Looking back at the bad old days of Washington baseball

President Nixon (right) throws a ceremonial first pitch at a Washington Senators game in 1969. At left is manager Ted Williams, and beside him is baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
President Nixon (right) throws a ceremonial first pitch at a Washington Senators game in 1969. At left is manager Ted Williams, and beside him is baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn.Anonymous/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The World Series this weekend returns to our nation’s capital for the first time since 1933. Like everything else in this town, it’s complicated.

Major League Baseball in Washington is a study in failure and unrequited love. This is a city that lost two big league franchises in a span of less than a dozen years, a city that suffered through 33 summers of Baseball Prohibition after the perennial basement-dwelling expansion Senators bolted for Texas in 1972.

The expansion Senators were a punch line when I grew up in Central Massachusetts in the 1960s. The old adage about the original Senators — Washington, first in war, first in peace, last in the American League — still applied to the 1960s version. We took comfort in this in Red Sox Nation. The Senators were just about the only team annually worse than the Young Yaz Red Sox.


Each spring, I prayed that the Sox would climb out of the second division and somehow play .500 ball. But they never did. In a 10-team American League, the Red Sox finished in seventh, eighth, or even ninth place for five straight years (up until 1967, of course). But at least we weren’t as bad as the Senators.

It seemed that the Senators were good for 10th place every year. They lost 100 or more games in four straight seasons in the early ’60s. A team known as the Senators finished last eight times in 17 summers of my youth.

Now, as the 2019 World Series unfolds in D.C. this weekend — with the underdog Nationals in position to win a championship in the shadow of the Washington Monument — it’s a fine time to look back on the bad old days of Washington baseball.

Washington, along with Boston, was part of the upstart American League in 1901. Those original Senators were mostly pathestic. They had Walter Johnson and later Joe Cronin, but they won only three pennants and one World Series in their 60 years in D.C. They finished below .500 in 41 of their 60 seasons.


At the end, they had Harmon Killebrew and Jim Kaat, but the team didn’t succeed until after it bolted for Minnesota to begin play in 1961. Five years after leaving Washington, the Senators/Twins were in the World Series. They won the Series in 1987 and 1991. Today they have Nelson Cruz and Miguel Sano. Those stars are the great-grandsons of the original Senators.

The expansion Senators finished in last place four times in 11 years before moving to Dallas-Fort Worth after the 1971 season. They made it above .500 only once and drew a mere 8,000 fans per game in their final season. They had Frank Howard (who was introduced to the crowd Saturday before Game 4) and were managed by Ted Williams when they moved to Texas. As the Texas Rangers, they made it to the World Series in 2010 and 2011. Joey Gallo and Elvis Andrus are the new generation of the expansion Senators.

RFK Stadium was the home of the expansion Washington Senators in the 1960s.
RFK Stadium was the home of the expansion Washington Senators in the 1960s.2017 file/Associated Press

The team you see representing Washington in this World Series has no connection to either edition of the Senators. Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and the 2019 National League champs are the hardball progeny of the Montreal Expos, who were born as an expansion franchise in 1969 and reached the playoffs only once in 36 seasons.


These Nationals are not related to Johnson, Killebrew, or Howard. The true baseball forefathers of Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon are Pedro Martinez, Gary Carter, Tim Raines, and Andre Dawson.

Similarly, Dan Duquette and Dave Dombrowski have baseball bloodlines to the Nationals. The Duke and Dombro were both general managers of the Expos.

D.C.’s baseball drought should never be equated with what happened in Boston or Chicago. Washington’s long hardball nightmare is nothing like the Curses of the Bambino or the Billy Goat. Boston and Chicago never stopped being baseball towns. The Red Sox featured friendly Fenway, Hall of Fame stars, and a lot of near-misses. Chicago had the Cubs, Wrigley Field, Ernie Banks, and the crosstown White Sox.

Baseball never went out of fashion in either city.

It did here.

The District of Columbia featured the deadly combination of losing and apathy. Which is why it had no MLB franchise for 33 years. It’s something akin to Los Angeles going all those years without an NFL team.

I lived it for a few years.

In 1979, while RFK Stadium remained empty in the summertime, the struggling Washington Star newspaper decided to cover the Baltimore Orioles as a “home” team. I was hired to be the Orioles beat reporter. Spring training through the World Series. Complete saturation (we had a cub reporter named Tim Kurkjian who turned out pretty good).

As a baseball writer in Washington, I became the guy who’d go to the winter meetings and ask commissioner Bowie Kuhn when Washington was going to get another team. There were always rumors of some downtrodden franchise moving to Washington, or perhaps a new site in northern Virginia. Kuhn, a D.C. native, indulged my questions even though he knew it was a long shot.


Late in the 1979 season, the Orioles were purchased by powerful Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, former owner of the Redskins (Williams’s aide-de-camp was a young lawyer named Larry Lucchino).

Washington in those days was a Redskins town the way Boston today is a Patriots town. Football dominated the sports news cycle. The NFL ruled. Elizabeth Taylor and Supreme Court justices went to Redskins games. It was the only time RFK was full and loud.

In that football mania, I discovered pockets of seamheads, folks who loved the game the way I loved it. They wore old Senators caps, read the sports pages religiously, and placed baseball bets from phone booths at the Hawk ‘n’ Dove bar on Capitol Hill.

“Baseball Bill” Holdforth tended bar at the Hawk and was something of a local celebrity because of his knowledge of all things Senators. Baseball Bill and his cronies argued about who should be in the Hall of Fame. They told stories of Howard’s prodigious homers at RFK Stadium. They cursed the name of Bob Short, who moved the team to Arlington, Texas.

But the big round stadium on East Capitol Street in Southeast remained empty every summer.

The 1981 baseball season was interrupted by a 50-day work stoppage from June into August. In the middle of that strike, the great Washington Star went belly-up. At that moment, I was a baseball writer in a town with no team, covering a sport that was on strike, working for a newspaper that had gone out of business. It was time to leave Washington.


It’s nice to be back . . . watching baseball’s showcase event . . . in our nation’s capital.

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.