Nats hope to repeat feat of '24 DC baseball champs

Associated Press Published: October 6, 2012
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WASHINGTON (AP) — They stormed to the top of the league the year after a losing season, had a star pitcher who was the subject of intense national discussion and won praise from the president of the United States for their performance.

Like this year's Washington Nationals, the 1924 World Series champion Washington Senators generated excitement in a city starved for a baseball winner. The Nats launch their quest for the city's second championship Sunday when they begin the division series at St. Louis

The Nationals finished 80-81 last year, 21½ games behind the first-place Philadelphia Phillies in the NL East. The Senators were coming off a 75-78 season, 23½ games behind the first-place New York Yankees in the American League (there were no divisions then). But both Washington teams came into spring training the following season with some swagger.

Nationals manager Davey Johnson said in February he expected to make the playoffs, and "they can fire me" if the team missed out.

Nearly 90 years earlier, Senators owner Clark Griffith predicted: "Those boys are going to get somewhere this year."

At 69, Johnson is the oldest manager in baseball. Griffith chose youth over experience, selecting his scrappy 27-year-old second baseman, Bucky Harris, as player-manager. Critics panned the move as "Griffith's Folly." By the end of the season, Harris was known as "Boy Wonder."

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This year, the Nationals' decision to shut down star pitcher Stephen Strasburg's season early brought debate among fans, sportswriters and players, even leading to a supportive Washington Post editorial. The team made the move to limit the number of innings Strasburg pitched in his first full season following Tommy John surgery.

In 1924, there was also a national buzz about Washington ace Walter Johnson, one of baseball's greatest pitchers. Fans were pulling for the good-natured right-hander to finally get a chance to play in a World Series in his 18th season.

"There is more real genuine interest in him than there is in a presidential election," Will Rogers wrote in a syndicated column in September titled "Everybody is pulling for Walter."

"Today the entire baseball world is not pulling for Johnson the pitcher; they are pulling for Johnson the man," Rogers wrote. Fans across major league baseball — which at that point didn't extend west or south of St. Louis — jumped on the Johnson/Senators bandwagon.

Strasburg and Johnson, at opposite ends of their careers, both had excellent seasons in helping their teams reach the postseason. Strasburg, 24, went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA, and struck out 197 in 159 1-3 innings. At the time the Nationals ended his season in early September, he was among the league leaders in strikeouts, ERA, winning percentage and wins.

In 1924, the 36-year-old Johnson led the American League in several categories, including wins (23), ERA (2.72) and strikeouts (158). Johnson and Strasburg were both good hitters, too, and had nearly identical batting lines: .283 for Johnson, .277 for Strasburg, with one homer apiece.

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The Senators marched to the pennant in the middle of the Roaring '20s, a time of rising prosperity when Americans became enamored of jazz, drank alcohol at illegal speakeasies during Prohibition and drove cars in greater numbers. As the Senators battled the Yankees in the final weeks of the '24 pennant race, Washingtonians went nuts over their team.

"Base ball in the National Capital no longer is a national game," declared the now-defunct Washington Evening Star. "It is a disease, a flaming epidemic, and if something doesn't happen soon to ease the strain on the faithful fans half the population of the District of Columbia will be dead of heart failure."

Something did happen soon — the Senators (aka Nationals) clinched the city's first pennant by defeating the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park on Sept. 29, the second-to-last game of the season. The Boston crowd, caught up in the excitement of the popular team, gave the Senators a homestyle celebration. Hundreds of fans mobbed the Washington players, and thousands more cheered from the stands, tossing straw hats into the air and waving handkerchiefs.

"The champions are not Washington's alone," wrote sportswriter John B. Keller. "They belong to the country, as typified in its National Capital, and the entire Nation insists upon sharing with Washington the joy and pride that follows the Griffmen." That nickname was a tribute to team owner Griffith. Sportswriters also called the team "Bucks," for player-manager Bucky Harris.

When the Senators returned to Washington, 100,000 people honored them on a parade down Pennsylvania Avenue featuring mounted policeman, a U.S. Cavalry Band and red-coated members of the Washington Riding and Hunt Club. At the Ellipse near the White House, President Calvin Coolidge told the victorious players that they had "made the national capital more truly the center of worthy and honorable national aspirations."

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