Much of the baseball world is understandably excited about the prospect of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in more than a century. The Cubs were preseason favorites this year, and they haven’t disappointed, amassing the best record in baseball. And in the karma department, it would be hard to argue that it isn’t their turn. The last time the Cubs won it all was 1908, the year that Ford introduced the Model T.
Americans love to root for the underdog, so the Cubs would seem a natural cause to rally around. But despite that franchise’s tortured history, Washington baseball fans are even more long-suffering. If the Nationals and the Cubs advance to meet in the National League Championship Series, the team from D.C. should be the sentimental choice.
True, Cubs fans have been waiting longer for a World Series title than Washingtonians, who have been biding their time “only” since 1924, when the nation’s capital claimed its sole baseball championship. But D.C. has gone longer without making it to the World Series — the last time was 1933, 12 years before the Cubs’ final appearance.
Washington is often overlooked when it comes to chronicling sad-sack baseball cities, probably because it went 33 years without a team until the Expos moved here from Montreal in 2005. If anything, though, that void only adds to our baseball pathos: After all, at least Cubs fans had a team all those years. They even managed to make the playoffs a few times.
Washington’s long baseball blackout has obscured for many just how lousy baseball was in D.C., before the sport left here (twice) for other markets. From 1946 to 1971, covering two Senators franchises, Washington boasted just two — two! — winning seasons. During the same period, the Cubs managed seven. Things were so bad that the Senators 1964 yearbook made the bold prediction, “Off the Floor — in ’64,” which came true when Washington finished in ninth place in the 10-team American League. Even once baseball made its way back, the team was terrible, putting up back-to-back 100-plus loss seasons in 2008 and 2009.
And when the new Nationals did get good enough to make the playoffs in recent years, they crashed out in heartbreaking fashion. The decisive Game 5 of the 2012 National League Division Series, when the Nats blew a 6-0 lead to the St. Louis Cardinals on South Capitol Street after being one strike away from winning the game and the series, will always be etched into fans’ memories here. Two years later, the Nats again lost in the NLDS, but this time the drama came in the second game, when Washingtonians waited through 18 cold innings before the home team fell to the Giants, who would go on to wrap up the series in San Francisco. Last year, picked by virtually every pundit in baseball to make the World Series, the Nats fell apart in August and missed the playoffs altogether. The Nats will start this year’s postseason against the Los Angeles Dodgers next Friday.
The last time Washington played in the World Series coincided with the first year of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, while the Cubs’ final appearance came in 1945, a few months after FDR died in office. The ’33 Senators (officially named the Nationals and, like the current team, nicknamed the Nats) posted the best winning percentage in Washington history, .651, and won the American League by seven games over a New York Yankees team led by Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. But Washington lost the World Series in five games to another New York team, the Giants.
Twelve years later, with many stars fighting overseas in the final months of World War II, the Cubs won their last pennant. They would go on to lose the World Series to the Detroit Tigers (who had edged out Washington by 1 ½ games for the American League title in the Senators’ last real pennant race). As the story goes, before Game 4, a Chicago fan put a curse on the Cubs after his pet goat was denied admittance to Wrigley Field. The resulting “Curse of the Billy Goat,” some fans believe, has prevented the Cubs from getting back to the World Series for all these years.
No popular curse, hex or black magic is blamed for Washington’s inability to win a pennant in more than eight decades (although some fans chalk up the 2012 collapse to finally letting Teddy Roosevelt win the Presidents Race). But I’ve always wondered if selling off the team’s star player-manager back then angered the baseball gods.
The 1933 Senators were led by a hard-nosed 26-year-old shortstop named Joe Cronin, in his sixth year as a Washington player and his first as manager. A year later, he wed the niece of owner Clark Griffith, but if Cronin thought he was marrying into the family business, he was mistaken. In 1934, the Senators cratered to seventh place, and in a Depression-era deal, the cash-strapped Griffith sold Cronin to the Red Sox for $250,000 ($4.5 million in today’s dollars). The Red Sox threw in shortstop Lyn Lary, who would hit just .194 in his sole season in Washington; Cronin would become a Hall of Famer in Boston. The Senators never made the postseason again.
In 1971, Cronin — by then long-retired as a player and manager — was the president of the American League, and it fell to him to announce that the second iteration of the Senators was moving to Texas, leaving Washington bereft of a team for the first time in 70 years. “As an old Washington player, this is very sad, indeed, but there was no feasible alternative,” he said.
Washington sports fan Kevin Dowd, a brother of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, compared the Senators leaving town 45 years ago to parents getting divorced, telling me, “The sense of loss was like death.” ESPN baseball analyst Tim Kurkjian, who grew up in Bethesda, Md., told me that as a 14-year-old diehard fan, “I literally cried out loud when they left.”
Even though Washington’s downtrodden baseball history should earn good vibes from fans everywhere this year, there probably aren’t many outside the Beltway who would root for the Nats over the Cubs. For one thing, it’s easier to empathize with a cuddly Cub than a generic National. More important, Washington isn’t a place that generates a lot of warm feelings these days.
That wasn’t always the case. As the Senators marched to the city’s first pennant in 1924, fans across the country rooted for them, pulling for the underdogs from Washington to dethrone the defending champions, the New York Yankees. In the 1950s, when the Senators had fallen to the bottom of the league, theatergoers on Broadway cheered on a fictional version of the Senators in the musical “Damn Yankees.”
Even viewed through the lens of more modern baseball, Washington should still be the sentimental choice. Sure, the Cubs have gone 108 years without a title, but Chicago’s other team, the White Sox, won in 2005. So it’s not as though generations of Chicago fans have been deprived of seeing the Fall Classic in their city, as has been the case here. (Admittedly, the Sox championship was cold comfort for most Cubs fans.)
And if you look beyond baseball, Washington fans become even more sympathetic. Once the Cleveland Cavaliers won the National Basketball Association championship this year, the District moved “up” to second place among U.S. cities with three or more major pro sports teams for the longest title drought: Our last championship came in 1992, when the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl.
No. 1 on that list? Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., which last won a championship in 1991, when the Twins won the World Series for just the third time in franchise history. Their first came way back in 1924, when the team played at Griffith Stadium — on Georgia Avenue NW — and was known as the Washington Senators.