From those depths, these Nationals have taken us on a roller coaster of emotions that, many times this year, felt like (gulp) a repeat was in the offing. But that made their win over the heavily favored Houston Astros all the sweeter.
“First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League” was an often-accurate description of baseball in the District. The old Washington Senators (also known as the Nationals) started out with 11 straight losing seasons at the beginning of the 20th century. In 1904, they were historically bad, losing or tying their first 13 games and finishing with a .252 winning percentage.
Things improved when Clark Griffith took over as manager in 1912 — a move his friends tried to talk him out of — and purchased a 10 percent share of the team. He eventually amassed a controlling interest and replaced himself as manager, and his shrewd baseball moves led to Washington’s first pennant and World Series title, in 1924.
Until Wednesday, that was the high-water mark in Washington baseball history.
In 1925, after repeating as American League champs, Washington took on the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. The favored Senators jumped out to a three-games-to-one lead, but the Pirates won the next two games to force a decisive Game 7 in Forbes Field.
After rain forced a postponement, Walter Johnson, the hero of the 1924 championship, took the mound on a wet, muddy field. “The Big Train” had won his first two series starts, but he strained his leg in the second one and was not himself in the series finale. The Pirates pounded him for 15 hits and nine runs and erased a 4-0 lead to win the game 9-7.
The Senators fielded good teams in the next several years, but they were blocked from the World Series by the Murderers’ Row Yankees and the dynastic Philadelphia Athletics. Washington finally won another pennant in 1933, posting a .651 winning percentage, still the best in D.C. baseball history, and took on the underdog New York Giants in what would be the last World Series here until this fall.
After dropping the first two games in New York, the Senators won Game 3 in Washington, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt throwing out the first pitch, and they had the chance to take control of the series with the next two games at home, too.
But the Senators couldn’t capitalize on their home field (sound familiar?), dropping both games in extra innings. The Game 3 victory in 1933 remains the last time a Washington team won a World Series game at home.
The finale was particularly hard to stomach: In the top of the 10th, Mel Ott hit a ball to center field that Senators outfielder Fred Schulte deflected into the stands for a home run. Initially, Ott stood at second base, but the umpires ultimately awarded him a homer.
A year later, the cash-strapped Griffith sold off his popular star player-manager Joe Cronin, a future Hall of Famer, to the Boston Red Sox for $250,000 and a marginal player. (Cronin, a shortstop, had recently married Griffith’s niece.)
That move pretty much signaled the end of competitive baseball in Washington in the 20th century. The Senators mounted just one pennant race — in 1945, with a team of misfits in the final year of World War II, including a half-deaf outfielder — but they were eliminated on the final day of the season.
The Senators, playing poorly and drawing few fans, moved to Minnesota for the 1961 season and almost immediately improved, winning the American League pennant there in 1965. Meanwhile, a new expansion Washington Senators team was as bad as the old one, posting just one winning season in 11 years, before they, too, abandoned the city to become the Texas Rangers. That move ended an unbelievably bad run of baseball in Washington: From 1946 to 1971, covering the two franchises, Washington managed just two winning seasons.
Still, most fans would agree it’s better to have a bad team than none at all, and an entire generation missed out. Major League Baseball seemed to view Washington as a two-time loser and was reluctant to try again, staying away for 33 long years until it moved the Montreal Expos moved here for the 2005 season.
But the newborn Nationals, after a surprisingly competitive first season, seemed to pick up where the old teams left off: They lost 100-plus games in 2008 and 2009, finishing with the worst record in the majors both years. Even when the team turned things around early in this decade, it ended badly, with several excruciating losses in the National League Division Series.
That’s why it was such a breakthrough when the Nats beat the heavily favored Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS this year. The club still hadn’t proved anything, but the talk of being a postseason choker evaporated.
And they seemed to have captured the magic of the ’24 Washington Senators, until now the only D.C. team to win the World Series. There are some striking similarities between the two ballclubs — from their struggles early in the season to their unlikely championships.
By now, most fans have memorized the numbers 19-31 — the Nats’ record over the first third of the season, when their chances of winning the World Series were calculated at a pitiful 1.5 percent. The Senators were a bit better in 1924, starting off 24-26. Neither team was expected to contend after such slow starts.
But “Washington got hot quicker than almost any club I ever saw,” Babe Ruth would later write in his autobiography. If he had been around to see the 2019 Nats, he might put them in the same category.
Both teams finished the regular season with 14-6 records over their final 20 games. The Nats had a longer path to the World Series: They needed to win the wild-card game, the NLDS and the National League Championship Series to get there, while the Senators went straight to the Fall Classic by having the best record in the American League in an era before divisional play.
Both Washington teams were heavy underdogs to World Series rivals that had led their respective leagues in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage and had won the World Series two years earlier. And both fell behind three games to two, forcing them to win the final two games of the series. They even both trailed by two runs late in the seventh game — the seventh inning for the 2019 Nats, the eighth inning for the 1924 Senators.
Thanks to the whizzes at baseball-reference.com, we can reconstruct games to see a team’s expected chance of winning at specific points. When Adam Eaton grounded out leading off the top of the seventh on Wednesday night with the Nats trailing 2-0, just before Anthony Rendon’s home run, their win probability was a skimpy 16 percent.
Ninety-five years ago, at old Griffith Stadium, the Senators’ Ossie Bluege fouled out to begin the bottom of the eighth with the Giants leading 3-1, dropping Washington’s win probability to an even slimmer 13 percent. Then the Senators rallied for two runs to tie the score, before winning the game in extra innings.
Here’s another fact that binds the two Washington ballclubs: Only five teams in World Series history have ever overcome a multirun deficit in the seventh inning or later of Game 7. The Senators were the first to do it. The Nats are the last. (Alas, the second was the Pirates in the ’25 World Series against the Senators.)
There’s more — of course — because this is baseball. Both teams had 36-year-old heroes: Howie Kendrick, who hit the go-ahead homer in the seventh inning, and Walter Johnson, who came in from the bullpen in the ninth inning after the Senators tied the score. He would pitch four innings in relief to win the game after losing his two World Series starts. Johnson had been pounded in his previous start — something he had in common with Nats pitcher Patrick Corbin, who like Johnson found vindication with several scoreless innings of relief to win Game 7.
By taking their fans to the brink of elimination five times this postseason, including twice in the World Series, the Nationals have made the exorcism of all the bad baseball karma complete. The Red Sox vanquished their burden of historical failure in 2004, and the Chicago Cubs neutralized theirs in 2016. Now it’s finally Washington’s turn.