When John Lackey of the Anaheim Angels threw out the first pitch to Texas Rangers outfielder Doug Glanville on March 30, it marked more than just the beginning of another baseball seasonit was the 32nd opening day since Major League Baseball fled Washington D.C., as the Washington Senators skipped town. Expansion has spread the sport from South Florida to the Arizona desert, but it has managed to bypass our nation's capital. They've raised a championship banner just down the street from Disneyland; they can't even field a team in the shadow of the Capitol dome. And while memories of Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and Tom Seaver give way to the exploits of Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Roger Clemens for most baseball fans, Washingtonians must cling to fading recollections of that last Senators teamFrank Howard, Toby Harrah, and Dick Bosman. That is, if a team that lost 58 percent of its games is even remembered at all.
Mark Gauvreau Judge remembers. He closes his book, Damn Senators, recalling the Senators' final game at RFK Stadiuma contest that, fittingly, the hapless ballclub had to forfeit despite a ninth inning lead after unruly fans stormed the field. "Washington supports a mediocre hockey team, a women's basketball team and the Washington Wizards, perennial NBA second-raters," Judge writes. "But as I write this, there is still no baseball here, though we continue to exchange hopeful rumors that the city of the Swampoodle Grounds and Griffith Stadium, of Ed Delahanty and the Big Train, will again hear the crack of the bat on some sultry summer's night. Surely we would welcome back a team."
Judge may soon get his wishmore on that laterbut that's really not what Damn Senators is about. Rather, Judge takes a heartfelt, often compelling look at the team that brought Washington its lone World Series flag and one of the leaders of that championship squada solid-hitting, slick-fielding first baseman named Joe Judge, who also happens to be the author's grandfather.
It may be hard to recall a franchise that worked so hard to earn the moniker "First in war, first in peace, last in the American League," but for a brief time from the mid-1920s to the early 1930s, the Washington Senators were among the best teams in baseball. The team won back-to-back American League pennants in 1924 and 1925, defeating the New York Giants in the '24 World Series before losing out to the Pittsburgh Pirates in a taut, seven-game series the next year. Between 1930 and 1933, the Senators never won fewer than 92 games; unfortunately, with the exception of another pennant-winning season in '33, the New York Yankees or Philadelphia Athletics usually wound up winning more. Thus, overshadowed by more prominent dynasties to the norththose Yankee and Athletic teams are regarded among the best to ever play the gamethe perpetually contending Senators of that era faded to the footnotes of history.
The same could be said for Joe Judge, considered by his contemporaries to be one of the best first basemen of his time (In Babe Ruth's Own Book of Baseball, Ruthor at least, his ghost writerwrites glowingly of Judge, particularly of the first baseman's ability to get a clutch hit with the game on the line.). Over the course of a 20-year career (with all but two of those seasons in Washington), Judge hit over .300 nine times, finishing with a career batting average of .298. Nearly 70 years after his playing career ended, Judge is still considered by baseball historians to rank among the best defensive first basemen in history. But with his time in Washington coinciding with the playing careers of George Sisler, Lou Gehrig, and Jimmie Foxx, it's easy to see how Judge got lost in the shuffle. Today, his name and exploits are known to only the most devoted of baseball fans.
Mark Judge does his level best to rectify this, and for the most part he succeeds at capturing his grandfather's legacy. He digs beyond the box scores and statistics to paint a picture of Joe Judge, the player and the man. Two incidents recounted in the book are telling about Joe Judge's character.
In 1928, teammate Goose Goslin was contending for the American League batting titlea highlight in an otherwise disappointing fourth-place season for the Senators. With the league lead going into the final day of the season, Goslin considered sitting out the last game in hopes that his slim lead over Heinie Manush of the St. Louis Browns would hold up. Judge urged him not toManush and the rest of baseball would respect Goslin's accomplishment if he earned it, Judge argued. Goslin playedand took home the batting title.
Earlier in his career, Judge made it a point whenever the Senators played in New York to leave tickets for Bud Hannah, a mailman in the East Side neighborhood where Judge grew up. Hannah bought Judge a first baseman's mitt when the youngster began showing promise in neighborhood games. Judge never forgot the favor, stopping by Hannah's seats before each game in New York to say helloa violation of baseball's post-Black Sox scandal rules against fraternization with the fans. When the commissioner's office fined Judge $50 in 1921, he momentarily stopped the pregame chats, but felt so bad about the perceived ingratitude, he resumed the practice in defiance of the rule. The fines continued; so did the visits with Hannah.
Damn Senators is at its best when retelling stories like these or capturing the excitement and flavor of Senators baseball in the Washington of the 1920s. The book is less effective when it tries tackling areas beyond its scope. A history of Washington baseball feels rushed and incomplete. And while it may be next to impossible to chronicle the 1924 Senators without devoting some attention to Walter Johnsonwithout question the greatest Senator in that team's history and widely viewed as the best pitcher of all timeJudge spends what seems like an inordinate amount of time on Johnson's exploits when there's already a definitive biography, Walter Johnson: Baseball's Big Train, by Johnson's grandson, Henry W. Thomas. The scattershot focus only distracts attention away from the person who should be the main focus of the bookJoe Judge.
Still, that doesn't alter the fact that Damn Senators is a good read, particularly for fans of baseball's history and especially for Washingtonians hungry for a bit of local baseball glory while awaiting the sport's return to the nation's capital. That could happen sooner rather than later, with Major League Baseball tired of sanctioning games before indifferent and minuscule crowds in Montreal. Already forced to play a quarter of their "home" games in Puerto Rico, the Montreal Expos are on the lookout for a new, permanent home, with a move taking place possibly as early as next season. Washington D.C. seems as likely a destination as any, assuming a local ownership group materializes and is able to cozen and gull the citizenry into financing a new ballpark.
The return of baseball to Washington will be good for the city's fans so long as they're not expecting a return to the glory years described in Damn Senators. Because, just as Judge argues that his grandfather "exemplified virtues that seem in short supply today," it could be argued just as easily that the "virtues" Washington embraces run contrary to success on the ballfield. If you read between the lines of Judge's book, you'll discover that even the Senators of 80 years ago had a habit of adopting their home city's more negative attributes.
Washington power brokers who cling to conventional wisdom like a life raft, and who try in vain to recapture past glories, have a spiritual kinsman in the Washington Senators and owner Clark Griffith. As the Senators were winning 1924 World Series with a style of play the emphasized little ballslap hitters who manufactured runs through speed and guile instead of raw powera growing number of teams were embracing the home run, filling their rosters with sluggers. By the 1930s, power was the name of the game, and the Senatorsconstrained by personnel and a spacious ballparkfound themselves sliding toward the cellar. The Senators had ample opportunity to buttress its roster with Negro League stars; in fact, one of the best Negro League teams, the Homestead Grays with Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard, began using Washington's Griffith Stadium as its home park in the 1930s. But to do so would have broken with baseball convention, and, as Judge puts it, Griffith was "constrained by the mental habits of his time." The lead at breaking baseball's color barrier was set by the Brooklyn Dodgers and Cleveland Indians a decade later; both reaped championships for their efforts.
As for the Senators, they seemed convinced that the only way to return the winning ways of the 1920s was to literally turn back the clock; Johnson, Ossie Bluege and Joe Kuhelall stars of Washington's pennant-winning teamswere tapped to manage the club in the 1930s and 1940s (Curiously, Joe Judge never managed the Senators, though he did enjoy a long and successful tenure as the baseball manager at Georgetown University). Griffith rehired Bucky Harris, the manager of the 1924 champs, on two separate occasions, with each subsequent tour of duty less successful than the last.
It's not a track record that inspires much confidence for a baseball team to thrive in Washington. Still, as Judge writes, the city is a place "with baseball in its soul," so the return of a team will doubtlessly be good for Washington. Just don't look for Washington to be very good for the team.