Baseball, the sport of summer, now at last draws its season to a close. For many of us “elderly Americans,” watching the local Washington Nationals on TV brings back long-ago memories of cheering on our favorite hometown teams. But the Nats’ efforts this year went for naught, and the Nationals were destined to again lead the postseason parade of “also rans.” Baseball is believed to have been invented in the 1850s by Abner Doubleday, a former two-star general who served in the Civil War. At that time, the game largely resembled the Anglo sports of hurling and cricket. Early participants were Irish immigrants and their descendants. Following the Civil War, the sport had a wide following in all parts of the country with organized teams and scheduled competition. These activities grew at a fierce pace across the country as cities struggled for recognition through intercity play. The jousting became so intense that an organization was created to develop rules and schedules, and to control player trades and contracts. And, so it was, that the National League of Major League Baseball came to be established.
When the American League was formed in 1901, the Washington Senators were one of the eight charter franchises. The early years in the new organization were rough, but things changed for the better for the Senators in 1907, when a young pitcher from Kansas named Walter Johnson came to town and magically transformed the Senators into a contender. The story of the “Big Train” is, of course, legend. Johnson played for the Senators for 29 seasons, breaking every pitching record in the book and being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The reputation, not only of the Senators, but of the league itself was elevated with Johnson’s arrival. In 1924 the Senators won the American League pennant race and beat the New York Giants in the World Series, becoming the “cock-of-the-walk” and returning as heroes to Washington, where they were honored with a parade down Constitution Avenue.
In the following years the charm of winning the World Series faded, as the team aged and its meager financial assets placed them at a disadvantage in the competition for the best young talent. In 1961 the Griffith family, as majority stockholders, decided to take advantage of the team’s heightened market value and took the team to Minneapolis-St. Paul, where they became the Minnesota Twins. Major League Baseball awarded the city an expansion team, the new Senators. In 1971, then owner Bob Short moved the team again, this time to Arlington, Texas, leaving fans incensed and the Nation’s Capital devoid of the “national pastime.” An opportunity for Washington to rejoin the ranks of major-league cities would not arise for another 34 long years.
The Senators’ team history is a curious one, its performance records over the years consistently dismal. At least one commentator considered them “the definition of futility, losing an average of 90 games a season.” A famous saying arose, “Washington: first in war, first in peace, and still last in the American League.” They enjoyed but a single winning season, in 1969, under the management of Hall of Famer Ted Williams. Since returning in 2005, the Washington Nationals, despite several very successful winning seasons, have yet to advance very far in postseason competition.
If I were to be so bold as to offer any advice to the current team, in light of the struggles of its predecessors, I would say heed the words of Winston Churchill, who wrote “Winning is not final, losing is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.” In the meantime, “Hail to the Redskins.”