The Last Game in Town
Sept. 30, 1971. Seventy years and 10,851 games into the story of American League baseball in the nationâ€™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 â€“ 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 hadnâ€™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 â€œbusiness.â€ Team vice-president Robert Burke was away in Texas and neither American League president Joe Cronin nor baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn were present, either.
â€œShort Stinks,â€ one banner read. â€œBob Short Fan Club,â€ 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 minutesâ€™ delay.
â€œThere were 50 extra police on hand,â€ Merrell Whittlesey wrote in that weekâ€™s Sporting News, â€œbut from the mood of the crowd, alternately ugly and emotional, there were hints that the game might not be completed.â€
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.
â€œThis game has been forfeited to New York,â€ 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.
â€œFrom April 29, 1901, when Jimmy Manningâ€™s Senators beat Philadelphia in the first major league game played in Washington until Sept. 30, 1971, when Williamsâ€™ Senators lost by forfeit, the town was big-league,â€ Whittlesey wrote. â€œAll of a sudden, it was bush.â€
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. Whatâ€™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.