July 26, 2021

100 Years Ago Today

December 11, 2011 by · 1 Comment 

In early December 1911, Washington Nationals president Tom Noyes welcomed his new manager Clark Griffith to town for the first time.  Griffith was given a posh new office in the Southern building and no sooner had he looked over his new digs, than he was off to the winter meetings to hunt for talent during the discussions with his fellow baseball executives.

One hundred years ago there were no GM’s, no director of minor league operations or director of scouting.  There were just veterans of the baseball wars, men like John McGraw, Connie Mack and Clark Griffith who managed a complex baseball operation from the dugout. They were one-man operations that could be labeled a cult of personality without repercussion.

As  1911 drew to a close, Clark Griffith began a process of remaking the Washington Nationals into a competitor.  In the decade after the founding of the American League in 1901, the Washington Nationals had finished with remarkable consistency at the bottom of the league.  They were eighth in an eight-team league four times, seventh four times, and sixth place only twice. The team was known as a place where veteran players went to end their careers.

Griffith announced on December 9, 1911 in the Washington Post, “If anybody has any young ball players to dispose of, whose record makes them look like men with a chance to prove of value…I will be prepared to talk business.” True to his word Griffith quickly dispatched the veterans to quiet pastures and called up young players. He had a star in Clyde Milan in center field, but he added two rookies, Howie Shanks–only 21–and Danny Moeller, 27 to the corner outfield spots.

He had veteran George McBride at shortstop, whom he made his team captain.  But the rest of the infield were all new and averaged 24 years of age.  Chick Gandil at first base and Eddie Foster at third were probably the best of the new players, but together they fashioned a smart, fast baseball nine that played good defense and quick, efficient baseball generally.

Of course there was Walter Johnson and it is easy to focus on the star of the team, although the Big Train would have never allowed it back in the day. Ever the modest giant among his peers, Johnson’s career would take off with a new team playing behind him. The 1912 season was really his breakout and from then onward, he led the league in ERA, wins, strikeouts and numerous other categories frequently.

Would he have prospered without Griffith? Like any academic question the answer is complicated, but after nullifying his jump to the Federal League in 1915, Johnson gave credit to Griff as his mentor and the two men re-united to remain the stalwarts of Washington baseball for two decades. And what a time it was in Washington.

In 1912, Griffith’s first year, the newly formed Nationals finished second in the American League, spending the year in the pennant race until the final month. Their record of 91 wins and 61 losses is a difficult standard for current Washington fans to imagine. If Davey Johnson can pilot the Nationals to a finish 30 games over .500 in 2012, he will be carried off the field on the shoulders of the gathered fans at the last game.

Griffith’s new charges finished in second again in 1913 just to prove it was no fluke. It was Walter Johnson’s best year as a pitcher and player. For the next dozen years the team was in the first division consistently and dropped to seventh only twice.

The remaking of the Nationals 100 years ago was largely accomplished through the vision and hard work of a single man, Clark Griffith. Ultimately he remade his original lineup–with the exception of Johnson–into the 1924 World Series winners  (I encourage fans in DC to go online with their local libraries and use ProQuest to examine the history of that year’s Series triumph).

Yet baseball changed remarkably during Griffith’s era. Men like Babe Ruth and Branch Rickey rewrote the history of the game and painted men like Clark Griffith–who refused to change–into a corner. But for two decades–from 1912 until 1933–Griffith won three American League pennants and a World Series title. From 1923 to 1933–the greatest decade of baseball in DC–the Nationals finished fifth once but were otherwise in the pennant race most years.

Today the mantle of Clark Griffith is worn by Mike Rizzo, the GM, and Davey Johnson, the dugout manager. Rizzo failed to sign any of the free agent stars at the recent winter meetings. The inflated salaries for Pujols, Buerhle and C.J. Wilson were jaw-dropping. Closed out of those markets, Rizzo will continue to be aggressive in the off-season to improve the team, but ultimately he must depend on a core of young players to mature and improve their games.

On the Seamheads “Outta the Parkway” podcast show last Friday, Ian Desmond–the dean of young talent in Washington–said that all they can do is “to keep on getting better.” It was an acknowledgement that the team’s best baseball is still to come and an honest commitment that echoes the ethic of Clark Griffith from a time long ago.

The DC youth movement may seem a mundane prescription for the future. Teams like the Angels have been anointed champs in December. Yet history is really our best guide to the future. Stephen Strasburg, like Walter Johnson, will improve dramatically in 2012 and could be on the verge of establishing himself as one of the dominant forces in the game.

Conversely, many of the players who reaped the giant bonuses in recent days are at a stage where their careers can only decline. Tom Boswell had an excellent historical analysis of the likely scenario for Albert Pujols’ tenure in Los Angeles. The title for Boswell’s column might well have been, “The Race Is to the Young.”

Washington has a roster filled with players like Jordan Zimmerman, Brad Peacock, Drew Storen Wilson Ramos and Danny Espinosa, all of whom are heading into their peak playing years. They will provide Davey Johnson considerable fire power in his first full year at the helm.

Is it 1912 all over again? Only time will tell. But Davey Johnson and Mike Rizzo have the ghost of Clark Griffith for inspiration. Griffith worked through out the winter and spring of 1912 filling out his roster. One hundred years on and the game is still the same, just played up on a higher level.

Ted Leavengood is the Author of Clark Griffith, The Old Fox of Washington Baseball, from McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, available from Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.com where holiday discounts may apply.


One Response to “100 Years Ago Today”
  1. Fred Flintstone says:

    Nats Guy:

    Merry Christmas to you. What do you think of the recent trade that the Nationals did? I recall hearing from informed sources that those players were pretty good prospects. I know that Gonzalez is young also but what is your take? I know you have a keen sense of talent evaluation.

    Fred from PA.

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