Essay on the Washington Senators 1969 season
|“A Whole New Ballgame”|
I became an official fan of Major League Baseball and the Washington Senators in 1969. Before that, I knew little about the game, the players, the teams. Not sure why. Maybe it’s because, growing up in DC, there just wasn’t much baseball to get excited about. When people in DC talked about the Washington Senators, usually this phrase entered the conversation: “Washington – first in war, first in peace and last in the American League”. The Senators were synonymous with losing, and why not. Winning seasons were few and far between for these lovable losers. But that season of 1969 was different.
That year, the Senators owner, Bob Short, hired Hall-of-Famer Ted Williams (The Splendid Splinter) as their manager. I once mistakenly referred to him as ‘The Terrible Toothpick’ to one of my fellow Senator fans and he never let me forget it. Fans were excited about the season and new skipper. Every year, the Senators marketing team came up with a slogan for that season. In 1969, it was “It’s a whole new ballgame – Senators ‘69”.
But, it didn’t start out very well. On Opening Day, Camilo Pascual was the starting pitcher. He was considered their ‘Ace’ by leading the team in wins with 13 and ERA with 2.69 the year before, although he was anything but in this game. By the end of the 4th inning, the Nats were down 8-0. When the PA announcer proclaimed between innings “It’s a whole new ballgame – Senators ‘69”, people looked at each other and snickered.
Then, as the season progressed, the Senators showed something. They showed that they could win some games, at least win as many as they lost as they hovered around the .500 mark. This was unchartered territory for this franchise. We’re talking about an expansion team that had only been around since 1961 and never had a winning season. In 1961, the original Senators packed up and moved to Minnesota to become the Twins and took with them Hall-of-Famer Harmon Killebrew and Tony Oliva (who isn’t a HOFer but should be).
The ‘expansion’ Senators, as they were frequently called so as not to confuse them with the original (or real) Senators, were left with Frank (Hondo) Howard, a larger-than-life all-or-nothing First Baseman/Left Fielder that had the potential to hit monster home runs any time he stepped up to the plate, but also the potential to strike out waving at pitches way out of strike zone. Legend had it that, with a runner on 1st, he once swung when the pitcher threw the ball to 1st base in a pick-off move. But there was also an ‘Urban Legend’ that he once hit a ball so hard, it went between the pitcher’s legs and continued over the fence for a home run. The previous season, he had a stretch where he hit 10 dingers in 20 at-bats, at least one in six consecutive games. When all was said and done that month in May 1968, he had hit 13 homers in 16 games. It was known as Hondo’s Homerun Hurricane. But, alas, it didn’t prevent the Nats from ending up in last place with 96 losses. First in war, first in peace…you know the rest.
They also had a slick-fielding shortstop named Eddie Brinkman that was all-field-no-hit. He only hit .187 the year before but it was his vacuum glove and range that kept him in the lineup. Funny thing, though. This season, he was consistently hitting in the .280 range for the first time in his career. After learning from what many people consider the greatest hitter of all time, he changed his batting technique, used a fatter bat, choked up and shortened his swing. Many thought he would’ve been the All-Star shortstop had not Boston’s SS Rico Petrocelli had a career year with 40+ home runs.
Del Unser was the Center Fielder and a good one. Ken McMullen, who came over in the same trade with the Dodgers that brought Hondo, was the 3rd baseman. Mike Epstein was their power-hitting 1st baseman. Just about everyone on the team was on their way to having a career year. It was evident that Ted Williams’s hitting philosophy was rubbing off on the players. And they were winning.
Unfortunately, a team just an hour north and in their division was winning also, and at a record pace. The Baltimore Orioles were the talk of Baseball that year. There was Frank and Brooks Robinson, who I stupidly assumed were brothers when I saw my first Oriole boxscore. They had 1st baseman Boog Powell who won the MVP that year. Paul Blair, probably the best defensive centerfielder in baseball, was hitting way over his head and ended up with 26 home runs and batted .285. Then there was that pitching staff led by maybe the best pitching coach ever, George Bamberger.
Mike Cuellar, Dave McNally and Jim Palmer were part of a starting rotation that was arguably the best in baseball. The Orioles were running away from everybody else in that division and were on their way to the best record in baseball that year.
Still, that didn’t stop DC fans from falling in love with their team that had found a way to win for a change. Even though last year’s ace Pascual never came close to his 1968 performance and was eventually released early in the season, young phenom Joe Coleman, once a #1 draft pick by the Senators, was figuring it out and getting batters out. Dick Bosman, who began the season in the bullpen, was moved into the starting rotation and was also mowing down batters with a killer slider and leading the AL in ERA (he eventually won the ERA title).
Back then, only about 20% of the Senators games were on the TV so I had to listen to the play-by-play on the radio. I was hooked, addicted to baseball and the Senators, an addiction that has lasted 40 years and will likely continue until I die. Now, they are the Texas Rangers. They moved from Washington to Arlington, Texas when their tight-wad owner, Bob Short, claimed he wasn’t making any money – and he probably wasn’t. Nobody likes a loser. Well, they do. They just don’t like to drive down at night into the worst part of town and risk their lives to see them play. They drew almost a million fans that year, a record for the ‘expansion’ Senators.
But, I was fine with listening to them on the radio and occasionally catching them on TV. Never missed a game, an inning, an at-bat. Like I said, I was addicted. I remember during one game, I was listening to the house intercom/radio in the kitchen (remember those things?) and my Brother-in-Law walked in. This guy loved to talk and talk and when he saw me in the kitchen, he started yakking away. Not to be rude, I looked interested, tried to listen to him with one ear while the other ear was catching the play-by-play. Just my luck, it was late in the game and the Nats were down by a run. My Bro-in-Law was going on and on about something and I faintly heard the announcer call a two-run dinger by Howard. Normally, I would be jumping up and down, cheering wildly at that point, but had to be polite and not let on that I had completely tuned out whats-his-name. Like I said…addicted.
As fate would have it, that season, the All-Star game was scheduled to be played in Washington and Frank Howard had made the team. I remember sitting down that night, anxiously awaiting the start of the game, only to have it postponed after a huge thunderstorm rolled into town. The next day, when the game finally started, I was glued to the screen when Hondo came up to the plate to face Steve Carlton with the NL already ahead 3-0. The crowd went wild as their saviour settled into the batter’s box. Everybody in RFK was hoping, praying he’d hit one out. When it came to baseball, Washington fans hadn’t had a superstar to crow about since Walter Johnson. But they had Frank, all six feet eight inches and 280 lbs of him, and he didn’t let them down. Howard launched a mammoth shot, a high arching rainbow of a shot to straightaway center field, the furthest part of the ballpark. And the crowd went wild, crazy, nuts. This was Senators fans ‘Bobby Thompson’ moment. On national TV, their hero showed America that the Washington Senators matter. But, in those days, the National League had the superior players like Johnny Bench, Hank Aaron, Willie McCovey and Bob Gibson and won the game, something they had done with amazing regularity through the ‘60s and ‘70s.
The All-Star game marked the mid-point for the season. This gave Baseball statisticians and purists a hiatus to look back at the first half and make predictions on how the rest of the season would unfold. Of course, the Senators never entered in the post-season discussion. Many felt they’d resort back to doing what they’d done for years, decades…settle into the cellar by the end of the season.
But, this year, they didn’t. In the second half of the season, they continued to bounce around the .500 mark, 3-5 games over, sometimes more. But, they were a winning ballclub. Dick Bosman was having a superb season. Young Joe Coleman was showing why he was a #1 draft pick. Casey Cox was having a career year and sporting an ERA under 3.00.
And, like I said, it seemed every player was having a ‘career year’. McMullen, Epstein, Unser, Brinkman. It was fun to be a Senators fan. I went to my first Senators game in August of that season. They beat the Athletics and a pitcher named Jim ‘Catfish’ Hunter 8-3 while hitting four homeruns. Bernie Allen, Mike Epstein, Ken McMullen and Hondo all hit one out. Each home run is imprinted in my memory. The first was hit by Allen, a line shot to right. McMullen’s was a high-arching shot to left. Epstein’s was an upper-decker that he just killed down the right field line. And Howard’s was a towering shot to right-center that seemed to stay in the air forever, tantalizing the crowd but just making it over the fence. Ironically, the ball went over the outstretched glove of Oakland’s Reggie Jackson, the player that Hondo had been battling for the homerun lead all season, although neither ended up winning the homerun crown. Jackson finished with 47, Hondo had 48 and ‘real’ Senator Harmon Killebrew took the crown with 49.
The season ended with the Nats in 4th place, winning 86 games and losing 76. Finishing 10 games over .500 was a real accomplishment, especially for these perennial losers. Many thought this was only the beginning. Teddy Ballgame had magically turned things around and Senator fans had a reason to feel good about the future.
But, alas, it was not to be. The following season, they again lost their opening game on a cold, rainy April day when Bosman couldn’t find the plate and Mickey Lolich had all his pitches working. That 1970 season was one of ups and downs as some players couldn’t match their 1969 ‘career year’. The season ended with a 14 game losing streak and a 70-92 record. During the off-season, to help improve the team, a historic trade was made that old Senator fans like me still talk about. The Senators traded Joe Coleman, probably their most talented pitcher, Jim Hannan, third baseman Aurelio Rodriguez and shortstop Eddie Brinkman for Denny McLain and three over-the-hill bench-warmers. Nats fans were furious.
Yeah, it’s true Denny McLain had won 31 games in 1968 and 24 games in 1969 but in 1970, he was suspended for half the season over some alleged gambling issues. The Baseball pundits were saying the Senators gave up way too much – trading half of your starting infield was unheard of. Rodriguez was only 23 and had a slick glove as well as some nice pop in his bat. Brinkman was a big fan favorite. He was one of the best fielding shortstops in the game and had also improved his hitting to a respectable level.
The season after the trade, Coleman went on to become an All-Star pitcher and ended up with a 20-9 record for the Tigers while Denny McLain’s record was 10-22 for the Nats, leading the league in losses. I went to see him pitch his first game in a Senators uniform where he actually threw a decent game, pitching all 10 innings of an extra-inning game that the Nats won 4-3 on a Tommy McCraw walk-off home run. But McLain would never regain the success he had earlier in his career. He ended up being traded to Oakland for next-to-nothing, was released the following year, retired, got fat and had a few run-ins with the law. The Nats trade is looked at by many Baseball Purists as the worst trade in Baseball History.
After that embarrassing 1971 season when the Senators were back to their losing ways, their owner Bob Short, packed them up and moved them to Arlington Texas to become the Texas Rangers, where they are to this day. The first year in Texas, still coached by Ted Williams, the Rangers hit an anemic .217 as a team, along with only 56 home runs and 461 runs scored – numbers that are absolutely unprecedented and laughable to anybody that follows baseball seriously. Needless to say, Mr. Williams saw the writing on the wall and resigned/retired as Ranger manager, never to manage again.
So, you see, the Summer of 1969 was special, a dream year. A year I’ll never forget. There was Frank Howard’s 48 home runs, plus that memorable one in the All-Star game at the Senators home field. And Del Unser’s 8 triples that led the league. Dick Bosman’s 14-5 record and league-leading 2.19 ERA. Mike Epstein. Speedy Ed Stroud. Veteran Lee Maye. Hank Allen, brother of All-Star Richie Allen. Closer Darold Knowles. Starter Barry Moore. Relievers Denny Higgins, Bob Humphreys, Dave Baldwin. Catchers Paul Casanova and Jim French. I remember them all.
The ‘Expansion’ Senators had played at a level they had never reached in their short 11 year history. First in war, first in peace and in that wonderful Summer of ‘69, winners.