At 1 p.m. on Sept. 30, 1971, 61/2 hours before the Washington Senators were to play their last game, RFK Stadium looked as empty as it would every day for the next 33 years when baseball might have been played there. From the top step of the home dugout, not a single individual could be seen. Not anywhere. Wait! A lone figure sat high above home plate in the top row of the top deck, too distant to identify. It turned out to be Joe Grzenda, a 34-year-old left-handed relief pitcher for the Senators. He sat in the sunlight with his elbows on his knees, his chin cupped in his hands, surveying the terrain of his heart. He felt like someone watching a train pull away with a loved one aboard. Grzenda loved the Senators. He loved Washington.
"I don't want to leave this place," he said, looking down at all the seats, then painted green or tan. "This year has been the best I've had. It's been like a beginning for me."
As it happened, Grzenda's time with the Senators was not quite over. That evening, as the moment he dreaded approached when the franchise in Washington would die, fate -- and the managerial hand wave of Ted Williams -- thrust him from the bullpen's dark corner to the spotlight of the mound. He was called in to pitch the ninth inning and hold the Senators' 7-5 lead over the New York Yankees. Jogging in across the field, he felt buoyed not by his chance for a save but simply the opportunity to salvage a small satisfaction from the most heart-rending day of an itinerant professional career in which he played for 18 teams in 20 years.
He got Felipe Alou to ground out. Bobby Murcer hit a sharp one-hopper to the mound, and Grzenda threw him out. A fast worker, he shouted to Horace Clarke to step into the batter's box. "I hollered, 'C'mon, let's go, get in there.' " With that, hundreds from the stands rushed crazily onto the field. Grzenda turned and saw them coming. He had thrown the last pitch in Senators history.
As a big, bearded man barreled toward him, Grzenda grabbed his red cap and wondered what was going to happen to him. "Was he going to tackle me? I didn't know." But all the man did was run up to him and touch him on the shoulder, "touched me, just like that." In what looked from above like a kaleidoscope of chaos, players scurried to safety as people pulled up the bases and grass, and at least three jumped on big Frank Howard's back, and others ran aimlessly. The game was forfeited. The Senators' last season was over.
An hour or so later, Grzenda found his wife Ruth and two children, Joe Jr. and Donna Marie, and together they made their way to their car in the stadium parking lot. The 11-year-old boy, his favorite team taken from him, wept in the back seat. The father still felt his heart beating fast from a ninth inning he could never have imagined. Then, like leaving home for the last time, he pulled out of the lot and, sadly, silently, drove into the night in his Pontiac Bonneville.
Fast forward 33 years. Joe Grzenda's home now is where it was then, a modest split-level at the edge of the woods in the northern foothills of the Pocono Mountains.
Yes, he still had the ball, the last ball used in a Washington Senators game.
"Sure," he said, "I've got it in a drawer."
He went to his bedroom to get it. Grzenda was thin as a pitcher, 6 feet 3, 175 pounds. He had dark hair with sideburns typical of the time. At 67, he is heavier. He has thinning white hair. He returned to the living room with an 8x10 rumpled Manila envelope. "I don't know when I opened this last," he said as the ball rolled out of the bag and into the palm of his pitching hand. He smiled as he tossed it gently into the air. The ball felt good to him. It was in perfect condition, an artifact from a long gone era: an American League baseball carrying the signature of Joe Cronin, then league president, a Spaulding ball made in the USA.
"That's it," he said. "That's real. It's been in that drawer for 33 years."
During his best season, the Senators' final one, Grzenda had a 5-2 record in relief, a 1.92 earned run average and five saves for a team with a record of 63-96. "I liked pitching in Washington," he said. "The ball didn't travel real well there. It was always very humid. Heavy air. I liked the place." He wore uniform No. 31. He earned $22,000.
It wasn't much money, yet after finishing his big league days with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1972, he made far less in his final two seasons, with Syracuse and Richmond in the Class AAA International League. By then, he was almost 38. "But I could still throw good," he said. "It was a matter of making enough money to survive. That was the reason I got out. I couldn't afford to play."
Nor could he afford to accept an offer from the Yankees to be a minor league pitching coach in West Haven, Conn., because he found the cost of living there too high for the paltry sum they would pay him. And so he went back home to northeastern Pennsylvania, where he once had been a Moosic High School fastballer likened to Herb Score, and took a job as a security guard at a vacant building in Dunmore, Pa. When a company that made auto batteries eventually moved into the building, he went to work there starting at $4 an hour. He helped make batteries for 25 years, dropping off the baseball map.
He might have become a well-known pitching coach because he had accumulated so much knowledge over 20 seasons, eight of them in the majors, two with Washington. But as he explained, he got all he needed out of baseball, the pure joy of playing. If he never made big money, he earned respect for persevering despite setbacks and for the way he led his life.
He battled back mostly on guile after injuring his left elbow trying to break off a fast curveball early in his career. The elbow hurt, "deep down in here," he said, "an ache, and it got worse and worse, not better, and that's where I had to learn how to pitch."
He was sent all the way down to Victoria, Tex., where from his deepest obscurity he began to heal and struggled to make progress. He labored through four seasons before the arm felt right. He never had it easy in baseball. But he learned a lot.
Much later, Billy Martin, who had managed Grzenda in 1969 in Minnesota, told a pitching prospect being farmed to Syracuse, "When you get there, go see Grzenda and listen to him."
Ted Williams also liked Grzenda, for being the quiet but heady veteran who could help the struggling Senators. On the day Grzenda qualified for a pension from baseball, Williams surprisingly knew about it. He ambled over to Grzenda's locker near a back corner of RFK's home clubhouse, and, in his typically booming voice, said, "Well, how do you feel today?"
Grzenda, with his requisite time in, suddenly felt relaxed. By his account, he had been "uptight, very uptight" for years, chain-smoking -- "I used to light up a cigarette in the dugout and get out on the mound and try to get back before it burned out" -- and worrying that any pitch he made in the majors might be his last. Ron Menchine, the Senators' radio broadcaster, remembered a remark by Grzenda, who had ridden countless buses in the minors: "If I ever get my [time] in, I'm going to buy a bus just to burn it."
Grzenda had "slept on the rack, slept on the floor" of those buses, often arriving at 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning somewhere that seemed in an unshakable grogginess like nowhere, all part of an odyssey that could outline the continent.
He finally "made it" with the Senators.
In a typically desperate situation on the 1970 club, Williams asked Grzenda if he would start a game in Boston -- the manager had no fresh pitchers. Eagerly, Grzenda accepted. It was the first of only three starts he would make in the major leagues. But it was a beauty. Unassumingly, he remembered: "I don't know what it was. I wasn't throwing with much velocity. I think those right-handed batters were overanxious with that wall so close." He went 81/3 innings, holding the Red Sox to one hit until the ninth, three hits and two earned runs overall. He gained the victory and an appreciative slap on the back from Williams. "I felt like I won the World Series," Grzenda said.
In 1971, Williams relied on him with even greater confidence. "It wasn't a winning club, but I got to pitch more," he said. "I could make something more of myself, which I did. I had the opportunity, and I think Ted Williams had a lot to do with it because he liked the older ballplayer."
Williams called Grzenda "Mr. America" because he was a good-living guy who always had his family with him during his career. "It was a good life," Ruth Grzenda said, and she meant every one of those American summers, wherever they spent them. After one Senators home game, the manager happened to be walking alongside Grzenda as he was meeting up with his wife and children. Williams, as if he were personally delivering him, boomed to the family: "Well, here he is, here's 'Mr. America.' "
"He was a laid-back, quiet guy, always did his job. Always very friendly," said Jim Hannan, Grzenda's teammate in 1970. "Back in those days, there were two groups of guys: the guys who always partied and those who didn't. He was a non-partier, a family man."
All these years later, the Grzenda family was gathered again talking about baseball in Washington, this time in the house on the remote narrow street in the shadow of a wooded hill just 12 miles from where Grzenda grew up, the son of a coal miner and later a truck driver. There was Ruth, whom Grzenda met on his first of five stints in Birmingham; and the two grown children, their spouses, three grandchildren in all. As well as anyone, the adults among them realized how long it has been since baseball was played at RFK. But no matter the passage of time, Ted Williams -- Teddy Ballgame -- remained vivid in their minds.
Williams had let Grzenda bring Joe Jr. into the clubhouse before almost every home game. The boy had a small Senators uniform and even went out on the field with the players before games. "Frank Howard's taking batting practice and I'm at shortstop," Joe Jr. recalled, "and he started lacing them and I thought, I'm going to get hurt. I went back out to the outfield." Williams even showed the boy the best way to throw a curveball, the kind that occasionally had bothered him as a hitter who wanted merely to be "the greatest who ever lived." No doubt, '71 was the dream season for the Grzendas, father and son.
"Joey never told his mother all the curses he was learning," Grzenda said.
But as Washington's last season approached, the team's restless owner, Bob Short, already had his eyes on Texas. As for Grzenda, "I had things going right in Washington. I wanted to stay there and work for the club in the winter. I was planning on staying there, living there. Then we had to pack, we had to go. It was hard."
He was out in his backyard now, on an overcast day with rain threatening and a chill that hinted already of winter. He likes to be outside: He chops wood for his fireplace, he walks 31/2 miles almost every day, he hunts deer in season. He has shied from many old-timers gatherings, mostly because golf is usually involved and he doesn't play. But he still gets letters from staunch followers of the game that "warm" him, and often they mention his fine time in Washington.
By 1971, he had gotten his fastball back up to 90 mph, still well short of the speed he originally had when he called his arm "a whip." But the way he pitched after the injury, the ball had plenty of movement. His best pitches sank wickedly, down and in or down and out. And on the last night of the last season that's what he was about to throw to Horace Clarke, a sinking fastball.
But he never got the chance.
He was left holding the ball.
It crossed his mind to throw it at the burly fan running at him, but, no, he held it, and when he ran from the field, he said, "The ball was in my glove."
Here's the Pitch
Joe Jr. had a suggestion. He believed that next spring his father should go to Washington with that last ball ever used in a Senators game and make a ceremonial first pitch with it before the new team's home opener. Grzenda could return to the mound at RFK where he was when baseball in Washington left off, and complete, if only symbolically, what he was doing when interrupted, perhaps with a toss to the catcher of the new club. The ball would travel not just from the mound to the plate but across the ages to connect the franchises.
"He'd throw a strike, about 80 miles an hour," Joe Jr. said.
There's an idea.