't all hits lucky."

    Sportswriter Heywood Broun, in the next morning's New York World, felt no restraint: "I was never swept by the Easter story until I saw the seventh game of the World's Series. I have seen Osiris die in the darkness and come back from his cavern into the sunlight to conquer. Mithra, Adonis, Krishna, Atlas, Hercules – all these I take to be symbols of the human spirit, and so without incongruity I may add Walter Johnson to the list ... "

    Legend has it that the winning hit struck a pebble in front of Lindstrom – and that's the way the game always will be chronicled. On most lists of the greatest baseball games ever played, Game 7 of the 1924 Series ranks close to the top even though seven errors were committed. The Senators won two more pennants, in 1925 and 1933, but lost those World Series.

    Five members of the 1924 Washington team have been voted into the national baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.: Johnson, Harris, Goose Goslin, Sam Rice and the owner Clark Griffith. Having rooted for the Senators, Coolidge returned to the White House after Game 7 and issued a statement: " ... I do not recollect a more exciting world's series than that which has finished this afternoon."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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