Thursday, Sept. 30, 1971, began as a dismal, rainy day in Washington. Good weather for a funeral, not much good for baseball. Ron Menchine, the radio voice of the Washington Senators, remembers waking up that morning, seeing the rain and then making a wish about that night's game, the final home game of the final season for the Senators.
"I hope it keeps raining," he thought, "and they rain the damn thing out and I won't have to broadcast it."
His wish did not come true. The rain cleared out by the afternoon, and by evening about 14,000 people showed up at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. Owner Bob Short was home in Minnesota, sitting next to a squawk box, listening to the game on the radio. He had not come for the funeral because it was decided that it might be too dangerous for him.
It was a good decision.
Word of Short's plan to move the Senators to Texas, which began to surface in the dog days of the summer, was not viewed as a good decision by baseball fans in Washington. They had lost their team once before, in 1960, gotten it back, and now their beloved Nats were leaving again, not for Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, but for Arlington, a dinky, nowhere town between Dallas and Fort Worth with all the big-league stature of an anthill. The Senators were roadkill, creating a hole Washington is still trying to fill now by courting Major League Baseball for a new team. They were snuffed out by what the fans saw as an out-of-town owner on a greed trip.
Short, former chairman of the Democratic Party, the man who moved the NBA's Lakers from Minneapolis to Los Angeles (and didn't that turn out to be a pretty good decision?), saw it differently. The summer of 1971 was before baseball owners made multi-millions from TV contracts. Short depended on ticket revenue to run his team. The Senators, he said, were bleeding him dry.
"My dad loved Washington," said his son, Brian, 54, who now runs the Short family business. His late father "really had no choice but to move the team. You look back at sports owners in that era with the benefit of looking through the lens of today, and you see that the club had to support itself. . . . My dad ran a very successful trucking business, millions of dollars of which went to running that team."
Losing a professional sports team can be a body blow to a community's self-esteem. Washingtonians looked around at cities such as Boston and Philadelphia and New York and Chicago, which they certainly saw as no better than their home town, and those places had pro teams in every sport. They lived in a city filled with some of the most powerful people in the country, home to the most powerful person in the world, and yet they felt utterly powerless when it came to losing their baseball team to Arlington.
The summer of 1971 was an eventful one in Washington and the world. Richard M. Nixon was in the White House. A few weeks after the U.S. table tennis team was invited to Beijing, he began efforts to open the door to China by ending the U.S. trade embargo. In early May, police and National Guard units arrested about 12,000 Vietnam War protesters who gathered in Washington to attempt to shut down the government. In June, the New York Times and then The Washington Post published the Pentagon Papers. The voting age was lowered to 18 by the 26th Amendment.
The Senators began the season April 5 before 45,000 fans with no clue they were witnessing their last Opening Day. Nixon threw out the first pitch. The team was managed by Ted Williams, and its biggest star was Frank Howard, a giant of a man with a fierce stroke and a gentle soul.
"It was jampacked on Opening Day. Everything was great," said Charles Brotman, the Senators' public address announcer for every home opener from 1956 to 1971. "We had no idea it was going to be the grand finale."
Dick Bosman, the Opening Day starter, was the team's best pitcher and, like most of the players, loved playing and living in the Washington area. He met his wife here -- she's from Fairfax County -- and that's where they were living that final season.
As the spring and summer progressed, Short had discussions with the D.C. Armory Board about his lease at RFK Stadium. He told other American League owners that he had lost $3 million in the three seasons he had owned the Senators and needed a new lease to survive. He obtained a powerful negotiating hammer in early July, when owners said they would support moving the team to Texas. On July 4, Shirley Povich wrote in The Post that "Short's dealings with the Armory Board, viewed realistically, are now taking the form of negotiations by threat."
Unable to get a better deal on the stadium, Short said he'd sell the team for $12 million to anyone who wanted to keep it in Washington.
By early September, there was no buyer, and The Post, in a lamenting editorial, said no one could afford "Short's ridiculous price tag of $12 million." The paper said there was an urgent need for an individual or corporation -- the New York Yankees were owned by CBS then -- to step forward and save baseball in Washington. "That's where it stands right now," the editorial read, "with Mr. Short claiming that since there are no takers at his outrageous selling price, he has a right to pick up his team and take off."
Menchine, the broadcaster, said that once word leaked that Short was threatening to move the team, the season was "dismal."
On Sept. 21, the first day of autumn, owners met in Boston and approved the move to Texas. The announcement came late at night, just in time for the 11 o'clock news.
Bosman was watching with his wife, Pam, at their Fairfax home. "I turned to my wife and said, 'That's it, we're going.' "
The mood in the clubhouse the next day was grim. "It was like the whole team had been traded," he said.
The last game finally came, and Bosman was again the starting pitcher. He had a difficult time focusing on the Yankees.
"I was angry," he said. "I was resentful and I was angry. This was a place where it was my first major league club, my first major league ballpark. I met my wife and got married there. I was angry we were leaving."
As he warmed up, he could tell right away that the fans -- who were chanting and hanging obscene signs -- shared his emotions.
"I think all of us felt that way," he said. "I really had a hard time in that game. I had a hard time separating the emotions, and there was chaos in the stands, there was chaos in the field. I'll never forget it."
Menchine, who was working his dream job and had no intention of moving to Texas, had trouble calling the game that night. "Oh, man," he said, "it was a disaster. I did that game, and I am a pretty effervescent guy, but when I did that game I was pretty devastated because here I had waited all my life for this opportunity, and I was watching it slip away. I did the game in a monotone."
The Senators fell behind to the Yankees, staring up at a 5-1 score in the sixth inning. Bosman had given up home runs to Bobby Murcer, Roy White and Rusty Torres. But the Senators had one more comeback left in them. Howard hit his 26th homer of the year, and the Senators grabbed a 7-5 lead in the eighth inning.
Del Unser was in right field, having moved over from center late in the game. He noticed the fans gathering along the right field line. A few had run onto the field before the inning began and were cleared off when an announcement was made warning that the game would be forfeited if they didn't leave.
In the ninth inning, Murcer bounced back to the mound for the second out. And fans poured onto the field. They grabbed the bases, including home plate. They started digging up the mound and even ripped off pieces of the scoreboard.
Unser ran for the dugout. "I saw them going crazy, and I just hoped I could get to the dugout. It was basically you just grab your hat and run for it. It was a little broken-field running through the crowd, but nobody was after us, they were after souvenirs from the stadium."
Povich, witnessing the mini-riot from the press box, wrote: "The mad scene on the field, with the athletes of both teams taking refuge in their dugouts, brought the official announcement of Yankees 9, Senators 0, baseball's traditional forfeit count. . . . But by then the crowd mood was philosophical, 'So what?' Or more accurately, 'So what the hell?' The Senators were finished, even if the ballgame wasn't."