A Cautionary Tale: the 1945 Senators
This is a guest post by GoDCer Marty from Chevy Chase, MD. Much like the rest of us, he is nervously excited and cautiously optimistic about our team. When you read this post, you’ll know why.
By any measure, this has been a dream season for the Washington Nationals. They appear almost certain to bring post-season baseball to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1933.
What possibly could go wrong? Plenty, of course. The collapse of the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies and the 2007 New York Mets might top any list of epic late-season disasters.
You have to go back to 1945 to find the last time a Washington baseball team battled for a pennant in the final weeks of the season. Unfortunately, the outcome was not reassuring.
To be sure, 1945 was bizarre season, the final year of World War II when nearly three-fourths of major leaguers were serving in the military. Aging veterans, minor leaguers classified 4-F by their draft boards and young rookies dominated big league rosters.
After a typically sluggish start, the Senators moved into first place on Aug. 5 after winning nine games in five days. They battled Detroit for the pennant in the final weeks that season. But an unusual set of circumstances combined to doom Washington to second place, a game and a half behind the Tigers.
The ‘ghosts’ of that ’45 season include George ‘Bingo’ Binks, an outfielder who forgot to wear his sunglasses in a crucial game against the Philadelphia A’s, a one legged pitcher (and war hero) Bert Shepard and penny-pinching owner Clark Griffith who rented out Griffith Stadium to the Redskins forcing the Senators to end their season a week early.
But 1945 marks the last time Washington was even in the running. After that it was all downhill. “Into the pits for the next 26 years” as sportscaster Warner Wolf put it in his book ‘Gimme A Break.’ “There was never any hope for the first division, much less a pennant,” Wolf added. Thanks to Calvin Griffith (Clark’s son) and Bob Short, two different Senators teams moved out of town to Minnesota and Texas respectively.
One thing’s clear. Back in 1945, nobody worried about an innings limitation for a flame-throwing starting pitcher. Four knuckleball specialists, led by Dutch Leonard, comprised the Senators’ starting rotation and they combined for 60 of the team’s 87 wins that season.
The 36-year-old Leonard, Mickey Haefner, Johnny Niggeling and Roger Wolff were aging veterans who managed to baffle opposing hitters in a year when many of the game’s top hitters were off fighting World War II.
Many old-timers remember Binks as the ’45 season’s goat. Deaf in one ear and 4-F, he nonetheless was one of the team’s leading hitters. He also had an inflated opinion of himself, describing himself as “the Magnificent Binks.”
As the late-afternoon sun set in a Sept. 23 game at Shibe Park in Philadelphia, however, Mr. Magnificent failed to notice that Sam Chapman, the A’s talented centerfielder, needed his sunglasses to fend off the glare in the top of the 12th inning. Binks took the field in the bottom of that inning without sunglasses. Ernie Kish’s routine fly ball nearly bonked Bingo on the head. Kish wound up at second base and scored on a single by George Kell. The Nats lost the first game of a doubleheader, 4-3.
Even though Washington won the nightcap behind the pitching of Italian-born curveballer Marino Pieretti, the Senators’ season was finished. All Washington fans could do was sweat out the final week to see how the Tigers fared against the St. Louis Browns.
That was because legendary owner Clark Griffith had rented Griffith Stadium to the Redskins for the season’s final week. Griffith packed several extra doubleheaders into his schedule, forfeiting the chance to finish at home. As sports columnist Red Smith wrote at the time, the Senators would play the final week “by ear,” listening to the Detroit games on the radio.
Meanwhile, the Tigers managed to get homerun slugger Hank Greenberg back in their lineup for the final three months of the season. Greenberg, the first major leaguer to be drafted into the military, was among the first to be released from service near the end of the war. Outfielder Buddy Lewis returned to the Senators after flying cargo plane missions in the Pacific and fastballer Bob Feller was back in a Cleveland Indians’ uniform by late August.
Just as important, fans flocked back to the ballparks in large numbers, even in Washington. The ‘45 Senators attracted several, 30,000-plus crowds at Griffith Stadium. The next season they drew over one-million fans for the only time in franchise history.
Following four years of war, big league baseball had taken tentative steps toward ‘normalcy’ in 1945, the last time the Nats were this close to a pennant.