August 19, 2018

Is it 1924 All Over Again?

April 3, 2018 by · Leave a Comment 

For decades the spring dawned in Washington, DC with false hopes that the local nine might have hidden talent. Then, as quickly as you could say “Shirley Povich,” reality was restored by the end of April.  But a new century has created a reality that bends like a pretzel and just when you think you have a firm grasp on space and time, suddenly it is 1924 all over again and the fans in Washington, DC are looking not at what might be Bryce Harper’s last season in DC, but at what some fear may be Walter Johnson’s. Is it magic or is it Einstein?

My quarterly newsletter from the Bob Davids SABR Chapter, “The Squibber,” promised in one article that it was 1924 all over again. If anyone should know the tenor of the times it is the local SABR chapter since they kept the candle of hope burning while baseball wandered in the desert for more than thirty years. But as I read the article, my hopes were not so much kindled as squandered by the false realities that rested there.

The article is anchored by the notion that there are substantial points of comparison between rookie managers Bucky Harris and Davey Martinez and that both rose to their new position in a similar manner.  There are several superficial similarities, but watching Freddy Freeman last night stretch more than seemed humanly possible for an errant throw from across the diamond, I was reminded of the Squibber article about 1924.

In 1924, Bucky Harris was 27, and had only played in the majors for five years. The national press corps were so aghast at Clark Griffith’s managerial choice and so certain that the Old Fox had lost his way that the uproar became known as “Griffith’s Folly.” The national sports media were undone ultimately by Griffith’s uncanny wisdom, as Harris proved to be exactly what the doctor ordered. Even at the young age of 27, Harris proved a masterful strategist.  His managerial career lasted for 29 years and he won the World Series not only for the 1924 Washington Nationals, but also for the 1947 New York Yankees.

Harris and Dave Martinez may both prove to be talented managers who win in their first year on the job. We can all hope. It is April, but in my reading of the media this spring I have seen no media consternation about Dave Martinez, such as greeted Bucky Harris. Martinez is no “Boy Wonder.” Rather he is a 53-year old veteran who has paid ample dues in a variety of coaching situations over the past twenty years. No one is shocked that he has finally gotten his chance to prove himself at the helm of a Major League team. He had a 16-year career as a player and knows the game as well as anyone could. Can he help the Washington Nationals to get over the hump and make it deeper into the Post Season? The first four games of the season portend well for that proposition, but it is still the million dollar question and no comparable to Bucky Harris is going to make it happen.

Freddy Freeman’s foot never left the bag last night, but Gary Sarnoff, the author of the Squibber article, wasn’t even close. The are similarities to be found between the 1924 team and the current one. It was the twilight of Walter Johnson’s long career and most believed that in his leaving so went the hopes for greatness in DC. Bryce Harper’s pending free agency has been forecast in much the same vein and most believe that this is the last best chance for the current Washington Nationals  team to win it all.  But few fans and certainly none in the press had any real hope that the 1924 Nationals would win it all and the naming of Bucky Harris was seen as just one more ill omen.

Sarnoff’s foot is pulled off the bag in one other notable instance when he compares the framing of those historic times. Sarnoff compares the two departing managers as though there was some notable similarity. In point of fact, finding two more disparate baseball figures than Dusty Baker and Donie Bush would be difficult.

Sarnoff’ points to Donie Bush as a fan favorite similar to Dusty Baker. Both men were fired and the ensuing decision may prove critical to the ultimate success of the Nationals, which could make this the soundest contention of all. It could well be that Davey Martinez has as successful a managerial career as Bucky Harris and it could well begin in 2018, just as Harris’s did in 1924, but there is an egregious overreach in painting Dusty Baker and Donie Bush with the same brush and the record deserves to be set right.

Donie Bush was a first year manager in 1923 and at the end of his first and only season with the Washington Nationals, his record stood at 75 wins against 78 losses.  Sarnoff characterizes the season as “the Washington Senators rallied behind Manager Bush to finish in the first division.”  It sounds as though the team made the playoffs and Bush was carried off on the shoulders of the excited throng. Rather, Bush worked overtime to win the ire of fans and players alike.  His first act–before the season even began–was to fire Nick Altrock who had been a very popular third base coach for 11 years after his long career as a left-handed pitcher ended with seven seasons for the Washington Nationals.  He was a presence on the team that few wanted to see undone except Bush.

The Washington Post had liked Bush as a manager early on because of his competitive fire and they were slow to walk their support back in the aftermath of his firing.  However, they said of Bush that “the little pilot has inserted himself on two or three occasions when when slight infringements on the leadership position have been made.” Other than the dismissal of Altrock, the most notable “infringement” was by Sam Rice, whom Bush suspended for five games during the 1923 season for colliding with Bucky Harris on a routine fly ball. It was a remarkable fit of pique by Bush over an unfortunate, but not unheard of incident. It became a rallying cry for fans and pundits alike who wanted Bush fired.  When Clark Griffith handed Bush his walking papers shortly after the last pitch was thrown in the 1923 World Series, there were few tears shed, certainly none by Sam Rice.

Because Bush had been popular with some in the press, Clark Griffith issued the following statement that was printed in The Sporting News in November of 1923.  Griffith said of Bush that he was “incompetent as a manager, failing to maintain discipline among the players, utter disregard of the development or use of young players, favoritism and indifference when the ball game was over as to ways or means of improving conditions.” The punctuation and syntax is awful, but the sentiment is unmistakable.

Bush repeated the Rice incident while managing the Pittsburgh Pirates from 1927-1929.  Despite a winning record that included a NL Pennant in 1927, Bush was forced out as manager in mid-season in 1929.  Ill-will built against him after he benched Kiki Cuyler in August 1927 for less egregious an infraction than Rice’s. He kept Cuyler on the pine through the rest of the season and the World Series. Pittsburgh fans never forgave him and despite his winning record in Pittsburgh, there was no call in the local press to bring him back. Donie Bush’s calling card during his brief career as Major League manager was his temper, his poor judgment and his inability to get along with players.

There is nothing that space or time can do to land Dusty Baker in the same world as Donie Bush and Sarnoff’s allusion is at best off center. Rather than being in his first year on the job like Donie Bush was in 1923, Dusty Baker joined the Washington Nationals in 2016 as a 20-year veteran with a an overall winning record for the duration of those years. Dusty Baker was an extremely popular manager when he took the helm in Washington in 2016 and was even more well-loved when he left.

He guided the team not only to a winning record, but to two National League East Championships in which the team won almost 60 percent of their games.  It is hard to imagine a more stark contrast than one to Bush. Dusty Baker never benched a player in anger, rather he was known for his ability to mentor young players like Michael A. Taylor, Brian Goodwin, Wilmer Difo and others. Dusty Baker remains a much loved figure in the game known for his long and sparkling playing career and his equally excellent managerial career.  Donie Bush managed again in the Major Leagues for the Cincinnati Reds in 1933 and ended his tenure with a losing record overall.  He landed many jobs as a minor league manager and executive. but there is nothing in his tenure that comes close to Dusty Baker’s 22-year Major League managing career in which Dusty amassed a .532 winning percentage that puts him a few spots below Tony LaRussa and one spot ahead of Whitey Herzog.

It is very likely that Dusty Baker is rooting not only for the Nationals to succeed in 2018, but for Davey Martinez as well and nothing would make him happier than for the Nationals to win it all in 2018, regardless who gets the credit. And it is around that point that we can all rally. There is every hope that this is 1924 all over again, and I hope that Gary Sarnoff’s book on the subject when it is done will reflect the magic and wonder of it all. But equally important is the need to cast historic allusions cautiously, watching with some care where they land. There is little room for error when a World Championship is at stake, and luck is ever so important.

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