The hot-tempered 28-year-old player-manager, who devised the strategy that won the World Series a year earlier, shot back, “You run the American League, and I’ll manage the Washington baseball team.”
In a steady rain, Harris allowed Walter Johnson, in his 19th season and on a lame leg, to pitch a complete game, allowing 15 hits and every run (with four unearned) in the loss. It remains one of Major League Baseball’s most second-guessed and almost inexplicable moves.
Yet Johnson still would have won except for two errors on easy plays at shortstop by AL MVP Roger Peckinpaugh, his seventh and eighth errors of the Series (still the record). How would you like to carry those goat horns around in this media-saturated century?
Among the best sports events in D.C. history that none of us ever saw because they happened so long ago and only snippets of game film exist, this Senators loss ranks high. It’s often considered among the top 10 World Series games ever.
Oh, we’re just getting started.
In what the New York Times called “the wettest, weirdest and wildest game that fifty years of baseball have ever seen,” the layers of controversy and second-guessing were ideally balanced against the thrilling madness. In pouring rain and thick fog on a quagmire field, defenders, chasing drives in the gaps, disappeared from the sight of fans in the grandstands.
Outfielders couldn’t see balls leave the bat. Damon Runyon said the base paths were “channels of mud.” The Senators screamed the umpiring crew ignored physical evidence of a foul ball they had called fair on one of the game’s most important plays.
If you think that’s controversial, consider this: For the only time in U.S. sports history, a team owner declined a title.
“You’re the world champions. I’m calling this game,” Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis told Clark Griffith with his Senators leading 6-4 after five innings.
Perhaps in the spirit of sportsmanship or maybe fearing the fan reaction in Pittsburgh, Griffith answered, “Once you started in the rain, you’ve got to finish it.”
How much heartburn did Griffith’s decision cause for players on that team? Last week, I got an email: “My grandfather (Joe Judge) was the first baseman on those 1924-25 teams. I remember he and Dad talking ruefully about the ’25 final. Granddad and several players lobbied to end the game early, but it was not to be. One of the many instances where my father would shake his head and say, ‘Washington sports …’ He said that a lot in the (miserable) ’60s.”
In October, when the Nationals won Washington’s first World Series title in 95 years, those victories seemed incredibly distant. Yet one email, signed “Joe Judge,” proves they are not that far apart. If we want to link all that rich history, we can.
The essence of that Game 7 hardly even began until after the seventh inning stretch with the Senators still ahead 6-4. Johnson, who pitched complete games in 4-1 and 4-0 wins in Games 1 and 4, was still in command but tiring, in part because he had strained his leg trying to stretch a single into a double in Game 4. The Pirates, no love lost since the Big Train had hit Hall of Famer Max Carey with pitches twice in Game 1, tried to test him or drive him out of the game with bunts.
By the seventh inning, the rain had turned into a downpour. The state of the field was doubly bad because it had rained just as hard the previous day, causing a postponement of Game 7. “The outfielders were outlines, vague and shadowy,” Runyon wrote. “Rain was dripping from the Big Train’s chin as he pitched.”
Then an innocent leadoff popup forced Peckinpaugh to retreat, settle and look straight up into the downpour. The ball slipped through his hands for a two-bag error. Carey, who already had doubled twice and singled in his revenge game against Johnson, followed with a flyball sliced down the left field line. To his dying day, Senators Hall of Famer Goose Goslin swore the ball left a big divot in the mud as evidence of its “foulness.” Yet the umps refused to go to left field to inspect the crime scene.
As a run scored and Carey reached second, the Senators protested, with Harris charging third base ump Brick Owens.
“What did [Barry] McCormick say?” Owens asked, referring to the home plate umpire who was so far away he could barely see through the fog.
“Fair,” Harris said.
“Then that’s what I saw,” Owens said.
Johnson got two outs and would have been out of the inning with a 6-5 lead except for Peckinpaugh’s drop. But Hall of Famer Pie Traynor blasted a drive to right-center field. Reporters claimed both Washington outfielders disappeared in pursuit as Traynor tried for an inside-the-park home run. Out of the fog came a relay throw from the barrier and straight to Harris, who gunned down Traynor at the plate to keep the score tied at 6.
Seldom has a player needed to atone more than Peckinpaugh, who was shaking as he returned to the dugout after his seventh error, according to accounts of the game. In his career, Peckinpaugh averaged one homer every 150 at-bats. But in the eighth, he blasted a ball to left-center that, again, was lost in the fog to fans and reporters. (Honest, every account has it this way.) Then a yell came, “It’s a home run!”
Peckinpaugh, in tears, was carried to the dugout by his mates. That 7-6 lead seemed large with Johnson backed by formidable reliever Firpo Marberry. In 1924, Harris had created a new baseball role: what we now call a high-leverage reliever. Marberry, widely considered the first modern relief pitcher, was a power arm, not an afterthought.
But Marberry never got into the game in the disastrous eighth inning. Harris stuck with Johnson. And stuck. And stuck. After a two-out double, Johnson allowed another double to tie the score at 7. Surely, now, even if a hitter too late, you call for Marberry. Or someone. Although visibly exhausted, Johnson stayed in and allowed a walk.
Here is the mood from the New York Times: “Water, mud, fog, mist, sawdust, fumbles, muffs, wild throws, wild pitches, one near fistfight, impossible rallies. … Players wallowing ankle deep in mud, pitchers slipping as they delivered the ball, athletes skidding and sloshing, falling full length, dropping soaked baseballs — there you have part of the picture.”
Despite this, Johnson rose to the moment “with mud shackling his ankles” and got what should have been the out he needed to escape still tied at 7. And he got it against Carey, who already had four hits. Just a groundball to … Peckinpaugh.
Blame the mud, the rain and the slick ball if you want. Or call it the balance of luck after the two bad-hop balls to third that were so central to the Senators’ win in Game 7 a year earlier. Peckinpaugh threw high to second for his eighth error.
Harris stuck with Johnson to face Hall of Famer Kiki Cuyler, who that season hit .357 with 43 doubles, 26 triples, 18 homers, 144 runs and 41 stolen bases — the complete package of menace.
Cuyler hit what appeared to be a grand slam. The gods, perhaps Johnson fans, decreed that the umps call it a mere ground-rule double — still enough for a 9-7 lead that held.
After the game, Johnson found Peckinpaugh and embraced him. It wasn’t his leg or the rain or the errors or all the innings, the Big Train said. It was his fault. He lost.
Blame me, Walter Johnson said.