October 25, 2014

The Last Game in Town

October 25, 2010 by · 3 Comments 

Sept. 30, 1971. Seventy years and 10,851 games into the story of American League baseball in the nation’s capital, the Senators, 38 games out of first place on the last day of the season, faced the Yankees in the final game in franchise history.

The teams had split the first two games of the series in front of a combined 7,245 fans at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, better known in Washington as RFK.

The Yankees were limping to the finish line as well, 81-80 and stuck in fourth place since July 2. New York sent righty Mike Kekich to the mound, and Washington countered with Dick Bosman of Kenosha, Wis. It was a warm night, and 14,460 fans came to watch – the seventh-largest crowd of the season.

RFK Stadium opened for baseball April 9, 1962 as the home of the Senators, in their second year after expansion (the originals had moved to Minnesota in 1961). The hulking concrete bowl was also home to the NFL Redskins. The stadium held 45,000 for baseball, but from 1961 until 1971, the Senators were last in attendance in the American League four times and never averaged more than 12,000 fans a game. Over the same 11-year span, they had 10 losing seasons.

As a result of the ineptitude on the field and indifference in the stands, Senators owner Robert Short decided to move the team to Dallas. The move was even less popular among fans than the team itself, and that anger was made manifest during the final game in Senators history.

The Yankees jumped to an early 4-0 lead on the strength of home runs by Bobby Murcer and Rusty Torres in the first two innings. The teams swapped runs, leaving the score at 5-1 in the bottom of the 6th inning when Washington chased New York pitcher Kekich with three hits.

Fan favorite Frank Howard hit a home run on a straight fastball after getting a heads-up from Yankee catcher Thurman Munson, and the crowd demanded two curtain calls. Howard hadn’t given one all season, but manager Ted Williams, famously stingy with curtain calls in his own right, pushed the slugger out of the dugout.

The Senators pushed across four runs in the sixth, tying the game at 5-5. In the bottom of the eighth, pinch-hitter Tommy McCraw singled in third baseman Dave Nelson, and lead-off hitter Elliot Maddox followed with a sacrifice fly to score Tom Ragland. Washington carried the 7-5 lead into the top of the ninth, hoping to end its existence on a reasonably high note.

The 14,460 fans in attendance were not concerned with high notes. Throughout the game, they displayed banners reviling Short, who was absent from the game due to “business.” Team vice-president Robert Burke was away in Texas and neither American League president Joe Cronin nor baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn were present, either.

“Short Stinks,” one banner read. “Bob Short Fan Club,” mocked another one, hung beneath an empty section of bleachers. Fans rushed the field on at least two occasions, both in the eighth inning, but were chased back by police after several minutes’ delay.

“There were 50 extra police on hand,” Merrell Whittlesey wrote in that week’s Sporting News, “but from the mood of the crowd, alternately ugly and emotional, there were hints that the game might not be completed.”

That much was true. Veteran reliever Joe Grzenda entered in the top of the ninth and promptly set down Felipe Alou and Murcer. Second baseman Horace Clarke, 0-4 on the night, stepped in, and the crowd exploded.

Thousands of fans poured onto the field from behind the right- and left-field fences. They dug up the bases and pitching mound and pocketed handfuls of dirt and outfield sod. Most of the lightbulbs were unscrewed from the scoreboard. The Senators fled through the bullpen and the Yankees made it from the dugout to the clubhouse.

“This game has been forfeited to New York,” the public address announcer said.

It took another 10 minutes after that to clear the field. Yankees president Mike Burke told the umpires he would decline the forfeit if possible, but it was too late. President Cronin, in Baltimore, refused; the crowd seethed out of the stadium.

“From April 29, 1901, when Jimmy Manning’s Senators beat Philadelphia in the first major league game played in Washington until Sept. 30, 1971, when Williams’ Senators lost by forfeit, the town was big-league,” Whittlesey wrote. “All of a sudden, it was bush.”

From 1961 to 1971, the Senators won 751 games. On Sept. 30, 1971, they lost game 1,032. They lost the series to the Yankees. What’s more, the city lost baseball.

Sources: www.baseball-reference.com; New York Times, 1 Oct. 1971; The Sporting News, 16 Oct. 1971.

Justin Murphy is a reporter for The Citizen in Auburn, N.Y.

Comments

3 Responses to “The Last Game in Town”
  1. “As a result of the ineptitude on the field and indifference in the stands, Senators owner Robert Short decided to move the team to Dallas. The move was even less popular among fans than the team itself, and that anger was made manifest during the final game in Senators history.” With all due respect, I would like to take issue with your statement. You treat Bob Short as though he were any owner responding to a set of economic circumstances not of his making. That is an inaccurate portrayal of the facts. The anger of Washington baseball fans was quite legitimate. They were being cheated of their heritage–an American League team that had been in the league since its founding and when it was winning, drew legitimate big league crowds.

    Bob Short did not move the team because of the indifference of the fans or the ineptitude on the field. Well, the last part of that sentence is correct, but Short both intentionally and through his own ineptitude created that team on the field. Their ineptitude was his invention and most have come to believe he intentionally tried to drive attendance down in the last year two years he was in DC to justify the move. Attendance was up when to his surprise, the team posted a winning record in its first year under Ted Williams.

    Short spent so little on the team that he did not even pay a General Manager and his only knowledgeable baseball person in the organization, manager Ted Williams, was ignored on trades and personnel moves that might have improved it. Short bought and sold players purely for profit, not to field a competitive team. Rather he brought in players like Denny McClain and paid an outrageous price in talent to do so. Likewise he brought in Curt Flood and even Ted Williams as manager, not because he believed them capable, but for the publicity.

    The malfeasance of Bob Short would take a book to detail. I tried and captured some of it, but not all of it. The anger of the fans in Washington was legitimate. They were fans who deserved a real baseball team and were cheated out of it. First by Calvin Griffith when he moved the old Senators/Nationals to Minnesota because he did not have the money to rebuild either the old stadium or the team. His racist views of the city did not help and he nursed a grudge against the city for failing to agree to build a new stadium in the white suburbs. He may have helped convince Bob Short to buy the team–both men lived in Minneapolis in 1968–but he most certainly served as the primary American League owner working to convince the reluctant ownership group that Washington was not a fit place for baseball.

    Short bought the Washington Senators in December of 1968 with the avowed purpose of moving them. It was a calculated business move, exactly as he had done with the Minneapolis Lakers. Buy the team cheap, take cash from the target city to move them, and then sell the team for an inflated price after the move. I asked Clark Griffith, III about his father’s role in the move and he confirmed much of what I have articulated above. Washington fans have been maligned long enough. They deserve a truthful representation. Again, I mean no disrespect for your article, but the fans of Washington should not be blamed when they are the victims of the mercenary actions of the owners.

  2. Justin Murphy says:

    @Ted Leavengood – Ted, I mostly agree with your assessment and did not mean to give Short a free pass. It just wasn’t the focus of the article – I wanted to write about the last game itself and just included the rest by way of context. Perhaps more of the Short context was necessary.

  3. david kidwell says:

    I was 11 years old I was at the game, sitting on the 3rd base side close to the dugout. I’m trying to find the game on video to buy. Could you please help me find it? Thanks

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