1933 Washington Senators, Baseball’s Most “Interesting” Team
Through games played Saturday July 28, the Washington Nationals were 20 games over .500. The last time a D.C.-based team reached those lofty heights was in 1933 when the then-Senators won the American League title. Baseball historians will never include that year’s Senators team with the best of all time. But I’ll make the case that its players as a group were the most interesting.
Included on the roster was second string catcher Moe Berg, a Princeton University and Columbia Law School graduate whose thesis on Sanskrit currently resides in the Library of Congress. At Princeton, Berg earned a Magna Cum Laude in modern languages and spoke Latin, Greek, French, Italian and German. As former teammate and pitcher Ted Lyon’s old joke about Berg went, he could speak 15 languages but couldn’t hit in any of them. Lyons might have been too harsh. Berg’s career batting average was .242. Post-baseball, Berg served as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services (then the O.S.S. and now the C.I.A.) during World War II. Casey Stengel called Berg “the oddest man who ever played baseball.”
Hall of Famers Heinie Manush and Goose Goslin patrolled Griffith Field’s vast outfield expanses. But in 1928, when Manush played for the St. Louis Browns, he and Goslin were neck and neck during the batting title race, one of baseball’s most thrilling and amusing. During the season’s final weeks, Manush had gained about 30 points to draw within percentage points of Goslin. The Browns played the Senators on the final day. During the game, Goslin maintained his slim lead. Senators’ manager Bucky Harris offered Goslin the choice to sit for his final at bat which meant that he would eke out the crown. Goslin accepted. But his teammates, namely Joe Judge, goaded Goslin into taking his swings lest he appear “yellow.”
Browns’ pitcher Hal Wiltse quickly got two strikes on Goslin. At that point, as he later detailed to Lawrence Ritter in “The Glory of Their Times,” Goslin desperately tried to get himself thrown out of the ball game which would negate his at bat. But umpire Bill Guthrie told Goslin that he neither intended to eject him nor to issue him a base on balls. Guthrie advised Goslin to take his cuts. Goslin fisted one safely and edged Manush .379 to .378.
Sam Rice, by then 43, was a part time outfielder. Like his teammates Goslin and Manush, Rice played a crucial role in one of baseball’s most memorable events. During the 1925 World Series against the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Senators led 4-3 in the eighth inning. Rice dove into the right field stands to rob—or apparently rob—Earl Smith of a game-tying home run. Rice’s catch set off a controversy—did he have possession of the ball or not?— that wouldn’t be resolved until after his death. After rejecting thousands of dollars in magazine advances to tell the “truth” and refusing to tell even close friends or family, Rice promised to leave a letter as part of his will that could be opened after he died. Rice explained that he didn’t need the money and he preferred the mystery. When his heirs opened Rice’s letter, it read: “At no time did I lose possession of the ball.”
Rice’s defensive gem overshadowed his spectacular career. With 2,987 hits, Rice is the player closest to 3,000 without reaching that mark. Rice achieved his .322 batting average in part because he rarely struck out. In 1929, Rice batted 689 with only nine Ks.
In the infield, shortstop Cecil Travis was embarking on what would be a spectacular if abbreviated career. Among shortstops, only Honus Wagner and Arky Vaughan surpassed Travis’s .314 lifetime average. World War II interrupted Travis’ playing days and when he returned his skills had eroded, in part because of frostbite sustained on two toes during battle. Travis won a Bronze Star for his heroism. Ted Williams, who called Travis’s swing the “purest” he had ever seen, and Bob Feller lobbied heavily but unsuccessfully for his Hall of Fame enshrinement. In fact, Travis never received a single vote.
Joe Cronin piloted the Senators, and held down the shortstop position. In 1928, Cronin came to the Senators via the Pirates. Cronin’s breakout year came in 1930 when his .346 batting crown helped him to win the Most Valuable Player award.
Cronin assumed the Senators managerial helm in 1933 when he replaced Washington legend Walter Johnson, a task that might have been thankless had not the “Boy Wonder” led the Senators to the pennant. In 1935, the Senators traded Cronin to the Boston Red Sox where he continued his dual roles. Before he hung up his spikes, Cronin hit .300 or better and drove in 100 or more runs eight times each for the Senators and Red Sox. Eventually, Cronin became the Red Sox general manager, American League president and Hall of Fame inductee.
The 1933 Senators’ fascinating biographies weren’t enough to topple the New York Giants in the World Series. The Giants behind Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott coasted to a 4-1 victory. Only Senators’ player/manager Cronin performed well as he played shortstop in every game and hit .318.
Joe Guzzardi works for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org